Take time to make time: the gap year concept

Nov. 23, 2011

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Who among us knew — or thought we knew — what to do with our lives when we graduated from high school?

Who among us actually pulled it off?

For many high school seniors, going to college isn’t a decision — it’s inevitability. It’s a predetermined academic progression — just as middle school followed elementary school and high school followed junior high.

But for all the undecided high school grads or undeclared freshmen floundering through their first semester of college, there’s another option: a gap year.

A gap year is when students take a year off (generally between high school and college) to pursue interests outside the classroom and learn experientially, often by traveling aboard. Although it’s a relatively new concept in the United States, it’s a common practice for graduating high school seniors in many European countries.

“It’s not a year off, it’s not a vacation year and it’s not an abyss of a year. It’s a structured year focusing on different areas of interest, and on that practical level, following up on things that you might be drawn to, to try and get a better sense of who you are,” said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a Princeton, N.J.-based group that helps students find gap year programs that fit their interests.

“The thing that’s so powerful about this,” continued Bull, “that I see both from having done this myself, but also being on the counseling end of it, is that you have a 17- or 18-year-old for the first time in their lives choosing what they want to do with their lives in a substantial way and for a chunk of time that’s more than a summer. That’s powerful.”

Gap year activities are many and varied, and can range in price and length of time. But a commonality among programs is a focus on independent, yet structured, learning.

“We always say, ‘A gap year is not sitting at home on your mother’s couch playing Xbox,’” said Nikki St. Mary, a guidance counselor at South Burlington High School, who oversees the school’s annual gap year fair.

It was at the SBHS gap year fair in 2010 that Montpelier High School senior Noel Kerr found a program through the Portland, Ore.-based Carpe Diem Education that allowed him to combine his interests in Thai culture and scuba diving. He’s currently in Thailand, where he has already worked in an orphanage and studied Buddhism. At the end of the semester he will do his scuba diving certification and hopes to next year get an internship rescuing sea turtles.

“He’s not a super academic kid, and this was an opportunity to explore,” said Nilda Kerr, Noel’s mother. “A lot of kids need to grow up a little bit before they go to college. It would be a mistake to just send him off and expect him to excel at academia when that’s always been a challenge for him — and this will give him the confidence, and help him kind of figure out who he is and what he wants to do.”

Kerr said that despite her son being more than 8,000 miles and many time zones away, she doesn’t worry about him because of the structured and well-organized nature of the Carpe Diem program.

“To be honest, I don’t worry about him on this trip at all, really,” she said. “I worried about him more when he was home with his friends and going out.”

Besides safety concerns, common parental worries include cost and the fear that their child might never attend college.

Bull assuaged these concerns by pointing out that although a gap year is an additional expense for parents, gap year students are more likely to graduate in four years once they attend college. She also said that it’s rare that a gap year student would forgo college altogether.

“There’s information that shows that (gap year) students are unlikely not to go to college,” Bull said. “That’s very rare. In fact, if you have a student that’s right on the edge — who’s just turned off by school — they’re much more likely to go to college after doing gap time.”

And while gaps in time on résumés and transcripts have traditionally been frowned upon, St. Mary said that college admissions offices are looking more and more favorably at gap years.

“Our experience has been that colleges are thrilled to have students (do gap years),” said St. Mary. “Students really do come back with a much more mature, global perspective than they did before they left. So I think colleges look very favorably on it.”

Jane Sarouhan, a vice president at the Center for Interim Programs’ office in Northampton, Mass., said that while gap years are sometimes taken by college students or working adults, it’s most common among graduating high school seniors seeking a break from academia.

“The number one reason students are taking gap years is because of burnout,” Sarouhan said.

Sandra Ackert-Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, attended this year’s gap year fair at SBHS on Nov. 10 for that reason.

“I’m definitely feeling burnt out,” Ackert-Smith said. “I really loved learning and school in general when I started high school, and as it’s progressed it’s become more and more of a chore. It just feels like there’s so much pressure to go to college next year and I’m kind of resisting that pressure.”

She’s not alone in her resistance.

Karina Jaquith-Bender, a 17-year-old self-directed learner from Charlotte, is sold on the gap year concept.

“I’m definitely going to do a gap year because I don’t want to go to college just because it’s the next thing on the wheel,” said Jaquith-Bender. “I want to go to college because I know why I’m going. I want to do something real in the world first.”