In May 2016, the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama announced that her daughter Malia would defer admission to Harvard and pursue a gap year, thus shining a national spotlight on what has become a growing trend among high school students who are transitioning to their college careers. Taking time off between life stages provides time for traveling, volunteering, learning a new language, or experiencing opportunities for personal growth. For many students, there are no rules when planning a gap year, so there is an endless array of exciting possibilities.
More and more, colleges and universities are lauding the benefits of the gap year experience and are designing programs and services to support students who choose that option. Colorado College recently launched a Gap Year Research Consortium to study the outcomes of taking an intentional gap year before college. Many universities and colleges that have long been proponents of meaningful gap years are participating in the consortium, including Colby College, Duke, Florida State, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Tufts and Yale, among others. Admission staff at these schools are working together to conduct research on gap year outcomes and to communicate the many positive benefits that a year away from the classroom can provide.
Newark Academy’s Office of College Counseling hosts an annual gap year fair and has seen a growing number of students seeking alternatives to going directly to college. “The college planning process is about opening up options,” says Director of College Counseling Kerry Winiarski. “For many, exploring options includes – or should include – investigating gap year possibilities. We usually advise students to go through the college application process at the same time they explore gap year options.”
Jonathan (Jon) Charette ’18 graduated from Newark Academy last June. He was admitted to Princeton University but chose to enroll in Princeton’s Bridge Year Program before reentering the classroom. Participants in the program engage in international community service work while living with a host family and volunteering with organizations that serve the needs of local communities.
Jon is nearing the end – and savoring every minute – of what he calls his “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. He has been living and working in the vibrant city of Jogjakarta, Indonesia, for the better part of a year with his host family: Ibu (mom), Bapak (dad) and dua adik laki laki (two younger brothers). Through them, he has been able to experience Indonesian life in a very personal way – by sharing in significant family events, such as weddings, funerals and births, as well as simple evenings at home.
Jon’s days are filled with a multitude of activities, including morning language classes and sustained work with local NGOs on animal conservation, education and environmental issues. He also works as an intern coordinator at Project Child Indonesia and teaches a dance class at one of the program sites. In the evenings, frequent local festivals and art exhibitions provide dynamic opportunities for enlightening cultural exchange.
Jon says that educational fatigue was a motivating factor in his decision to pursue the gap year option: “To take a break from classroom studies has allowed me to refresh and discover new passions that will ultimately help me to take full advantage of the academic opportunities at Princeton when I return.”
That perspective is echoed on the website of Middlebury College: “Students who step off the academic treadmill for a semester or a year typically bring more to their college experience and as a result, derive more from it. They also hold a higher number of leadership positions on campus and, on average, perform better academically.”
Jessica Lim ’14 wanted to take a year off before enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania, and her desire to make a difference in the world led her to apply for a City Year AmeriCorps position. City Year members work with at-risk students in high-need schools to help them stay on track to graduate. Jessica was assigned to work full-time with a fifth-grade class in New Hampshire. Her duties extended beyond the classroom as she ran after-school programs, including a “Tech-4-Girls” club that introduced coding concepts to girls in grades 3–5.
Jessica says her gap year experience helped her put life into perspective. Not only did she learn to navigate “real-world” responsibilities – such as moving into an apartment and paying for rent, gas and electricity – but she developed close and collaborative friendships with her supervisor and other members of her team. She also learned to connect deeply with students and families whose life experiences were very different from her own.
Katy Kim ’18 wanted to pursue a semester-long experience outside her comfort zone before settling into the academic rigors of life at Middlebury College. She also hoped the experience would provide clarity for her academic focus and beyond.
Katy joined a trekking group for a month-long adventure at the Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal. She found it both enlightening and refreshing to meet people of different ages and from many different walks of life. She daily traversed the awe-inspiring terrain in Nepal while growing abundantly in both physical and mental strength.
Katy’s journey continued on to India, where she interacted with Tibetan Buddhist monks through informal English conversation classes. “It was exciting to recall knowledge of the Buddhist concepts I learned in my eighth-grade World Cultures class at NA,” Katy says. “And it was inspiring to ask questions to monks who are actually practicing it.” Katy’s IB History class also provided the foundation for understanding the divisions on the India-Pakistan border when she visited that area.
Katy finished her gap experience in Seoul, South Korea, where she spent two months at her grandparents’ home. She immersed herself in the culture of her heritage and took lessons to become more fluent in the language. The whole experience was transformational for Katy and produced a deeper sense of self-confidence and awareness.