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Oh, the Places You’ll Go: The Benefits of Taking a Gap Year Off Before College

April 6, 2015
by Christina Schoefer
A turtle with a backpack

When I graduated from my Midwestern high school, my German parents gave me a ticket for a passage to Europe. The moment I stepped onto that no-frills passenger ship, my maturity got a jump-start.

For two weeks, I spent the days with strangers from all over the world. At night, I slept in a small cabin below deck with three Italian matrons who disapproved of my summer attire. When we docked in Venice, the uncle who was supposed to pick me up wasn’t there. I had $20 in cash, no credit cards, no cell phone. A young Italian man who worked on the ship saw me standing alone with my two suitcases and asked if I needed help. I think I started to cry.

He bought me a train ticket to Cologne and had my suitcases shipped there. My train would not depart until the following morning, so for 24 hours, we roamed the city. He introduced me to calamari and espresso, and it was almost dusk when we went to sleep like siblings on a bench by the harbor. I never saw him again.

That was the beginning of a year of adventure: making art, working, traveling, finding friends, and experiencing the kindness of strangers. I’ve been a strong proponent of the “gap year” ever since. There’s something about feeling out of place in a strange city, about falling in love and breaking up in a foreign language, about sitting in a train station with no idea where to go next—it makes you see yourself in a larger context.

Taking a year off from formal education enjoys a venerable tradition in Europe and in Australia, where young people are encouraged to take a break to travel, intern, work, or volunteer in a community service project. Before WWI, a university education in Germany—the privilege of men from well-to-do families—customarily included the “grand European tour.” The young men traveled leisurely, practicing their language skills, making useful contacts, and expanding their horizons. Typically setting out in horse-drawn carriages (and later, on trains), they carried letters of introduction that would open doors for them in foreign places. This was the Wanderjahr.

With its double meaning of hiking and wandering, Wanderjahr suggests both a sense of purpose and the possibility of serendipity. The German term originated with guilds in the late Middle Ages. Upon completing their training, apprentices were expected to set out on foot to other villages, again with a letter of recommendation in their possession, to practice their trade with new masters who would teach them novel ways of doing familiar work. The education of a tradesman was not complete without this period of roaming. In contrast to his privileged counterparts who explored new lands in a leisurely fashion, the journeyman went a-wandering with no money in his pockets, and his adventures were always linked to work.

Sus­pi­cious of leis­ure, Amer­ic­ans define suc­cess as climb­ing the lad­der one rung at a time. The op­tions are either up or down, and tak­ing a de­tour could mean fall­ing off.

After WWII, the gap year became more widely popular, spawning the low-budget branch of tourism exemplified by the Lonely Planet guides. This kind of adventuring remained the domain of men until the 1970s, when women claimed their place in higher ed as well as in gap-year travel. Prince Harry, the enfant terrible of the English Royal Family, grabbed headlines in 2004 with his community service year in South Africa and helped popularize the gap year in the United States.

Americans do not have a tradition of taking unstructured time off from school. Though this is a culture of pioneers who left their homes in search of a better life, it is not one that encourages rambling. A “meandering trail of wandering” conjures up idleness, trouble, and even failure to Americans. Suspicious of leisure, they put a premium on quantifiable achievement, defining success as climbing the ladder one rung at a time. The options are either up or down, and taking a detour could mean falling off. Parents in the United States expect their college-bound kids to follow a straight and narrow path: a four-year degree program after high school—the more prestigious the institution, the better.

The very term “gap year,” which suggests an absence, a blank spot on the student’s résumé, doesn’t make sense to high achievers. The results of this period of unstructured learning are not easily measured. Farmers know the benefits of crop rotation, of letting a field lie fallow to ensure more robust harvests in the future. Similarly, taking time off seems to spawn greater productivity and creativity among students who return to school. According to a U.S. News & World Report article, students who take a gap year do better in college. Anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion.

Harvard University, which has nearly a 98 percent graduation rate, pioneered the gap year trend among Ivy League schools by recommending to incoming freshmen that they consider taking time off before starting their studies. In a seminal report reprinted in The New York Times (“Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation,” first written in 2000, updated in 2011), Harvard admissions officers reported that the results of taking time off were uniformly positive. Students found the experience “so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.” Each year at Harvard, about 80 to 110 students defer college for one year.

When they step off the aca­dem­ic tread­mill to work or travel, young people have the op­por­tun­ity to look bey­ond them­selves. There are mil­lions of oth­er people out there who will nev­er sit in a classroom with them. How do those people live? What do they be­lieve and yearn for?

The high school years are often extremely stressful for teens. In order to gain admission to a respected college, kids are under a lot of pressure to look exceptional on paper. They are pushed to start preparing for their résumé as early as middle school, juggling academics with sports, other extracurricular activities, and community volunteer work—anything that will stand out on a college application. The documentary film Race to Nowhere, shown at thousands of schools in the U.S. and abroad, portrays high school as a rat race that trains students to perform, not to learn.

When they get into college, it’s more of the same. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon describes the college classroom as a wonderful, if artificial place where “your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas.” Tongue in cheek, Kleon makes an important point: College may not be the best environment for students to shape their identity, define their goals, and test their ideas.

When they step off the academic treadmill to work or travel, young people have the opportunity to look beyond themselves. There are millions of other people out there who will never sit in a classroom with them. How do those people live? What do they believe and yearn for? How do you relate to those who are different? Students who contemplate such questions before they start college will realize that an education can be more than just impressing a professor and fulfilling requirements.

“I often have excellent students in my classes who worry about getting a B+ instead of an A,” Beverly Crawford, professor of political science at Cal, told me. “When they come to my office hours, I ask them how old they are. [At] 18, 19, or 20, they’ve had no time to think about their lives, only about ‘the next step’—and that is always the institutionally prescribed step.”

The idea of taking a year off from school is catching on, and not just in elite private institutions. National newspapers feature experts who insist that it can make students more mature and confident because it helps them to clarify objectives. In 2011, Rebecca R. Ruiz argued in The New York Times that a gap year is a good way to break up the cycle of “cradle-to-college-to-cubicle-to-cemetery.” The National Parent Teacher Association website acknowledges the benefits of taking time off to relieve “education fatigue.” Terry MacClure, a private college admissions counselor in Berkeley, has noticed more parents of high school kids asking him about the gap year option.

American parents do seem to have concerns that their kids will drift into some version of a video-gaming and pot-smoking nightmare if they take a gap year. But in fact, partying seems to be a function of leaving home and being unsupervised. There’s plenty of binge drinking and drug use on campuses, after all. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told Newsweek magazine, “I think if more universities encourage gap years, then probably fewer freshmen would spend their first month in college in an alcoholic haze.”

Re­cent fig­ures show that less than 40 per­cent of col­lege stu­dents com­plete their edu­ca­tion in four years; the rest drop out or get their de­grees five or six years after start­ing col­lege, with the costs in­creas­ing ac­cord­ingly.

Parents, he said, also worry that after the freedom of a gap year, their kids will not want to go back to studying, writing essays, and taking tests. But anecdotal evidence from college admissions officers across the country indicates that few drop off the college radar. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, is founder of the Palo Alto–based Challenge Success, an organization dedicated to reducing the academic pressure on high-achieving students and parents. She agrees that there is no evidence to support this fear. “If you’re not ready for college because you’re fried, take a gap year.”

It took Mikel Parraga-Wills a year at Cal Poly to realize that the campus pressure to socialize wasn’t right for him. “It felt too much like high school.” Instead, he went to Italy to do what he loves: play soccer full time. “I gained discipline,” he explains. “And I figured out that I really wanted to succeed academically.”

Recent figures show that less than 40 percent of college students complete their education in four years; the rest drop out or get their degrees five or six years after starting college, with the costs increasing accordingly. Completion rates for community colleges are even more alarming—only 29 percent finish their associate’s degree within three years. Starting college straight out of high school, students have to cope with several big changes at once: leaving home, making new friends, working, and succeeding academically.

This may go some way in explaining why a gap-year industry has emerged in the United States in the last decade. Nonprofits as well as profit-driven companies offer formal programs ranging from gritty volunteer work to cushy semi-academic travel ventures. Live with a Peruvian family while teaching English in Lima, or with a Guatemalan family while learning Spanish. Harvest blueberries in Maine. Assist teachers in a Senegalese village. Hike, climb, or count sea turtles. Some programs cost thousands of dollars; others offer room and board in exchange for work. Their websites typically feature young people with giant backpacks, jumping in the air with big smiles on their faces. The message is clear: Freedom! Possibility! Fun!

Just winging it isn’t as edgy as it once was. In our tech­no­logy-sat­ur­ated world, we are nev­er really dis­con­nec­ted from home. All the more reas­on that tak­ing a year off should in­volve per­son­al ex­plor­a­tion and dis­cov­ery. It’s a time for mak­ing mis­takes and learn­ing from them. It’s not sup­posed to be easy.

A hyper-structured gap year might not offer the challenges and opportunities that are associated with the traditional Wanderjahr. And even just winging it isn’t as edgy as it once was. In our technology-saturated world, we are never really disconnected from home. All the more reason that taking a year off should involve personal exploration and discovery. It’s a time for making mistakes and learning from them. It’s not supposed to be easy.

You might find yourself playing your guitar in a village plaza to make some money, or working a quasi-legal waitressing job. What if you get fired or lose your passport, or get pickpocketed? In dealing with such crises far away from parents and friends, you’ll discover your own resourcefulness. Or, as I did, the kindness of a stranger. Rick Hebert, who taught for many years at Berkeley High School’s Independent Study Program, calls such an experience “the young people’s bonus.” He doubts that people in organized groups experience this gift from strangers.

Berkeley High grad Chandrika worked for six months and then traveled in Ghana for six months to get to know her ancestral culture. She says that the experience was pivotal in her development. From Seattle, where she is doing a graduate program, she talked to me about the challenges she experienced. “I was homesick, in culture shock, and totally overwhelmed by the idea of staying for the full six-month program. But it quickly turned into one of the best things I could have done for myself.” I asked her about her fondest memories of Ghana.

“Just hanging out with the family, eating, talking, playing with the kids,” she said. “I remember one night there was a huge storm and the power went out. It was a really hot night, so we all went into the hallway with candles and lay on the cool cement floor, just laughing and having a good time. I never knew I could feel so comfortable with strangers from a different country and life experience.”

Caitlin, another Berkeley High graduate, worked full-time to save up for her world travel. To be safe, she journeyed with a friend. The two flew to New Zealand, and from there made their way country to country with a loose itinerary. Instead of letters of introduction, they had phone numbers of friends of friends. Sometimes they stayed with those folks; other times they worked on an organic farm or in a retreat center. Caitlin also got robbed, but considers it to be one of many lessons learned. “All in all,” she wrote to me from Oxford, where she is studying now, “it was a patchwork experience.”

College advisor Angela Price, who has counseled Berkeley High students for seven years, points out that taking time off may be an option for kids who have wealth and privilege, as well as the solid support of educated parents. “It’s a choice for the 1%,” Price says. But it is “not for graduates from working-class or lower-income families.” Many of these students are the first in their families to go to college; they have worked hard and saved to make it possible. “These students are barely hanging on,” Price explains, “and they don’t have any cushion at all.”

Schol­ar­ship pro­grams may be un­avail­able if the stu­dent took a year off. “Low-in­come stu­dents have to stay on track, es­pe­cially if they are get­ting fin­an­cial aid. No stu­dent in this group is go­ing to risk giv­ing up their place.”

Chandrika says that money doesn’t have to be a deterrent. “It is also good to remember,” she points out, “that in most places in the world, you don’t need as much money to get by and enjoy yourself.”

It’s not just a matter of money. According to Price, most low-income students go to less-expensive state schools, which don’t encourage or defer admission for gap years. Furthermore, most of the scholarship programs that support low-income or first-generation students would be unavailable if the student took a year off and returned to school. “Low-income students have to stay on track, especially if they are getting financial aid,” Price explains. “No student in this group is going to risk giving up their place.”

Bob Laird, former director of undergraduate admissions, agreed that during his tenure, UC Berkeley admissions was cautious about granting deferrals, and there was no guarantee that students would be re-admitted if they applied again without a deferral. An admitted student could write a letter to the director of undergraduate admissions, asking for a deferral with a tangible plan for the gap year and an explanation of how this would add to their qualifications. “It all depended on the thoughtfulness of the student,” Laird said. “We needed to see a tangible plan to consider the request.”

And, he added, with increasing applications pressure (more than 78,000 students have applied for freshman admission for 2015), Berkeley might be even more reluctant to hold a spot for an admitted student wanting to take time off. The current director of admissions, Amy W. Jarich, could not be reached for comment. According to University spokesperson Janet Gilmore, Berkeley does not have an official policy regarding gap-year admissions deferrals. “We ask that everyone apply for the term in which they enter. So, while some requests are granted, we still need the student to apply again the following year.”

When a low-income student does take a year off, it is generally out of necessity. Pera Gorsen, who did research on first-generation college students as a sociology major at Mills College, points out that these students, who usually work part-time, tend to be overwhelmed by school requirements and often take time out to earn more money or clarify their goals. “Unfortunately,” Gorsen says, “they usually consider this to be a personal failure rather than a legitimate part of their educational path. If we accepted a college education that included taking breaks when necessary, they might feel proud of what they are accomplishing and of the experiences they are having, rather than feeling inadequate.”

Certainly, cost is a barrier for many. In an initiative intended to make a gap year accessible for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds, Tufts University has announced a new program offering to fund housing, travel, and other fees. “The goal is to encourage needier students to take part in a tradition, long popular in Europe, that experts say makes for more motivated, mature, and worldly students as they adjust to life in college,” reported a Newsweek article on the Tufts program. Similar programs are already in effect at Princeton, the University of North Carolina, and St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. The nonprofit Global Citizen Year (which prefers the term “bridge year” to describe a student’s year away from formal education) is proud that 80 percent of the organization’s participants receive financial aid, and nearly 30 percent are fully funded.

It makes sense to integrate a year of discovery and service into the American educational system and to support it with scholarships and loans. With such financial assistance, a Wanderjahr could be possible for everyone. Young Americans would learn the nonacademic skills required by the contemporary job market. And they would practice the timeless values of open-mindedness and understanding.

See more life lessons from Cal students who took years off from college.

Christine Schoefer, M.A. ’76, Ph.D. ’85, loved her gap year in Europe. She incorporated travel adventures into her studies, so her Ph.D. took a little longer. A writer, she also teaches Wellness at Mills College in Oakland.

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