The Gap Year: Why Taking Time Out to Travel Is Good

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The Gap Year: Why Taking Time Out to Travel Is Good

In Europe, taking a year to travel before going to college is common practice. It provides students with an unstructured education on independence, communication, and maturity. So why isn't taking a gap year more common in the U.S.?

When I graduated from high school, I didn’t feel ready for college, but I didn’t realize I had any other options. So I did what I thought I had to do: I sucked it up and sent in my applications, figuring that if I went through the motions, I’d wake up one morning with my life in order like everyone else. Now, after graduating with a next-to-useless liberal arts degree and little direction, I still don’t know what I want to do, and I wish I’d spent a little more time figuring it out before racking up all those student loans. Taking a gap year, or a year between high school and college for non-academic pursuits, has been a European custom for centuries. Maybe it’s time more American students and their parents realize the benefits of unstructured learning. 

Time Out or Burn Out?
College brings intense social and intellectual stresses that most students aren’t prepared for fresh out of high school. I certainly wasn’t. As a freshman, anxiety over having to suddenly take charge of my life sent me into a deep depression, and I’m not alone. More than 40 percent of U.S. students become so depressed during their four years in college that they have trouble functioning, and 15 percent suffer from clinical depression, according to the American College Health Association. Perhaps if students took a year to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for the pressures they were about to face, those numbers might be a little lower. 

So many of life’s stressors arise from uncertainty and lack of direction. When a student figures out in her junior year that she wants to change majors or, like me, realizes after she graduates that she still has no clue what she wants to do, it can make her feel like a failure and start a vicious cycle of stress leading to bad decisions, which in turn cause more stress. Gaining a wider perspective by taking a gap year may be the only way for some people to break that cycle. 

That’s the opinion of Harvard College Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, author of the article, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.” Says Fitzsimmons, “We believe that students use their opportunities in college much more effectively if they have had some chance to get some perspective and get away.” 

The Real World Resume
Not only can a gap year help prevent burnout, it can also add much to college—and life—experiences. The Gap-Year Advantage authors Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson extol the benefits of gap years in teaching valuable skills like communication, problem-solving, handling stress, and managing money. In an interview with TransitionsAbroad.com editor Sherry Schwarz, Haigler and Nelson report “a longitudinal study of AmeriCorps’ participants found positive results in areas such as education, life skills, civic engagement, and employment.” 

That—plus any foreign languages learned while traveling—makes for a beefy resume. In the age of networking, “gappers” also meet a wide variety of people who may prove to be beneficial contacts down the road. These are all extremely valuable attributes for a competitive, global job market. 

The Dapper Gapper
Though the gap year is popular across Europe and in Australia, it’s a fixture in British culture and history. In the seventeenth century, wealthy British families began sending their sons on grand tours of Europe with the idea that a wider view of the world would be edifying and enlightening. “Perhaps gap years are just a modern version,” says Susannah Hecht, editor of The Gap Year Guidebook in the UK. 

The dashing young men (and women) of England are still sowing their wild oats around the world, though they spend their time far more altruistically now. After graduating from Eton and before heading off to the University of St. Andrews, Prince William spent his gap year taking part in British Army training exercises in Belize, and teaching children in Tortel, Chile, as part of the Raleigh International program. His younger brother, Harry, worked on a cattle station in Australia and participated in the Young England vs. Young Australia Polo Test Match before traveling to Lesotho, where he worked with orphaned children and produced the documentary film The Forgotten Kingdom, and finally taking a real break in Argentina. 

The American students who do take gap years model them after their British counterparts, jamming twelve months full of travel, volunteer, and work experience. Consider Barrett Bijur, who told WireTap magazine’s Stephen Baxter about his year spent taking Spanish language courses and scuba diving lessons in Mexico for two months, earning EMT certification in New Hampshire, working on a dive boat in the Galapagos and at a bank in Santiago, Chile, and interning at a venture capital firm in Boston. 

But gap years are still far less common in the United States. According to the same article in WireTap, “Taking a Gap Year, American Style,” American parents and guidance counselors discourage students from taking a gap year because they’re afraid that without structure, students will never return to school.

Perhaps the disparity between British and American students regarding the gap year has to do with its emphasis on travel. Americans simply don’t travel as much as the rest of the world does. Baxter reports that in a survey of British teenagers from sixteen to eighteen years old, 24 percent said that at some point they would take a year out for travel, work, or volunteering. When asked what their plans were after completing their A-level exams (similar to our SATs), 18 percent said they wanted to travel. But only 21 percent of all Americans even own a passport, reports The Guardian. Travel just isn’t as much of a priority in our culture and we don’t consider it as integral to education as Britons do. 

The DIY Gap Year
Another reason fewer Americans take a gap year than do British students is that American colleges are far more expensive than in countries, like England, where the government subsidizes tuition. According to The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid (2009), more than 65 percent of all undergraduate students relied on loans to finance their education in 2008, with an average debt of roughly $23,186. Among graduate students, 56.4 percent relied on loans, with an average debt totaling roughly $40,297. With the high cost of post-secondary education in the U.S., there’s little money left over for romantic notions like traveling the world. 

But Emma Warne of the Year Out Group insists that students from all walks of life should take the time. “It just depends on how much they want to go on a gap year,” says Warne. “Many lower-class students will work a lot harder at achieving their goals than those in the upper classes as they do not have as much money.” 

Paul Mahon of PlanetGapYear.com, an interactive online community for U.S. high school graduates and college students to plan their gap years, reminds students that no matter where they go, it will ultimately cost less than a year at college. Plus, the challenge of paying for it on their own is the first step in building life skills and learning to overcome obstacles. 

Filling in the Gap
Even though the gap year typically refers to the period between the end of high school and the beginning of college, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen then, and it doesn’t have to be a full year. A gap experience can be a summer vacation, a semester abroad, or a year before graduate school or starting a new career. 

And what constitutes a gap year means different things to different people. Some students structure their time to pack a lot into a few months, others just open themselves up to different experiences. In general, gappers should make the most of their time by sticking to a budget, trying to meet as many people as possible and keeping track of contact information, and journaling every day. 

For those who like structure or being part of a group, the Peace Corps, Fulbright Scholar Program, and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) all send students abroad for a year or more to volunteer. But many gappers head out on their own, deciding which experiences they’d like to have and using the Internet to find a way to make them happen. 

See You in September, Mom
Modern-day gappers have so many resources available to them. Though the practice is just starting to catch on in the United States, American students can look to their British counterparts as models and feel confident designing their own gap years.