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What is a gap year? Well, “Listen my children and you shall hear, about the many wonders of a schooling gap year.” (My apologies to Longfellow). Basically, a gap year is a period of time during which a student stops going to school and does something else! While the concept only came to the U.S. in the late 20th century, it has been around in the UK for longer. Interestingly, in the UK, there is about 7-8 months of time between the time a secondary student finishes his final exams and the time he enters his university training. What to do during those months? Well, it has become a time for students to travel, usually to the continent but sometimes further, in order to gain new perspectives and experience other cultures. It might be roughly compared to the American study abroad phenomenon, though the young adult is not enrolled in any academic program.
The phenomenon of the gap year has exploded in America, and it now serves purposes far more wide-ranging than just travelling to new places. Gap year ideas now abound all over the place and have become the stuff of which books and articles are consistently published – all with great gap year ideas for kids who find themselves not ready for college or just burned out and in need of a break that comes with a purpose. I really “get this,” because I took a gap year before college, and I am in the midst of another one now. In general terms, gap years are meant to provide the following:
- The opportunity to increase self-awareness: Lots of young people, despite our common perceptions of them, really do want to get to know themselves better as people. They want to develop their own values and belief systems, and taking a gap year after high school may help them become who they really are. Sounds philosophical, I know, but kids today are amazingly open and honest about their lack of self-understanding!
- The opportunity to identify and refine one’s life goals. There is nothing worse for a young people to go straight from high school to college and yet still have no idea what they want to do when they get that degree. They can waste a lot of credit hours taking courses that will ultimately not be credited toward their majors! Taking a gap year before college, and using it to experiment with possible career fields, is a stellar idea and financially wise!
- The opportunity to expand one’s “world.” Think about it. If, like me, a young person grows up in a community, attends school with others who share the same backgrounds, values, and interests, what does s/he really know about this country and the people in it, much less the planet and the billions who reside here? The answer is virtually nothing, except for third-hand information from classes in school. Other than summer vacations and an occasional foreign student attending our high school, I was a sheltered child.
Certainly, college would have “expanded” my world somewhat, but how much? Not enough, I decided. I needed to experience something other than a classroom with like-minded people!
The Exploration of Gap Year Opportunities
I began to think about what to do during a gap year when I entered my senior year in high school. Needless to say, my parents, who had taken the traditional route of high school – college – career, were not thrilled, but they did believe me to be relatively mature and were willing to consider it. (I didn’t want to point out to them that I would be 18, an adult, and in charge of my own life by the time I graduated from high school. With them, it was easier to get permission than forgiveness). After doing a bit of research, I discovered that my options for what to do during a gap year were many:
- I could get a job in the real world and experience what it was like to live on my own and be responsible for my own needs. This is actually a pretty good option for kids who have no idea about the cost of living. The other value to this option is that, if there is an interest is some career field, an entry-level position will give someone the chance to observe and experience that field first hand.
- I could go abroad and take some courses at a foreign university. This would immerse me in a foreign culture, really broaden my horizons, and my parents actually liked the idea – at least I would be in an academic environment.
- I could explore some type of internship or paid service-oriented gap year opportunities. I read up on these possibilities, and learned very quickly that internships were probably out of the question. They were really for college grads who needed career experience before anyone would hire them! But the paid service projects did catch my interest, and some of them took high school graduates – “Pay dirt!”
Ultimately, I ended up in FEMA Corps, a government-run program that trains young people to be “responders” when natural disasters strike anywhere in the U.S. The Corps is composed of young people, ages 18-24; they provide 6 weeks of intensive training, as we lived in a dormitory setting and attended classes. Once trained, we were then sent out to places within our region to assist individuals and families who were victims of disasters. I spent the rest of my FEMA Corps days in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005. What a life experience for me! I trudged through mud and filth; I saw devastation that I will probably never see again in my lifetime; I made a difference in the lives of so many people, some with whom I still have contact today!
My gap year made such an impact on my life-perspective that I knew immediately that I would major in sociology in college and find my life’s work in that field. As a senior in college, the thought struck: “Should I take a gap year between college and grad school? The answer was “yes,” and I returned to FEMA Corps, for my gap year after college - this time as part of the training team.
I am securely settled with my Master’s now and working in the field that was meant for me – as a school social worker in an inner-city school district. My gap years defined me!