Once a student finishes high school, then next step is four years of college. Freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. This is just the way it is….right?
Four consecutive years of college directly following the completion of high school is the norm and expectation for students in the United States. However, there are individuals who break this norm in the form of a gap year.
A gap year, as defined by the American Gap Year Association is, “A structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers.” This is a practice that has been accepted and encouraged in other countries, especially in Europe, for some time.
However, in recent years, students in the United States have started to catch on. A quick search of the Internet shows multiple gap year programs that provide students with structure and a program for how to spend their time off from school. The American Gap Year Association works to bring together and consolidate many of these different gap year programs.
Most students spend their gap year time to travel, volunteer, or work towards something that will benefit them in their future career and education. Although there is not very much quantitative information about students who take gap years, as much is “off the record,” the American GapYear Association says that the number of students who take a gap year is growing substantially.
In just the past three years the US Gap Year Fair, a national circuit that acts as a platform for many gap year programs, has had a 150% increase in student attendance. The enrollment in American Gap Year Association programs has increased in a similarly large fashion.
Robin Pendoley is a Co-director of USA Gap Year Fairs and a Co-Founder and CEO of the US non-profit Thinking Beyond Boarders. He has a Ph.D. in education and has worked and taught in public schools for 10 years. In his experience with the education system, Pendoley says he found that most schools are preoccupied with grades and test scores rather than with preparing students for college. A gap year can prepare students for college and the “real world” in a way that cannot be taught in a classroom. Pendoley wanted to help students develop interests and skills that can be invested to make a difference in the world.
“Students can develop skills to make exceptional changes in the world,” he said. This was the purpose and intent behind his organization. Thinking Beyond Borders is a gap year organization that offers students the opportunity to learn and develop a global perspective through education and experience-based programs in countries such as: Ecuador, Peru, Cambodia, the US, China, India, and South Africa.
“It’s (taking a gap year) an opportunity for students to go in the world and engage with real world issues that they’re passionate about,” Pendoley says. “To see how their talents relate to real-world issues and to test their values critically against the real world.” Once students learn more about themselves and how they can make a difference during in the world, Pendoley says the hope is that they will return to pursue a college degree that will prepare them to go and make that change.
“It’s about creating students who love to learn and know why they’re learning,” said Pendoley.
Studies from the American Gap Year Association say that students who take a gap year before college are 90% likely to return to college and be more confident about their career choice. An example of such a student in Natasha Haynes.
Haynes is a student at Lane Community College and she in no way regrets taking a gap year in Mexico after graduating high school. She worked at a resort and had invaluable experiences that taught her independence, the Spanish language, and a hard work ethic. Her year abroad also gave her a new perspective on education.
“I now look at higher education as an incredible opportunity,” Haynes said. “Not everyone has the chance of even thinking about it. I am so much more appreciative of my opportunity to attend college.”
Another such student is Else Conrad. During her sophomore year at the University of Oregon, Conrad realized her desire to travel and help people in other countries. She changed her major from music to linguistics, and looked for ways to pursue her new dream of teaching English in a foreign country.
“There are options other than college to be successful,” Conrad said. This was the 21-year-old North Bend native’s mentality as she took off last year, in between her sophomore and junior years, to pursue a different kind of education.
For six months of this current school year, Conrad studied in Norway, traveled to Burma, and lived in a rural village in the jungle of Thailand. She took these travels as a part of a Christian mission program called Youth With A Mission (YWAM). This program incorporates four months of language and Bible training, with two months spent abroad doing mission work.
“This was something I felt really led to do,” Conrad said. “(Norway is) my very favorite place in the world and I was very interested in the Karen people (in the villages) of Thailand.”
Conrad can sit down and talk for hours about her adventures abroad and has two full photo albums as proof. Although it has delayed pursuing her degree, she doesn’t regret her decision to take a gap year.
“It was a good experience,” she said. “Good experience for language, travel, helping people…just a good personal experience.”
Conrad has recently made the decision to again return to the village in Thailand, but this time for an entire year. Her first gap year from college helped her to discover her desire to live with a global mindset and with the intent to make a difference in the world.
Before her first trip, Conrad felt supported and encouraged by those around her. However, now that she is going again, feedback has not been as positive.
“You’re going to be a bum and never go back to school,” Conrad said as the response she got from many concerned friends and family. However she says she has every intention of completing a degree in linguistics by 2016, after she returns from Thailand next year.
Although Conrad plans on living overseas permanently, she said that having a degree is imperative to getting a job, no matter where in the world you live. But her taking a gap year has meant changing her plans in terms of a college education and what she wants to do with her degree. During her year abroad, she discovered her love and long-term plans for a place and a people that a year ago she never even knew existed. She was able to connect and relate with a place and a group of people who live much differently than her. She was changed by her experience and it taught her how to pursue a life centered around what she is most passionate about.
Conrad is a living example of a successful gap year and the course of her life has changed because of her time abroad.