Filling in ‘the gap’: a year off for travel, work before college

Rather than spending all their time waiting in anticipation for college acceptance or job offers, there are students across the country waiting to hear about their pending visas instead.  

These students in the U.S. will postpone college plans in turn for spending a year working, traveling, or volunteering all around the world.

While many dream of going straight off to work or to their dream school, plenty of high school seniors find themselves wanting that extra time to learn more about themselves and the world they live in before they are ready to assert their place in it. These are the students who are taking gap years.  

By the definition provided by the American Gap Association, “A gap year is an experiential semester or year, typically taken between high school and college in order to deepen practical, professional, and personal awareness.”

The concept of taking a gap year originated in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, spreading to the US in the 1980’s.  

Originally, gap years were intended to fill the time between a student’s exams and start of university – only a few months rather than a full year. In the time since, though the popularity of gap years has spread, their purpose remains unchanged.  

In the “2015 National Alumni Survey” which was undertaken by Nina Hoe, PhD, in collaboration with the Institute for Survey Research, Temple University, and the AGA Research Committee, it was found that the top three reasons students choose to take gap years were: gaining life experience and personal growth, travel and experience of other cultures, and taking a break from academic rigor.

Essentially, students’ gap years can be filled with whatever they believe will most benefit or interest them. Some choose to volunteer their time and effort through charities both international and domestic.

If students feel the need to take the year to work and save money for college, they might choose to find work or take an internship.

Other students may be unsure of what they want to study in college and will take gap years to travel and learn more about themselves.

There is no one definition of what a gap year is made of. Instead they are purely a time for students to examine their goals, passions, and plans for the future.  

When it comes down to planning for a gap year, it can be perhaps more time consuming than applying for college. Questions frequently asked when planning are ones a typical college would cover.

Students planning gap years must decide where they will stay, how will they feel safe, how they will have access to  healthcare, and plans for communication with their parents.

Because of the complexity of planning, many find they prefer volunteering or working over simply traveling on their own.  

As the class of 2017 plans for its next few years, some here are making the decision to delay higher education for a gap year. Seniors Nich Auerbach, Sierra Hausthor, Emma Schneider, and Kendall Pittman are four who have shared their plans.  

Nick Auerbach said he plans to volunteer his time teaching skiing in Utah.  

“I would like to go work in Park City, Utah teaching adaptive skiing at a facility out there. For the past four years I have taught people with disabilities how to ski through the Ability Plus program at our school.”

He said one reason for choosing a gap year was wanting to spend time outside of academics for a while.

“I have stumbled upon a really exciting opportunity and I’m feeling kind of academically burnt out right now. I feel like spending some time outside of a classroom would be beneficial because I could become accustomed to life outside of constantly going to school and working for some time. I think I would find great value in that.”  

The plan Pittman has mapped out for her gap year however, will require quite a bit of travel on her part.

“I’m going to work at a wilderness camp for the summer, then work at a refugee camp, then live with a friend in California and work for the winter, and then bike back across the country from CA.”

Pittman said though her gap year may seem spread out, she wants to use her time to learn more about herself and the world before heading off to college.  

Hausthor said she plans to take a job abroad as an au pair – a person to help with childcare in exchange for room and board.  She said she met a family from Italy while working at a summer camp, and that recently the opportunity came up for her to spend a year working for them in Milan.  

Schneider said she also has made plans to spend her gap year in Europe. Though she  intends to be working as an au pair, she also plans “to be living in Graz, Austria, learning German, concentrating on piano, nannying and traveling.”

Schneider said her plan in Europe centers around meeting up with various connections and friends her family has overseas.  

While all four ARHS students have very different plans for the next year, there are some common factors they have found while planning.

All say their parents have been greatly supportive of their decision to take a gap year, though all have found their parents also share common concerns regarding finance, living situations, and general safety as they travel.  

Pittman said she found the most concern from her parents when talking about her return from California.  

“I don’t have concerns, but I imagine my parents do, especially about me biking across the country. But, ultimately, they’re supportive of it,” said Pittman.  

When it comes to travelling abroad, Hausthor has concerns Auerbach and Pittman might not. “The only concerns we have are related to visas for the year and the transition into living in a new country and learning a new language,” Hausthor reported.

When asked why each of them chose to take a gap year, all four gave – surprisingly – similar responses, despite the differences in their plans and hopes for the next year.

It seems the main reason for taking a year before college was the desire to reset and to give themselves a break from the pressures of academia, before all head off to college, post gap year.  

“I chose to take a gap year because I felt like taking a break from school and participating in ‘real’ life would make me more ready for, and more enthusiastic about college – I am enthusiastic, but maybe a different perspective?” said Schneider.

And, Auerbach added, “I think high school is an incredible grind academically and socially, and for me, taking a break from school will help me reset and return to school the following year refreshed and with greater motivation.”  

To close on each senior’s plans for their next year, I asked them if they believe gap years are something more people should do.

The responses I received were enlightened.  

“Finding time to travel and explore new parts of the world can be invaluable,” said Auerbach. “New experiences and work can teach you just as much as spending time in a classroom.”

“I think gap years are wonderful for some people. If you have a plan for what you’re going to do then I think it’s a great opportunity but if you don’t have a plan it may lead to you getting off track. But for certain people, having a year to solidify your future plans is awesome,” said Hausthor.  

“I think way more people should do gap years! Whenever I tell fellow seniors of my plans, they all think it’s a great idea, and a lot of people tell me they wish that they could take a gap year, too. They can! You just have to put a bit of effort into it. And when will you ever have a better chance to travel, work, or volunteer?” said Pittman.  

And finally, summarizing a take-life-by-the-horns ideal, Schneider said, “I’ve heard that many people regret not doing a gap year, but very few people regret doing them- I feel like that’s a pretty solid rationale.”