College Can Wait

Many local high school grads are taking a break before heading to college. But they aren’t sitting on the couch watching TV.
Gap Year

Annie Plotkin in Brazil

The nine months that Annie Plotkin spent living with a host family just outside the Brazilian city of Salvador were eye-opening in many ways. She learned Portuguese, listened to live music, studied cultural idiosyncrasies and savored the city’s narrow streets lined with colorful baroque buildings. During the festival of Carnival, she gazed upon the spectacle of costumed locals dressed like exotic birds.

She also helped feed disabled children at a special-needs school, and witnessed the horrors of domestic abuse while assisting crisis center workers. She encountered poverty unlike any she had ever seen growing up in Arlington’s Cherrydale neighborhood, noting in one blog post the “incongruous skyline of favelas and high rise apartments paired with the bright blue coastline.”

At 19, she came home forever changed.

“It made me value everything I have a million times more,” Plotkin says of her experience as a volunteer with Global Citizen Year, an organization she likens to a “mini-Peace Corps,” which she joined after completing the International Baccalaureate program at Washington-Lee High School in 2011.

This fall Plotkin heads to the University of Virginia, where she intends to study international relations and global development (a switch from her original plan to major in comparative literature). “I have to study something that’s going to be of value around the world,” she says.

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Annie Plotkin received a merit-based scholarship of $3,000 from Global Citizen Year to help fund her nine months in Brazil.

Sabbaticals like Plotkin’s once constituted a relatively unbeaten path among rising college freshmen, but not anymore. A growing number of high school grads are choosing to postpone college for a year in pursuit of other experiences outside the educational box.

“Gap years [have become] much more prevalent over the last five years,” observes Judy Bracken, a college and career specialist at George Mason High School in Falls Church, who’s been in counseling for 14 years. “Before, kids were loath to say they were going to take a gap year.”

Now, Bracken has a four-inch-thick file on gap-year programs sitting on her desk. “I don’t know one single kid who’s taken a gap year who didn’t say it was fantastic,” she says. The school even designed a special logo (a palm tree) that non-college-bound students could use to post their gap-year plans on a big board outside the counseling office. (The board showed where all of the school’s graduating seniors were headed this fall.)

At George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, a fair held last semester for students interested in exploring the gap year option drew 200 families on a weeknight.

The trend isn’t limited to Northern Virginia, although it is most prevalent in “affluent, pressure-cooker communities” such as the areas surrounding Washington, D.C., and other major U.S. cities, according to Kathy Cheng. She’s the director of admissions at Dynamy, a nonprofit based in Worcester, Mass., that organizes internships and group living for students who want a transitional year after high school.

Five years ago, USA Gap Year Fairs (the organization that staged the fair at George C. Marshall High School) put on seven recruiting events around the country. Next year its organizers will sponsor 30 such fairs nationwide for potential “gappers” and their parents, as well as five additional events geared toward guidance counselors. Exhibitors run the gamut, from established programs like Dynamy to smaller operations, such as a boat-building company in Rockland, Maine, that offers apprenticeships.

What many educators and parents are realizing is that kids who ask for a time-out aren’t looking for an excuse to slack off. In fact, quite the opposite.

“The impact of a gap year seems to be pretty substantial in terms of how they see themselves,” says Karl Haigler, a frequent speaker at gap-year events and co-author of The Gap-Year Advantage, which he wrote with his wife, Rae Nelson. “Generally speaking, they are more focused as a result. They see themselves as more responsible and they have a sense of what their studies are about. They can apply their studies to the world.”

In a recent survey of 300 gap-year students, Haigler and Nelson found that 90 percent of students who take that intermission end up starting or going back to college within one year.

This May Explain why many of the nation’s leading colleges and universities are beginning to embrace the concept.

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill recently received an anonymous $1.5 million grant to set up a Global Gap Year Fellowship that will give up to 10 admitted students $7,500 each for a nine-month fellowship to “blend public service and international exploration.”

Similarly, Princeton University now offers a tuition-free “Bridge Year” program—one that it granted to roughly 40 of the 2,095 students it accepted in 2012. Launched in 2009, the pilot program allows students to focus on “community service and cultural immersion” in countries such as China and Ghana—the rationale being that a bridge year constitutes “a truly innovative approach to university learning, one that is more experiential and…more profoundly transformational than anything our entering students will have encountered in their high school years,” according to the faculty working group that designed Princeton’s program.

Proponents stress, however, that a gap year isn’t the college equivalent of a hall pass. “We purposely use the word ‘bridge,’ as opposed to ‘gap,’ ” explains the Princeton group, “in order to underscore the value added during this year, rather than its quality as an educational break or vacuum.”

And colleges aren’t just handing out deferrals to anyone who wants one. Last fall, the College of William & Mary accepted 4,250 students into its Class of 2016, but granted only 10 gap-year requests, notes Tim Wolfe, the school’s senior associate dean of admissions.

“There has to be a unifying theme or reason as to why now is the time to do it,” Wolfe says, explaining that the burden is on the applicant to explain why the internship or service opportunity is important enough to justify a deferral. “I need a student to provide concrete details and a plan.”

Deferring students may not enroll at another college in the interim, he adds, citing a policy that is consistent with those of other universities. “We don’t want the gap-year experience to replace freshman year.”

Some graduating seniors reserve the gap year as a fallback option in case they get wait-listed or fail to make the cut at the college of their choice. But that’s not always the main motivator. An increasing number of students—including those with college acceptance letters in hand—are choosing to take the long way ’round. Many cite stress as a factor in their decision.

Jenna Anders, who graduated from Yorktown High School in 2011, was one such student.

“Going through high school I thought I enjoyed it, but now I see I was so concerned about making the grades that I didn’t really think about the more important things,” says Anders, whose self-directed interim year included volunteering at a youth center in Cusco, Peru; a birthright trip to Israel; and a stint working as a nanny in Rome. “Now that I’m out and have mental energy I’m learning a lot more about life,” she says. “That will really help me in college and beyond.”

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Jenna Anders on the trail to Machu Picchu

Her parents have been supportive. “High school is grueling for many students in this area,” says Jenna’s mom, Elisa Joseph Anders, whose older son, Brett, also took a year off after graduating in 2009 from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (he did a solo, fund-raising bike ride across the country, took a birthright trip, and also worked for an environmental nonprofit in Guatemala for four months).

“I love that they’re taking a break from the academic learning experience and seeing that they can learn and grow in ways other than in the classroom,” she says. “I like that critical thinking and the questioning—the creative thinking.”

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Brett Anders riding cross-country

Brett now attends Brown University, and Jenna begins her freshman year there this fall.

When it comes to alleviating academic angst, families that embrace this philosophy may be onto something. Recent studies suggest that today’s freshmen are coming to college feeling less emotionally fit than ever before. In a survey of four colleges and universities nationwide, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, only 52 percent of incoming freshmen in 2010 described their emotional health as being in “the highest 10 percent,” down from 64 percent of respondents who reported being at that level in 1985. Among the freshmen women in the 2010 study, only 46 percent claimed to have top-tier emotional health.

“Stress is a major concern when dealing with college students,” says John H. Pryor, a lead author of the HERI report. “If students are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health, then faculty, deans and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as…poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption and academic motivation.”

Hence, the seemingly counterintuitive article titled “Taking Time Off” that’s prominently featured on Harvard University’s Office of Admissions website. The story points to the potential to “burn out” as one reason Harvard “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way.” A student who arrives on campus feeling intellectually and emotionally tapped isn’t a student who is ready to learn.

Conversely, many students who take a break to stretch their brains in new and different ways say they ultimately get to campus feeling more empowered and invigorated.

“My gap year gave me more focus and a spark that I needed to take advantage of college,” says Mary Bryan, 20, who grew up in Lyon Village and graduated from Sidwell Friends in the District. “I became a lot more confident in my beliefs and more passionate about who I am.”

After graduation, Bryan participated in a Thinking Beyond Borders program that combined college-level coursework, fieldwork addressing global issues, and sightseeing. Her travels to seven countries included skydiving in South Africa, learning about sustainable agriculture in India and hiking the Inca Trail. She lived with a different host family in each place.

Now entering her sophomore year at Tulane University, Bryan says the experience gave her the confidence to get involved in extracurricular activities she never would have considered before. As co-leader of the campus group Students for Social Innovation, she is spearheading a TEDx conference (an independently organized event inspired by the well-known Technology, Entertainment, Design summit) at Tulane in October that will feature talks from inspiring “change makers” in the New Orleans community.

Her mother, Nancy White, sees the overseas tour as time well spent. “Growing up in the D.C. area, it’s very easy to get on this treadmill and think there’s only one way to do this life,” White says. “You need some sort of transition as you’re moving into the next stage of your life, so that college is not Grade 13. It’s an important time to stop and consider who you are.”

Some graduates opt for a bridge year to avoid wasting an expensive year of college tuition while they figure that out.

Jordan Ricker, who graduated from Washington-Lee this spring, chose to complete a Global Citizen Year in Senegal—in part, to test-drive his planned career path as an English teacher.

“What better thing to do than get job experience while learning a second language…while being in a foreign country, doing what I love, for a ridiculously low cost?” Ricker says. (He received a scholarship from Global Citizen Year that covered 80 percent of his costs.)

Gap-year pursuits can also have networking benefits, according to Nick Mendez, a Sidwell Friends graduate who grew up in Arlington’s Leeway Overlee neighborhood. His decision to work on political campaigns for a year before heading to college (he is now a rising sophomore at Harvard) ultimately led to other jobs.

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Nick Mendez on the campaign trail

After working on a U.S. Senate campaign in Colorado and then interning for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Mendez received a stipend from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics to intern with the finance and research departments of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this summer.

Those working experiences, combined with solo trips to Turkey and France, have taught him “to be more outgoing and to think under pressure,” he says.

“[His gap year] also gave him practical life skills,” says his mom, Liz Mendez. “He earned money and saved for college.”

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Nick Mendez performs for locals at a bar on the banks of the Loire River during a trip to Tours, France

Of course, most gap-year programs do not come with the promise of a job, or of getting into one’s dream college. In fact many programs—particularly those offering lots of structure, guidance, or multiple international destinations—can be as or more expensive than a year of college.

The tuition for Thinking Beyond Borders is $29,500 per year, not including airfare (which is estimated at $5,000), although the organization does offer financial aid to those with proven need.

Global Citizen Year, whose tuition is $28,500, including travel expenses, says that 80 percent of its “fellows” receive some form of financial aid, and one-third are fully funded.

Some graduates take it upon themselves to fund their own adventures. Jenna Anders, for example, waitressed for several months at Pie-tanza to earn money for her self-planned gap year. She then spent five weeks in Cusco, Peru, volunteering at a youth center through UBELONG, a relatively affordable D.C.-based nonprofit program that matches international volunteers with their interests for two to 24 weeks. (She paid $750 for the five weeks, plus her own airfare.)

Leah Thirkill, a graduate of George Mason High School in Falls Church City, recently joined City Year, an Ameri-Corps program that places volunteers in tutoring and mentoring positions at inner-city schools. In addition to a monthly stipend toward living expenses, she will receive $5,550 toward her own education at the end of the year—a figure that many colleges are willing to match.

“I’m glad to have a little more time to myself to figure out what I want to do and be more motivated for school,” says Thirkill, who graduated at 17 and has been accepted to Gettysburg College for the fall of 2013. (College acceptance, she explains, was a prerequisite set by her parents before she was allowed to pursue the year of service.)

Most experts agree that students who are contemplating a gap year should still apply to colleges in their senior year of high school. Once out of high school (or out of the country) it’s difficult to assemble all the required pieces, such as test scores, recommendations and transcripts. A college application can also be a safety net if a student changes his or her mind about taking time off from academics.

The majority of gap-year programs set their application deadlines later than colleges and universities. This allows more flexibility for students who want to wait and see if they get into the college of their choice before they commit to an internship or service sabbatical.

Colleges, however, are feeling the crunch and uncertainty of the gap-year phenomenon. After a few years of “gappers” deciding not to enroll, despite having put down deposits, some schools are beginning to raise their fees.

Tulane University recently tacked on an additional $700 for gap-year students to the $300 deposit that holds a spot for the following year.

Still, many students and their parents consider this a small price to pay for the benefits of taking the longer, more scenic route to college.

“It was such a relief,” Annie Plotkin says, reflecting on how she felt once she decided to defer her admission to UVA and spend time exploring another culture.

“I was so burned out. I couldn’t believe anyone would want to go to college right away. We work so hard in high school now to get into these crazy schools and do all these crazy things for four years, and then we don’t take any time to breathe, or reflect, or learn something else that we might be interested in.”

Plus, she adds, her hiatus in Brazil ultimately made her miss academia. Now she’s ready to immerse herself in UVA’s culture and all that it has to offer.

“I’ve never been so excited about being in a classroom,” she says. “I’m so excited to sit down and write a paper!”

Gap-Year Resources

AFS-USA (formerly American Field Service)
City Year (AmeriCorps)
Global Citizen Year
Outward Bound
Thinking Beyond Borders
USA Gap Year Fairs
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)

Amy Brecount White is an Arlington writer, teacher and mom. She would take a gap year if she could do it all over again.

Categories: Parents & Kids