Gap Year Before College Can Bring Valuable Life Experience
Daniel Copperman always will remember his time in South Africa. Alongside elephants and giraffes, he performed maintenance work at a game reserve. He taught math to children and coached them in soccer and basketball. On a second trip a few months later, Copperman worked with a company called Bitou Home Care transporting AIDS patients from small townships to larger hospitals.
He also provided Katrina relief for a month in Boloxi, Miss., taught four- to seven-year olds on an educational farm in Massachusetts, and worked construction in an experimental self-sustaining community, Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert.
Copperman is 19 years old. After graduating from high school and before attending Brown University, Providence, R.I., he took a year to pursue interests during a 'gap year.'
"It was definitely the best year of my life," Copperman says.
What's a gap year?
The gap year has been longstanding in Europe, but the trend now is gaining ground in the U.S. Traditionally, students take a gap year after graduating from high school, before continuing with higher education. But you can take one at any life stage.
The Center for Interim Programs, LLC, Princeton, N.J., was launched in 1980 and was the first of its kind in the U.S. Center consultants have been designing gap years since, with more than 5,200 opportunities offered worldwide.
The activities are as varied as the individuals pursuing them. You could perform conservation work Down Under, gain fluency in a foreign language, teach English as a second language, attend a cultural studies program in Asia or Latin America, land an internship in London, or complete service work in South America. The programs don't have to be abroad; many individuals choose to stay in the U.S.
After a gap year, many students attest they are more able to hit the ground running.
Gap year gains
A gap year can be a time of maturation, reflection, and self-growth. Many students use the time to clarify interests and establish focus before entering college.
"You're building a resume before you hit college," says Holly Bull, president of Interim Programs. "I've had students who have taught in schools, acquired language fluency, got experience in business ... this is a very practical accrual of skills and recommendations and references that can actually help them get jobs down the line."
Not for everyone
While a gap year offers benefits, it's not for everyone. Snags could include running out of funds, opting out of college completely, and not using the time off productively.
"I would say it's a great idea for certain people," Copperman says. "I think the biggest concern for parents and some students is that they [students] won't go back to school and it will be extremely hard to get back into the swing of things."
Copperman says the most difficult part for him was the thought of leaving his family for a long period of time. Once he arrived in South Africa, however, he says homesickness was not an issue.
It can be as affordable or expensive as the student wants.
The benefit of working with a gap year counselor or program, says Bull, is you can speak with advisers and others who've completed a particular program to help avoid potential pitfalls. A one-time consulting fee of $2,100 buys you a lifetime of service from Interim programs, however, this does not cover actual program costs.
Colleges positively view productive time
David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Arlington, Va., says colleges increasingly view a gap year as a valid exercise for students, but the substance of the program will affect how a college views the time off.
"Personal, educational, or professional enrichment are generally encouraged," he says. "Simply traveling or doing nothing for a year is not likely to impress college admission officers."
Examples of constructive activities include earning academic credentials, serving as an intern in a field of interest, or performing charity work.
Some students spend their first year in college getting oriented, maybe partying too much, or just trying to fit in, Bull says. After a gap year, many students attest they are better able to hit the ground running.
Bull recommends applying for colleges as usual, and then deferring admission if you decide to take a gap year. Most colleges will honor deferred admission for purposes such as this.
Most colleges will honor deferred admission while you pursue a gap year.
Gap year costs
You might be thinking a year in London or New Zealand sounds like a dream—but how can a high-school or college graduate fund it?
It can be as affordable or expensive as the student wants.
You don't have to be wealthy and there are a lot of lower-priced options available, says Bull. A number of people choose one "splurge" program (for example, a group program that might run about $10,000 for three months) and lower-cost options for the rest of the year. In total, costs for a year average $15,000 to $25,000. Again, this varies with the individual, and you absolutely can forego the "splurge" part.
"There are definitely ways to do it while making money as well," says Copperman. The farm in Massachusetts compensated him for his work and the program in Arizona offered free room and board.
Furthermore, as the cost of higher education continues to rise, some say the year is a worthy investment. Only 35% of students finish college in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C. Many are taking five or six years, and gap year advocates tout time off as a productive way to focus your college studies.
While a gap year offers benefits, snags could include running out of funds, opting out of college completely, and not using the time off productively.
To fund your gap year, start by closing up spending leaks in your budget. If you have a job, put part of each paycheck aside for gap year spending. Setting up direct deposit at your credit union can make saving even easier. By having a certain amount of money automatically transferred to a savings account each payday, you won't be as tempted to spend what you should be saving. (See the sidebar below for more suggestions.)
Since you generally can apply financial aid only to formal education, students should not count on this for funding a gap year. "The closest things may be AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, or even military service, but there are no loans or aid specifically for participating in a gap year," says Hawkins.
Embrace the culture
For students considering a gap year, Copperman offers his most helpful piece of advice:
"It definitely helped that I was willing to do almost anything that would immerse me in the culture of the place," says Copperman. "I would go to a lot of the city's events and I talked to a lot of the local people. I knew I would have a better time if I did that rather than completely be a tourist."
Copperman stays in touch with four friends he met in South Africa and hopes to visit for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament.
A gap year can ease the transition to college as well as the work world to follow.
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