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Students Plan "Gap Years" for More Than Break from College

August 25, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

While you’re unpacking a semester’s worth of your belongings in your shared dorm room, there are other recent high school graduates packing up for different adventures—volunteer experiences abroad, internships across the country, or backpacking trips through Europe. These students are taking a “gap year,” or time off from the traditional college experience.

The gap year is a popular option in Europe, where students opt out of university-level coursework in favor of experiences they feel will make them wiser and more independent. But the idea has also grown in popularity in the United States. USA Today announced a new blog this week from Mira Fishman, who will be leaving her home in Ann Arbor in three weeks not to go to college, but to volunteer abroad. She’ll spend six months in Buenos Aires at a nonprofit, then another six months in a “grittier city.” She hopes to improve upon her Spanish and boost her resume, and as her plans were worked out independently rather than through the dozens of organized gap year programs out there, she hopes to keep to a strict budget.

Despite the high cost of organized gap year programs—some run up to $20,000 for the year—they’re also growing in popularity, especially among those who want a bit more structure to their gap year. Such programs promise a support network for gap year students, and experiences that are crafted to the interests of the student. Students like Fishman, however, may prefer a gap year that requires more independence and responsibility. An article several years ago in USA Today described “gappers” who completed internships at software start-ups, explored careers to clarify what they’d like to do in college before enrolling, and learned life skills at manual labor jobs. (One student interviewed worked as a deckhand on a “floating classroom” in Baltimore.)

Taking time off may also be an option for those who weren’t able to get in to the school of their choice, although that time off may be spent becoming a more attractive candidate to that chosen college. The gap year then becomes more of a “bridge year,” where the college-bound look to enhance their applications by taking—and acing—courses at the local community college, volunteering, or pursuing internships in their intended fields of study. Bridge years also exist for those already admitted to college; at Princeton University, officials have introduced a bridge year program for admitted students where they pursue service work abroad before coming to campus the following year.

Are you taking a gap year? What are the pros and cons of taking time off before committing to college? Are traditional study abroad programs through your college the right way to go if you're looking to go overseas? Tell us your stories!


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