Why Gap Years matter more than ever…especially now!

By Katherine Stievater, Founder, Gap Year Solutions

Harvard College, Cambridge, MA

“How can I best use the time if travel is not an option”?

“What options will realistically be available with social distancing?”

These questions and many more have been posed to me over the last several months, as the reality of COVID was becoming clear to graduating high schoolers. Students already planning to defer college for a year were worried, but so was a new cohort of would-be gappers: students who really did not want to continue online learning into their first year of college.

Gap Years as a post secondary option have been growing in popularity for several years now. Malia Obama’s decision to defer Harvard for a year in 2016 sparked media interest, but the Gap Year movement had already been gaining momentum. It turns out that after 13 straight years of classroom learning, the increasing amount of stress and social-media fueled anxiety endured by our teens, and (ironically) the rigors of the college application process, an increasing number of students want a break before starting college.

This break – some call it a “Bridge Year” or “Discover Year”, in addition to Gap Year – is an amazing time for our teens to figure out who they are, and be authentic and grow. These students don’t want to define themselves by the college logo on their sweatshirt. They have the courage to step off the traditional path and not just “go right to college because that is what you are supposed to do.” Gappers learn the importance of being an individual, and making their own path in life – what a great lesson! After this intentional period of self-discovery, students who take Gap Years nearly always go on to college where they are highly engaged, perform well, and graduate on time.

But getting back to the questions above – is it necessary to travel in order to gain these valuable life lessons? Absolutely not! In fact a number of my students at Gap Year Solutions either don’t travel at all or fashion their own domestic itinerary – e.g., biking the Pacific Coast Highway, or hiking the Appalachian Trail. Last year one of my students had three local internships in the Boston area. Another moved to New York City to pursue his love of high end sneakers and streetwear.

Certainly both domestic and international travel allows students to get out of their “bubble” and participate in meaningful volunteer work. It also allows students to have some fun along the way, as they get outdoors, see places full of culture and history, and bond with new friends. But travel is not required to have a productive and transformative Gap Year. And human ingenuity being what it is, a number of virtual experiences have launched recently to – among other things – help students explore career options, become social activism leaders, and support overseas social change organizations as remote volunteers.

There is still huge uncertainty about how college life will turn out this fall.  What does “hybrid” mean? How much instruction will be online? If I’m on campus, how much will I see other students and professors? There are also no guarantees. Even schools that seem to have it figured out must continue  to adapt as COVID flares back up and state and local guidance changes. Students may get sent home early.

How many Freshmen want to experience their first year of college this way? Why not wait until colleges have figured out ways to accommodate students in a new normal way? This year is a period of trial and error. By next year, processes and policies will be more established, and we will know way more about COVID-19.

Given the high cost of college, it seems reasonable to consider alternatives. Private universities can cost up to $80,000 a year now – what other purchase at that price do you make without clearly knowing the product that you are buying?

Let’s give these students the ability to take time to discover who they are, and why they are even going to college. Let’s encourage them to consider stepping off the traditional path to experience a year of real world learning while our higher education institutions get their learning models in order.

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