History of the Gap Year, Part 1

Typically taking place for a year before (or during or after) college, a “Gap Year” is a time for students to engage in various educational and developmental activities. These tend to be more experiential and “real world” learning, as opposed to classroom-based, and usually include work, service activities, travel and/or exploration of personal interests. Gap Years have evolved significantly from their earliest days to embrace many different variations and paths including areas such as internships, volunteerism, learning a trade, cultural exchange programs and athletic endeavors. But just where, and how, did the Gap Year begin?

An early start in Europe

The origin of Gap Years goes back centuries, and was originally only available to aristocratic elites. It started in Europe in the 17th century, when students from elite British families would take a “grand tour“. They got outside their version of a “bubble” and visited cultural institutions, history, art, architecture, cities and spoke languages that they had studied in school. The Grand Tour disappeared at the end of the 18th century when travel from the U.K. to the continent ended due to the Napoleonic Wars.

The next hundred and fifty years

The Grand Tour idea came back into vogue in the early 19th century after the arrival of peace on the continent. As travel became cheaper and easier, especially with the construction of railroads, visiting Europe was no longer restricted to the children of elite families. The Grand Tour gave way to a much more egalitarian movement. Delaying the start of college also became more commonplace in Britain after WWII when the National Service Act required 18-20 year old men to serve in a branch of the armed forces or in an “essential job” for 18 months. National Service was gradually phased out starting in 1957, but it contributed to the idea that doing service for a year or two helped students become more mature and ready for university.

Elite U.K. universities catalyze the movement

In the early 1960s, entrance into most British universities followed the timeline familiar to those in the United States, in which freshmen enter college in the fall after their final year of high school. The exception were elite universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, which required applicants to take an entrance exam in December and not enroll until the following September. This created a 9-month in-limbo waiting period for many students. It was at this time that an entrepreneurial headmaster Frank Fisher of Wellington College, a school that fed students into these two universities, created a series of programs and activities for students prior to entrance into the schools and named the program GAP (Gap Activity Projects), now called Latitude Global Volunteering. Around this same time, Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, created Project Trust, which first sent youth in the U.K to Ethiopia to aid in helping the nation to develop.

We’re now called “Gappers”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s in the U.K., participating in intentional experiences like these prior to university became more and more popular, which sparked the introduction of other programs (some still around today) that helped to send students around the world for different activities. The participants in these programs were dubbed “Gappers” and helped to brand the experience as a “Gap Year”.

Diane Willock, Gap Year Solutions Research & Marketing Associate, contributed to this post.

Coming next: History of the Gap Year Part 2 – Coming to America: The Gap Year gains popularity in the U.S.

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