Should You Take a "Gap Year"? for Many Students, Taking a Year off after High School to Travel, Work, or Explore Other Opportunities Is Just the Ticket to Becoming a More Mature. Focused College Student. Is a "Gap Year" Right for You?

Article excerpt

Andrea Dana had a plan: Finish high school, head to college to get her teacher's credentials, and become a teacher. But when she landed a job offer at Club Med in Huatulco, Mexico, the shine went right off that plan, and a new plan--one with a tan--took shape.

"My dad wasn't too happy about it," Andrea admits. "He was worried I would have too much fun, marry a surfer, and never go back to school."

Andrea reasoned that she had a few nagging doubts about her career choice, and the job--supervising youngsters at Mini Club Med--might help her decide if she was cut out to be a teacher. But let's face it: how many teenagers would turn down a job living at a sunny, upscale resort teaching tough topics like snorkeling?

Andrea expected the job to be fun (and warm!), but she didn't know it would turn out to be life-changing. "I met so many people from around the world--it was a great eye-opener, and it opened all sorts of doors for me." She met people who were unlike anyone she'd ever known, picked up a smattering of languages, gained confidence in her ability to manage her own life, and learned that her choices were not as clear-cut as she once thought. "And," she laughs, "I got a really great tan!"

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After nine months at Club Med, Andrea proved her father wrong by returning home, going to college, and getting her teaching degree. Working with kids had confirmed that teaching was what she wanted to do. But most of all, the experience of doing something different, traveling, and meeting people from other cultures taught Andrea to keep an open mind and seize opportunities when they came along--a lesson that has served her many times since.

The Gap Year Advantage

Taking time off after high school--known as taking a gap year--may raise the eyebrows of many parents here in the U.S. But in Europe and elsewhere in the world, it's considered an advantage.

"European countries have embraced the gap year," says Christine Richardson, director of career services for Cazenovia College in Upstate New York. Tom Griffiths, founder and director of the U.K.-based www.gapyear.com, a website that helps with travel plans, employment, and education for those planning a gap year, agrees. "About 230,000 people between the ages of 18 and 25 take a gap year every year [in the U.K.]," he says.

Advocates say gap years provide valuable life experiences and maturity so students are more ready to focus on their studies when they return. "Employers love the life skills," says Griffiths. "We are a global economy. In the course of a work day, you might have to talk to someone in Paris and someone in Washington, D.C. Employees who have traveled are better at this."

Why are American families less supportive of gap years? "[Their] concern is that students will get sidetracked and decide not to pursue higher education at all," explains Richardson. "But there is no evidence to suggest that this is true." Another factor may be the cost of higher education (which has been traditionally free in the U.K.). Many parents cannot afford to fund a lengthy trip immediately before paying for college. For this reason, many students help finance travel by working for part of the year.

David Lesesne, dean of admissions at Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee, says Sewanee has had great success with students who take gap years. "We have had students do some very interesting and enriching things: hike the Appalachian Trail, herd sheep in Crete, play in a signed rock band, attend school in Guatemala or take courses at Oxford, work at an orphanage in Russia, and do relief work in Africa." In almost every case, Lesesne says, these experiences have helped students mature, gain motivation, and in some cases, improve their academic background.

Lisa Bernfeld, a marketing and communication consultant in Los Angeles, took a gap year to travel in 1974, when she was 17. …