Minding the Gap: In defense of the Gap Year or study abroad experience for stateside high school graduates

Because I teach high school, I see first hand struggles that students sometimes have when high school ends and the time to go to college begins.  Senior year can be overwhelming, and it’s not even the beginning.

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Some youth transition with no big deal.  Some already have their paths set out.  And some are just really ready for anything but more studying.  I can relate.  Some end up in jobs they don’t want to be in 20 years from now, kind of wondering what to do.  And many wonder … what now?

The high-pressure senior year of high school increasingly leaves students drained and craving refreshment.  USA Today

College is so expensive, to begin and not have this determination of  “Where to?” is not only daunting, but costly.

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An overseas study, work or volunteer experience is the best out-of-classroom learning that is available, period.  Particularly for young Americans.

U.S. gappers sing the praises of structured programs, but they also say they grew most when they had to live by their wits.

Jacob Feinstein of Brookville, N.Y., has spent the past year doing an internship with a software start-up in New Zealand, taking cooking classes and studying filmmaking in New York City before he enrolls at Harvard University in September. He points to flying alone internationally and living in a house in New Zealand with 11 peers as key experiences that boosted his confidence and life skills.

“Before the gap year, I would have had a lot of hesitancy about flying on my own from New Zealand through Japan and China, two countries that don’t speak English,” Feinstein says. But he did it.

During the gap year, “I became a much more self-sufficient person. Now I’m not stressing at all about living on my own in college.” USA Today

If I count on one hand the experiences that have changed me, like having kids, going to college or coming to follow Christ, I can say with certainty that in the top three was the study abroad I did to Ecuador in college, which lead to not a gap year (which I didn’t know anything about) but a 2 year experience with Peace Corps in Western Russia from 1996 to 1998.

Everything I see now comes through a lens of having seen what people live like in other places.  I realized I had a point of view that was very much a product of where I came from, I saw the happinesses of the poorest and miseries of the richest, the beauty of creation (although I think I always felt inside that nothing I saw outdid Oregon at its best) and I developed a desire to catapult my life out of the standard path that many people around me took.  I still carry that desire.

When I decided that what I needed was to go overseas, initially I had the modest goal of learning how to be conversant in Spanish, knowing it wasn’t going to come no matter how many hours I logged with my Golden Age Spanish Literature.  That little 4 month study abroad to Ecuador took the little snow globe of my world and shook it all up and redefined who I wanted to be.  I remember distinctly the plane ride home, wondering how the rest of life would look after what I had experienced there in the cloud forests, the jungles, small towns, Quito and the coast.

It is surprising when mentioning Gap year experiences to students and parents at my school the response I have gotten might be characterized as lukewarm, at best.

Then, I remember quickly how I viewed study abroad before I went, something for different kinds of people, not me.  Richer people, or just different, not sure how.  People who had to leisure time and money to travel about, other people.

When I came back from Ecuador, it was just a beginning of understanding  how much I didn’t know with my tidy little college degree.  How MUCH I didn’t know.  And how much is possible.  And how much more life can be, if we want it.  And I wasn’t really thinking about cliff diving in Brazil, as much as working, volunteering and planting permanently.

I don’t come from wealth, but the idea that one had to be wealthy to do any of this now seems strange, as pretty much all of my traveling was paid for by someone else, with the exception of that first study abroad.  From my own experiences (one where I searched endlessly and kept a vigilant eye for opportunities to GO)  “No money” became an insignificant hurdle (until I graduated with student debt-another story).  Youth have a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of hostels and organizations who specialize in helping those under 25 to travel “on the cheap”.  But yes, travel experiences are not without their own planning, funds raising, saving and prioritizing.

My own study abroad cost me approximately 6 thousand dollars in 1995 money.  It was not cheap, but I was with a state organization who provided all the safety net I needed since I was on my own – my parents weren’t sponsoring this experience.  At this point I cannot think of any other chunk of money that has changed my life as significantly.  The 15K spent on an MAT didn’t teach me 1/10 of what I learned on my study abroad (and I got very good grades).  That said, some of the prices that programs will charge for taking care of a volunteer experience or a work experience can take ones breath away, thousands of dollars for a couple weeks not including airfare can be like a blow to the solar plexus.  Search for the right one, keep one’s mind open, talk to people and be creative.

I do understand critics of the Gap year.  Having seen first hand enough overly-monied youth loitering about, whining about something usually, manifesting some of the uglier characteristics of a foreigner…  but there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything.

On my own travels I went to southern Chile for almost four months, as I am interested in the region’s politics and, undeniably, I came back more informed and with first-hand experience of the divisive legacy of Pinochet, the Chilean family unit and the melodramatic brilliance of Chilean soaps.  taken from here

In order to avoid some wrong turns, here are some ideas that are fairly fundamental to structure the experience and make it successful…

  • A little previous traveling experience is a very good idea, in a safe environment like family.
  • The traveler should do their homework about the country, particularly weather, culture and history.
  • Finding a country where there are reliable, native level people who will watch after the traveler is a very good idea.
  • Arranging a work, school or volunteer experience for a good chunk of the time there is a very good idea.
  • Sending the traveler off with a traveling companion who  is responsible and a good fit personality-wise is a very good idea.
  • Covering all bases like what to do in emergencies, and verifying that there is insurance… all important details.
  • Buy a good backpack made for travelling.  My EagleCreek is now 15 years old, has endured 2 years on the trains of Russia, busses/taxis of Costa Rica and has not yet ripped or let me down in  any way, despite almost comically consistent overpacking…
  • A guide to where to stay, where to eat for the budget traveler has never been a waste of my money.  I have appreciated Lonely Planet.
  • A clear itinerary including details like times, addresses and phone numbers is also fairly for the parents and traveler to have, as well as copies of passports and secure ways of carrying documents and money.
  • There should be “unstructured” time in any stay where exploration can happen.
  • Go with an open mind and a willingness to adapt to new ways of doing things.  Breakfast will be different than what you are used to, but who knows, you might develop some new tastes.

And what maybe not to do…

  • Sending an 18 year-old off with a backpack and a wad of money is not a great idea, though experienced travelers can handle it.
  • Don’t skimp on advices about personal safety.  Purses, jewelry, shorts, tank tops and other personal attire are details that should be taken realistically.  It’s no fun any more when cash is stolen or a pair of shorts or even some diamond earrings in a crowded market attract unwanted attention.  Things are different in other countries, particularly developing countries (where most youth can afford to travel).  The best insurance one can have is just to be aware and be sensitive to how different things are elsewhere.

An overseas study, work or volunteer experience is the best out-of-classroom learning that is available, period.  Particularly for young Americans because they are unfettered with the commitments of adulthood, and they will not soon forget the experiences.

Though the concept may be new to many in the USA, it’s an established tradition elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for instance, about 11% of the 300,000 college-bound seniors take a gap year before enrolling. Australia puts up similar aggregate numbers in what’s known Down Under as “going walkabout.” US A Today

Because all this recommendation is based in my own personal experience, it is hard for me to discount what my overseas experience has done for my resume.  I don’t much look like the kind of person who has lived in Russia for a couple years, traveled in Costa Rica,  studied in Ecuador or taught in China.  But when my resume is compared with people who don’t have these overseas experiences, these experiences distinguish what I bring to the table  professionally.  Ironically, that wasn’t as much my motivation to travel, but a nice consequence.  So did my little study abroad pay for itself?  Yes, more than I can estimate.

But the real benefit that I gained was in, perspective, confidence and the doors that I consider to be open to me as I approach the middle part of my career.  I don’t hope for a small job somewhere close by, but I know that whatever is out there is possible if I want it.  What a great gift to give to a young person!

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