Filling the holes in 'Gap Year' theory
By Lou Fancher
Leave it to Americans to catapult a fine British tradition into a revolution.
The "Gap Year" concept has its origins with Oxford University undergrads waiting for admission taking the year after high school to travel, work or participate in cross-cultural experiences, according to Jason Sarouhan. In the United States, he said, Gap Year has come to represent adventure, social and political activism, career exploration and more.
In any culture, he said, it's an idea to be honored and considered seriously.
"I have two clients who are mid-career corporate heads, taking time away to refill the well," said Sarouhan, vice president and counselor with the Center for Interim Programs, the oldest independent gap year counseling organization in the United States.
In a Jan. 24 USA Gap Year Fair presentation directed more to high school graduates or soon-to-be grads and their families at Miramonte High School, Sarouhan -- the event's keynote speaker -- invited approximately 100 students and parents to explore the "no archetype" phenomenon. He said his 35 years of experience in the field have made it clear there's no one-size-fits-all formula for gap years, and how to spend them.
Even so, there are facts: Most gap year participants are high school graduates who want to learn about the world, crave work experience, have suffered burnout from today's high-stakes college entry process or have never found success in the traditional academic world.
Formal Gap Year programs -- yes, there are formal programs -- typically cost $10,000 to $20,000, including living expenses. Some, however, are paid internships or work-exchange programs.
The opportunities are local, national and international, Sarouhan said, and endlessly varied -- studying art history in Italy, entering language immersion programs in Latin America, developing leadership and survival skills in Southeast Asia, building trails in U.S. national parks, clinic shadow work in public health camps in Nicaragua, training sled dogs in Alaska, learning to drive a race car and more.
"Educational, intentional, productive," Sarouhan said. "A gap year is not a way to avoid college. Experiential educators have recognized this is a special chapter, a transition into adulthood."
Myths about gap year abound -- that it's for shirkers, or that or Gap Year kids never return to attend college. Those are common misconceptions, said Kathy Cheng, director of admission at Dynamy, a Massachusetts-based experiential education organization. Ninety percent of kids taking gap years go back to college within one year, she said.
"Especially in competitive academic environments like the East Bay, kids are looking outside of educational boxes," Cheng said. "Six years ago, this was parent-driven. Now, kids are adopting it."
Sarouhan said the two most common formats are a varied, six- to nine-month program offered by a gap year organization, or "a mosaic of personal odysseys cobbled together." Some students hire a consultant, but opportunities like the fair and information on the Internet make it easy to explore options independently.
Parents who may previously have been reluctant are buying in, Sarouhan said, persuaded by research showing long-term academic success or simple economics.
"College can be a $40,000 place, an expensive place, for your kid to figure out who they are," he said.
Not only kids and parents, but universities and colleges are getting into the gap. Tufts, Princeton, American University and others have established official programs that accept, then offer deferred admission to students with clear, established gap year plans.
Nick Sun, a 16-year old junior at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek said the fair was his mother's idea and he expects to eventually go to college, but the idea of studying art in Europe was growing on him.
His father, Eric Sun, said sending his son to college without some of the external supports that have made him successful in high school would not be wise.
"We know he needs to be away from us, but he needs supervision. On top of that, if we can build on his industrial design career goals, all the better," he said.
Steven and Natasha Eckert said their son, Dane, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School, will be just 17 when he graduates. Due to his age and uncertainty about career paths, they favor taking some time to explore new possibilities.
"I took two years off in college," his father said. "We ask a lot of young people today and we're here to look at options."
Dane Eckert said there's a lot of talk about college in his classes, but he thought pursuing alternatives would be more worthwhile.
Maya Rapier, a gung-ho Oakland Tech High School senior had no doubts.
"This was my idea," she said. "I worked in the Dominican Republic last summer and, of course, I wanted to help in the world, but they really helped me."
Rapier said she saw ways of enjoying other people and a lifestyle that was hardworking, but easier, simpler, intensely community-oriented.
Even though her father Phil Rapier, a tenants' lawyer with a law office in Oakland, once took a year off ("It wasn't called anything back then, I just packed women's clothing in boxes for a year," he said, laughing), he was initially resistant.
"At first I didn't like the idea," he said. "We were worried she wouldn't go back to college."
But meeting other parents, learning about options and seeing the rigorous, organized programs at the fair, Rapier said he was "warming up to the gap."