Mind the Gap: A British Tradition comes to the US
High school seniors across the nation are considering the road less traveled, the Gap Year.
Eighteen-year-old Gabi Cardosi had her life mapped out. Graduate from high school, spend a summer with family and friends in Ft. Mitchell, Ky. then head off to study pre-med at the University of Kentucky. It wasn’t until spring of her senior year that she decided to consider the road less traveled.
“Something just stirred up in me. I grew really anxious about that [college] decision, and I felt really uncomfortable with it,” Cardosi explained. “I was just praying about what I should do in the summer between high school and college.”
Cardosi found her answer in New Zealand, where she was given an opportunity to stay with a missionary family over the summer. But before she left, she decided to extend it to a full year foregoing her college plans.
Like many students in the United States, Cardosi, who now attends NKU, had never considered taking a gap year. The gap year is structured break from school, most common in the year between high school and college. The gap year or “year out” has been trending in the UK for decades and now the concept is growing in the states.
NKU senior and graphic design major Liam O’Connell admits it took him years to figure out his passion for design, seven to be exact. He says,
“The gap year is brilliant. My dad is from Loughton [England] and encouraged me to take time off, but I didn’t want to miss out on the college experience with my friends.” O’Connell continues, “Three different schools and thousands of tuition dollars later, I get where he is coming from now.”
Although there is no hard number on the amount of students currently taking a gap year, interest and program enrollment continues to grow substantially. According to the American Gap Association, U.S. Gap Year programs have seen a 27 percent growth from 2012 to 2013.
High school seniors elect to take a gap year in lieu of college for a variety of reasons. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson co-authors of “The Gap Year Advantage” surveyed 280 gap year students regarding reasoning, outcomes, and more. Feeling “burnout” from the competitive pressure of high school and a desire “to find out more about themselves,” are the top two reasons students take gap years.
Students taking a gap year have many options with their time off. The most popular routes are travelling abroad, volunteering and interning. Whether it is a trip to New Zealand or working for a local nonprofit, all gap years need structure.
The American Gap Association defines the gap year as a structured break from formal education, meaning there has to be purpose behind a gap year. The structured aspect includes defining the amount of time and purposive nature of the year off.
Chris Reeves believes in the benefits of the gap year, if it’s done with intention. Reeves is a guidance counselor at Beechwood High School and president of the Kentucky chapter for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
“It needs to be for some sort of enrichment; you can’t sit at home on the couch with no job or plans and call it a gap year.” Reeves says, “There has to be intention… whether it’s for building resume or figuring out what you’re going to do with your life.”
Gabi Cardosi’s gap year was well rounded with travel and volunteering. She backpacked through New Zealand absorbing the Kiwi culture and spending time with the Māori people, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. She describes her experience with them as humbling and remarkable.
Cardosi returned from New Zealand in 2012 and enrolled in NKU’s elementary education program. Volunteering at schools in New Zealand influenced her to do so. A direction in school wasn’t the only thing she brought home. The hospitable Kiwi culture inspired her
communally, she said,
“I came back to NKU and really wanted to make it my mission to treat other people that same way I was treated in New Zealand.”
Cardosi has befriended many international students on campus; several of them have spent Thanksgiving with Cardosi and her family.
Gabi defines her experience in New Zealand a “transformative time,” she said. “I came back barely recognizing myself.”
Time in a different culture gave her a global perspective and a new experience to pull from. She has utilized her gap year knowledge in papers, projects and scholarships.
“It brought a lot of my classes to life, and made me more interested in what I was studying,” Cardosi says. “It’s made my education more interesting, engaging and meaningful.”
In a recent interview with Janet Hulstrand, Ron L. Witczak, assistant vice provost and director of study abroad at Portland State University in Oregon said, “I believe that students who participate in successful gap year programs are much better prepared for higher education: they’re more prepared to think critically, to see the world through another lens, to gain some intercultural perspective and just be better citizens.”
Students who take a thoughtful gap year benefit academically and personally. In a recent study by Bob Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury in Vermont, found students who took a gap year have better GPA’s than their non-gap year peers.
An academic report in Australia found that gap year students are also perceived to be “more mature, more self-reliant and independent” than traditional students. NKU study abroad advisor Alyssa Roby said one of the biggest benefits of traveling abroad is being able to view your own life and culture from a different culture, recognizing the opportunities the U.S. has to offer.
Like many American universities, NKU is new to the gap year notion. NKU currently doesn’t offer any gap year programs, nor are there any hard numbers on students that have taken a defined gap year. NKU Admissions counselor Heather Burns explains,
“I know we see a lot of students who would be considered ‘non-traditional’ in the sense they did not start their college career directly after high school graduation. Whether it is because they wanted to take time off to explore other opportunities, because life or family issues arose.”
In the UK, the majority of students who take a year off are considered affluent “middle-class.” Traveling abroad is expensive, but there are many programs in the U.S. that offer assistance.
The American Gap Association (AGA) offers financial aid to students considering a gap year. In 2013 the AGA awarded 2.5 million in scholarships and needs-based grants.
Many colleges are jumping on the gap year trend. Tufts University, Princeton University and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, have developed service-based gap-year offerings.
Tufts University is a 1+4 program in fall of 2015. The program includes one year of service abroad and then a typical four-year education. UNC and Princeton are offering similar programs.
With progressive research released yearly, the benefits of the gap year are undeniable. But with any new concept, there is doubt. Ms. Cardosi, who was also a valedictorian, said her biggest challenge was people,
“I had teachers who called me out in front of my entire class telling me I was throwing my life away,” she adds laughingly, “my friend’s parents would call my parents and express their concern for my life.”
Haigler and Nelson’s research revealed that 90% of gap year students return to college. Educators and researchers alike believe the gap year trend is alive and well, Cardosi’s experience sparked a new major and outlook on life that many high school students can experience as well.
American Gap Association. www.americangapassociation.com
Crawford, C., & Cribb, J. (2012). Gap year takers: Uptake, trends and long term outcomes. Institute for Fiscal Studies through the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT).
Carapezza, K. (2014, February 27). Mind The Gap (Year): A Break Before College Might Do Some Good. Retrieved November 8, 2014.
Haigler & Nelson, independent study of 280 Gap Year students: Retreieved from http://www.americangap.org/data-benefits.php
Hulstrand, J. (2010, April 1). Time Out: The Gap Year Abroad. Retrieved November 8, 2014.
Rose Birch, E., & Miller, P. (2007). The Characteristics Of Gap-Year Students And Their Tertiary Academic Outcomes. Economic Record, 329-344.
American Gap Association. www.americangapassociation.com