SIEGEL: Gap years should be encouraged, not stigmatized

Taking a year off between high school and college helps students succeed

This past spring, the White House released the news that Malia Obama was delaying her college education to take a gap year. With increasing societal and academic pressures on students nowadays, it makes sense to have the desire to step back from it all. Harvard College, where Malia plans attending in 2017, actually encourages this course of action, affirming it gives students an option to catch their breath before delving into eight consecutive semesters of demanding work. So many students do choose to take time off each year, perhaps positively contributing to Harvard’s 98 percent graduation rate. If students have the opportunity and luxury to take a gap year, they should; they will not regret the decision to temporarily retire from the mundanity that is textbooks and tests in order to foster a more global understanding bigger than just them.

The stigma around gap years is changing and rightfully so. While a gap year has been seen as a way of postponing the realities of life and as a path that encourages wayward behavior, it is starting to take on a new meaning. While gap years are an increasingly expensive trend, it is important to note that there are alternative options, such as gap year plans that come at a low cost or no cost at all. Chris Yager, founder of an organization which leads international programs, contends these associations “tend to be driven by a sense of mission rather than profit,” so they will provide financial assistance whenever they can. Gap years are for the students who simply cannot yet put a finger on “what they want out of college” or those who “seek to work, travel or volunteer on the sort of schedule that an academic calendar does not allow.”

In a TED Talk on taking time off, Jean Fan tells her story about her decision to take two years off from school before attending Stanford. She explains that a gap year is more than taking a break from the rigidity of school work — it is a chance to “challenge the notion that taking a traditional path is the only one to success.” The American educational system is flawed, for it encourages a population of young people who find solace in obedience and following directions, yet struggle to think for themselves. To take a gap year is to take the time to figure out the difference between succeeding at simply conforming to norms and succeeding because we love and appreciate that which we are choosing to take part in.

The pursuit of self-directed learning does not mean students are taking time off of expanding their minds; it is simply a time away from the conventional pursuit of knowledge. Thinking Beyond Borders, a global gap year initiative, gives students the opportunity to explore outside of the classroom so they may return to school with more potential than ever before. Yes, students can fall victim to the idea of having a typical American experience abroad in places such as Paris, Cape Town and Barcelona, but that is ultimately in their control. They can tailor the experience as they wish, choosing to immerse themselves culturally or to stick to what is comfortable — the choice is theirs to make. “Students choose a gap year because they are seeking a sense of purpose and direction for their education,” something they may not have found in high school. Attaining a global understanding can more directly lead to a fulfilling life, one that is bigger than you and more meaningful to your existence.

Andrew J. Martin conducted studies on the academic motivation of students who participated in gap years. Martin found that those who took a gap year had “significantly higher motivation in college — in the form of adaptive behavior such as planning, task management, and persistence — than did students who did not take a gap year.” Further research has indicated that “gappers” were less likely to participate in binge drinking and less likely to drop out of school. There is also a concrete link between the deliberate decision to delay higher education and getting better grades once the student returns to school.

We are lucky to have such wonderful opportunities to take part in higher education, yet we cannot fully appreciate this opportunity if we do not get enough value from the experience. Gap years can equip students with this potential to absorb every single ounce out of the college experience, an experience that cannot be replicated.

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at l.siegel@cavalierdaily.com.

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