High School-to-College 'Gap Year' Gaining Respectability


(Friday, December 7, 2007 7:01 AM EST)

For many high school students, the obvious step after graduation is to go to college. But what if some graduates believe they aren't mature enough, or are feeling burned out from years of schooling?

For teens and parents wrestling with these issues, a “gap year” (a year-long break from academics) might be the answer, and will be the subject of discussion at a panel being held at the H-B Woodlawn Program on Dec. 12.

Having a little extra time to mature is a key reason that gap-year advocates suggest this option.

The need for a break is especially true for students who are excited about going to college for the social side of things, rather than academics.

“College is a dangerous place for many kids. Outside of a war zone, you can't find a more unregulated environment,” said neuropsychologist William Stixrud in a recent interview. “Kids stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning. There's binge drinking, pot smoking, and they have no respect for the natural rhythms that govern life.”

Since the brain goes through a great deal of maturation between the ages of 17 and 20, waiting a year to go to college often allows adolescents to develop their abilities in planning ahead, delaying gratification, pursuing goals and realizing a life purpose - all useful tools in a college environment, Stixrud said.

Although gap years are much more prevalent in countries such as Great Britain, the concept is gaining some popularity in the United States. Each year, Holly Bull, a gap-year counselor and president of the Center for Interim Programs, helps between 200 and 230 students develop a gap-year plan.

From Ivy League-bound students to students with learning differences to those who have lost their steam and can't fathom going directly to college, Bull, who will be speaking at the panel, sees many different kinds of people who decide to take year off from academics after high school graduation.

The approach to a gap year differs from student to student, but the key to a successful experience is to have structure.

Whether it's living in Spain to gain fluency in Spanish or participating in a service project, “I think people learn a tremendous amount,” Bull said.

“The power of this year is that students get to choose what they want to do,” she said.

With the costs of college rising, and students frequently switching majors and taking a lot longer to graduate, some people see gap years as a way to save money.

“[College] has become a very expensive way to find yourself and let your brain grow,” Stixrud said. “If you send a kid who is 18 to 22 to college, you've invested $200,000 . . . it's such a risky investment. There's no reason why people shouldn't wait until the idea of studying sounds good to them”

Critics of the gap year might view the option as time off and a poor use of 12 months, when high school graduates could be furthering their education. But those in favor of gap years see it as a chance to explore new things and take risks.

By taking a year for exciting and interesting pursuits, students also might have a better idea of what they want to study or do with their lives.

“It gives them a whole different way of learning - getting away from home, being more independent, off and traveling and getting some real life experience. Wouldn't it be better for someone to be really fired up about something, and then go to school and hit the ground running?” Bull said.

Alexandra Curley, a graduate of Yorktown High School, decided to go the gap-year route, deferring her acceptance to the College of Wooster and spending a year working with AmeriCorps.

Through the program, Curley participated in numerous service projects during her gap year, including environmental work in the Pacific Northwest helping build homes for migrant workers, among other projects. After her year of service, AmeriCorps offered her an educational award that went towards paying for college.

“It's not just 10 months off,” Curley said. “I learned how to be independent without the pressure of school. I was a lot more outgoing after, I learned a strong work ethic and I learned responsibility.”

The program on the gap-year option will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 12 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the H-B Woodlawn auditorium.

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