The Lure of the Gap Year

Time of learning and maturing can mean refreshed batteries and prepared students.

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Tens of thousands of newly minted high school graduates will troop to campuses across the country this fall to begin four or more years of collegiate life. But Liz Teixeira de Mattos won't be among them, even though she was accepted by prestigious Vassar College in New York's Hudson Valley. Instead, she should be wrapping up a stay in Greece, where she had arranged to work with dolphins, and getting ready to head to South Africa. There, among other things, she'll pitch in at a game preserve and volunteer at an AIDS orphanage. Later she'll jet to London for a stint as a fashion industry intern. She's also scheduled time to travel around Europe. 

But Teixeira de Mattos, 18, of Princeton, N.J., is no slacker. She's a "gapper"—one of a small but growing number of American students who are deciding to take a "gap year" off between high school and what would be their freshman year of college to travel, volunteer, work, study, and otherwise recharge their batteries before getting back on the academic treadmill. "I thought, 'Why not?' There are other ways of learning than sitting in a classroom," says Teixeira de Mattos, who ultimately plans to earn a degree in environmental science. 

That's a key point that many educators and other gap-year proponents make as well. They argue that the out-of-classroom experiences of a gap year give students eye-opening life lessons that help them become more mature, more aware of the wider world, and more self-sufficient, traits that will ultimately serve them well once they're on campus. "They develop nonacademic skills and end up better prepared," says Holly Bull, who runs the New Jersey-based Center for Interim Programs, which helps students organize gap years. There's some quantifiable evidence underscoring that claim, too. A study of gap-year freshmen at Skidmore College in New York found they had higher grade point averages than their peers. 

That readiness effect is one of the big reasons why the gap-year break—a British invention from the 1960s that has become a popular rite of passage for a large minority of college-bound U.K. students—is appealing to more and more American kids. The British company Gapyear, which offers planning and travel tips for students through its website (www.gapyear.com), reckons that its American clientele has grown in recent years from nearly nil to around 10 percent. And Bull reports that "inquiries and awareness are way up. Fifteen years ago it wasn't even on the radar screen. Now there are even gap-year fairs in the U.S. That was unheard of a few years ago." 

The take-a-break-first concept got a high-profile boost when Princeton University began its own "bridge year" program last fall. Twenty Princeton freshmen spent nine months this past year not in class but instead working in one of several overseas service programs. Among them was Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri of Los Angeles, who worked with nonprofit youth groups in Serbia, including one that provides HIV/AIDS advice to teens. "Just being part of that was really fulfilling for me," she says. Another 20 students will participate in Princeton's program this year, and the eventual goal is to enroll 100 students a year. Harvard College has for three decades advised incoming freshmen to take a gap year, and each year around 50 to 70 students do so.

Pause that refreshes. One key way a gap year tends to improve students' college performance, proponents argue, is by allowing them to depressurize after some 12 years of hitting the books and taking tests. "A lot of kids are incredibly burned out," Bull says. An essay titled "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation," cowritten by William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions, states that "the pressures on today's students seem far more intense than those placed on previous generations." Advocates say that students who defer school for a year return rejuvenated and more motivated to excel. "It gives students another 15 months of growing-up time. That's a good thing," explains Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate degrees at Britain's University of Oxford. It certainly worked for Giwa-Ojuri. "I do feel refreshed," she says. "It also reinforced my passion for learning."