Finding Yourself (and the World) in a Year
More than 100 students crowded into a hot Tanzanian classroom several times a week to hear Joe Keely teach English and math. As a volunteer from the United Kingdom, Keely spent five months as an educator, living in the village and picking up enough Swahili to get by. Yet when he left in 2005, he was not even 19 years old.
Keely, who is now in his second year at Newcastle University, was in Tanzania on a gap year. While gap years-usually taken between high school and college to travel abroad-date back to the 1960s, the current generation of gappers has reinvigorated the industry to the tune of $4.8 billion a year in the United Kingdom. Brits make up almost half the gap-year market; Australians, New Zealanders, and other Europeans mostly compose the rest.
Awareness. "A gap year is just as freewheeling as the traveler wants to be," says Tom Griffiths, cofounder of Gapyear.com. "It's often about finding yourself rather than being in a structured program." Enthusiasts praise low college-dropout rates and keen global awareness among gappers, and gap years are so common that many British universities accept that applicants will take a gap year before enrolling. "What we find is that universities like gap years," says Griffiths. Gappers "have initiative, and they have life and decision-making skills."
Gap years are as diverse as the travelers who take them. Some people backpack across continents, with only starting and final destinations in mind, filling in the middle as they go. Others join placement programs, doing volunteer work like toiling away at organic farms. Cash-strapped gappers often travel halfway across the globe to get a job, hoping to subsidize the imminent cost of school. The opportunity isn't reserved just for the young and includes those who have finished college, are midcareer, or are close to retirement age.
Americans do have options from companies like STA Travel and GoAbroad.com, but gap years may be a tough sell. "We rush through lunch and rush through dinner," says Scott Hyden, president of STA. Taking a gap year is "not in our culture," he says. "But we are starting to see change."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.