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Your Gap Year

The Allure of the Gap Year

A Guide from an Expert

Why Volunteering, Working, and Traveling Abroad or at Home is an Increasingly Popular Alternative, and an Accepted Way of Learning for North American Students.

Gap Year Abroad - Will Ellis
Photo by Will Ellis,

Once completely unknown in North America, the concept and even the term “gap year” is slowly gathering momentum. As an illustration, the most recent conference of NACAC (the National Association for College Admission Counseling) in September 2011 included a panel called “Gap Year: American Style”. Princeton University has introduced a prestigious “Bridge Year” for a select group of students to spend a year volunteering in Peru, India, Serbia or Ghana before starting university. The objective here is “to provide participants with an international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context”. These benefits — in addition to a much-needed release from academic pressure — are becoming accessible to far more than just Princeton students.

Increasingly, college admissions officers acknowledge the benefits for some students (not all) who need time to mature, gain confidence and clarify their direction. Most academic institutions allow deferral. For example the stated policy at Johns Hopkins University is typical: “Students who have been accepted to the university may defer admission for up to two years with approval from the director of undergraduate admissions. The purpose of a deferral is to allow students to take time off in order to travel, work, or experience another culture. Deferrals are not granted for the purpose of studying at another institution.”

Canada has definitely seen an upsurge of interest in taking a year off before university. The national student travel agency Travel CUTS and its work abroad programs called SWAP (www.swap.ca) have launched a specialist website www.gapyearabroad.ca where you can find out about their work and volunteer abroad programs in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Thailand and China.

Young people approaching the end of school (or university) are uniquely privileged to be able to contemplate taking three, six or 12 months off before going on to the next phase of their lives. Some parents and other onlookers may still feel a knee-jerk resistance to the idea of ‘interrupting’ an education or a career to take a year out. But those doubting Thomases are beginning to look rather blinkered in an age that attaches great value to flexible learning and a healthy work-life balance.

Students with an eye to their marketability may want to consider options that will enhance their university applications or their CVs in later life. Au pairing in Berlin or Madrid for example is an obvious choice for linguists, joining a dig at a mediaeval abbey in France or a Roman temple in Israel a good introduction if planning to study history or archaeology, and working with a solidarity NGO in Latin America ideal for students interested in international relations (for example, see case study in Sidebar). Students wishing to pursue environmental courses can choose from a vast array of conservation projects which welcome volunteers, mostly for short periods, for example to protect nesting turtles in Greece, carry out surveys of reef damage or construct nature trails in Scotland. At a very rough estimate expect to pay about $200 a week plus travel expenses for the chance to get some hands-on conservation experience.

Programs cover an astonishing range of opportunities for example one organization places volunteers in Aboriginal communities in Australia (www.volunteersaustralia.com.au), and another accepts aspiring journalists on a scheme in La Paz to write for the English language newspaper Bolivian Express (www.bolivianexpress.org). Even exotic destinations like the Maldives offer possibilities for enthusiastic young people to help out in schools (www.volunteermaldives.com).

Most good gap years comprise a medley of activities which complement one another, work and play, earning and spending, challenge and self-indulgence, worthiness and fun. A dramatic increase in the number of programs and schemes providing structured gap years has accompanied the rise in market interest, particularly in the UK. The tripling of British university tuition fees from September 2012 means that many of those agencies will be looking to fill their places and may well be offering discounts in the months ahead.

The range of choices can be overwhelming – monitoring lemurs in Madagascar, teaching English to Burmese refugees, picking fruit in New Zealand to fund some adventure travel, surveying coral reefs in the Philippines, being a counselor at an English-language summer camp in France, learning Spanish in Guatemala, and so on. Most young people find that as they daydream in front of their computer or cappuccino, one or two ideas swilling around will eventually float to the top. Some placements are straightforward to arrange and require not much more than phoning a partner agency, filling out some forms and paying a fee. Ay, there’s the rub. Pre-arranged placements are seldom self-financing, with both companies and charities charging upfront fees of many thousands of dollars for, say, a 3-month attachment to a village school in Ghana.

Relying on footwork and local inquiries can be a different means to the same end and much cheaper than using the services of a mediating agency. The trouble is that not many 18-19 year olds have the confidence and maturity to arrive cold (or, rather, very hot) in Sri Lanka, Kenya or Mexico and locate a school, orphanage or other project willing to provide housing in exchange for their help. Nor are their parents willing to let them try.

One good starting place to research organized programs is the website www.usagapyearfairs.org which has links to 34 gap year providers. Two American gap year programs, Dynamy and Thinking Beyond Borders, co-sponsor a national circuit of 30 Gap Year Fairs across the US. So far the fairs have been quite small, but they are on an upward trajectory. Extensive resources for planning can be found on British sites such as www.gapyear.com, the largest gap year community in the UK dedicated to helping people plan and prepare for a gap year. Users can find travel companions, access a database with thousands of opportunities, and pose questions on the message boards. The independent advisory service www.gapadvice.org provides unbiased up-to-date information, research and advice on gap years for individuals (of all ages) and organizations. Fees are charged for personalized advice.

A handful of specialist companies in North America maintain databases of gap year semester and volunteer programs. Consultancies like Taking Off (www.takingoff.net), the Center for Interim Programs (www.interimprograms.com) and Horizon Cosmopolite in Montreal (www.horizoncosmopolite.com) offer personalized consultations to fee-paying clients seeking to be matched to a suitable work, volunteer or study placement abroad.

Of course many Americans taking a gap year do not leave the shores of their country. Some who may be undecided about the next step may join the national service program AmeriCorps, which has been described as a domestic Peace Corps. In exchange for 1,700 hours of community service over a 10-month period, AmeriCorps volunteers aged 17–24 receive an education voucher, living allowance and invaluable life experience.

Gap Year Case Study

After finishing high school in his hometown of Flagstaff, Kellen Brandel knew that he wanted to take a year out. In his search for something affordable that would let him work on his Spanish, he settled on an NGO in the capital of El Salvador (CIS – Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (www.cis-elsalvador.org) which teaches English to local people and also supports social justice projects around the country. Kellen spent a total of seven months in Central America and reflects on the benefits:

"The rewards of teaching/volunteering at CIS in San Salvador were too numerous to count. This experience helped give me confidence in teaching and more comfort in my native tongue, as well as see the world in a different way than I would have before. This particular NGO works heavily with social justice, which for me was the best part. It is an organization that is so involved in giving back to the community, it was incredible to be a part of.

I loved my gap year abroad, which made me realize the importance of a university degree. I am starting school this upcoming August, doing Sociology for my major with the intent of working in structuring NGOs and system organization. My gap year helped me experience the outside ‘real world’, which is a lot better than a lot of my friends who went straight into university from high school. While they’ve been undecided studying, I’ve been able to get a feel for real passions and connect a major to a career. My gap year has helped me decide what I want to do in the future."


Top Practical Tips For Your Gap Year

  • Plan early
  • Look at the advice concerning personal safety given by the Department of State which publishes country-by-country travel warnings and alerts at www.travel.state.gov, highlighting any potential dangers to American travelers such as coups, terrorist activity, natural disasters, epidemics, etc.
  • Be aware of the laws, customs and dress code for the country. Online and conventional guidebooks should provide all this information.
  • Online banking is a great way to manage your finances while you are away. But many internet cafés are slow and access may not always be easy so don’t leave important transactions until the last minute.
  • Calculate how much money you will need for your trip and make sure you have some extra. Find out if you can use a credit or debit card to withdraw emergency funds at your destination and think about what you would do if your card is lost or damaged.
  • Research health requirements online and visit your doctor for advice on inoculations and malaria prevention if relevant.
  • Contact the relevant embassy or consulate of your chosen country for visa information. Be aware that you will not be able to obtain a visa that authorizes work without the full support of an employer abroad, which is very difficult to obtain. For tourist visa requirements, search on the site of a commercial visa agency, e.g. http://us.cibt.com.
  • Shop around for travel insurance and make sure you are covered for everything you intend to do such as scuba diving or bungee-jumping.
  • Make sure your family or friends at home are aware of your travel itinerary.
  • If you are participating through an organization, ask for the contact details of a couple of recent volunteers to request first-hand feedback.
  • Consider getting a cheap local mobile phone on arrival or a local SIM card for your cell phone.
  • Send scanned images of important documents (passport, insurance info, plane tickets) to your email account for ready access.
  • Most importantly have a ball. Pay attention to your instincts and aim to achieve that perfect balance between traveling safely and enjoying yourself. If you are over-cautious you might miss out on something amazing, but at the same time you want to avoid unnecessary risks.

Gap Year Agencies & Programs

Of the thousands of organizations large and small throughout North America which are involved with student exchanges and assisting young people to undertake worthwhile volunteer projects or internships abroad, here is a small selection.

Abroader View, 215-780-1854; www.abroaderview.org. 180 affordable volunteer projects in 19 countries including the Philippines and Rwanda.

Adelante LLC , 562-799-9133; www.adelanteabroad.com. Internships, volunteer placements, teaching abroad and semester/summer study opportunities from 1–12 months in Spain, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay, as well as China and Scotland.

BUNAC USA, 203-264-0901; www.bunac.org. Administers a number of programs for US students and young people including Intern in Britain, Work in Ireland, Work Australia, Work New Zealand, Work Canada, Volunteer South Africa, Volunteer Peru and Volunteer Cambodia.

City Year, www.cityyear.org. Community service and leadership development for young people of all backgrounds, ages 17–24, for a demanding year of community service in 23 US communities plus Johannesburg, South Africa and London England.

Cross-Cultural Solutions, +1 800-380-4777; www.crossculturalsolutions.org. Volunteers work side-by-side with local people on community-led initiatives in the areas of caregiving, teaching, healthcare and community development in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Global Intern, 973-537-6800; www.theglobalintern.com. Professional internships arranged in UK, Israel, Italy and China.

Global Visions International, +1 888-653-6028; www.gviusa.com. Large range of expeditions and volunteer projects worldwide.

InterExchange, +1 212-924-0446; www.InterExchange.org. Homestay tutors in Spain; au pair placements in France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand; short-term work in Australia and New Zealand; volunteer opportunities in Ghana, India, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Argentina and Australia.

Lattitude Canada, 604-569-3160; www.lattitudecanada.org. International youth development charity offering volunteering and gap year placements for under 25s in many countries from Argentina to Vanuatu.

Map the Gap International, 203-672-5950 / 1-866 356 7120 (toll-free); www.mapthegapinternational.com. 12-week programs in Italy, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Projects Abroad, +1 888-839-3535; www.projects-abroad.org in US; +1 877-921-9666. Volunteering overseas in large range of countries and work experience placements in medicine, media and other fields in selected destinations.

ProWorld, US (toll-free): +1 877-429-6753; Canada (toll-free) +1 855-468-7292; www.proworldvolunteers.org. Now part of California-based global company Intrax, offering a range of internships in fields from business to journalism, lasting 2–26 weeks with aid agencies in Peru, Belize, Mexico, Brazil, India, Thailand, Ghana and others.

SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program) +1 416-996-2887; www.swap.ca or www.gapyearabroad.ca. Program of the Canadian Federation of Students that co-ordinates a working holiday program for Canadian students and non-students in the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and South Africa.

Thinking Beyond Borders, 203-993-0236; www.thinkingbeyondborders.org. Offer “gap years with purpose” for students to explore international development through global service learning and academic study.

Youth International, Canada; 416-538-0152; www.youthinternational.org. Fall and Spring semester experiential learning programs in South America and Asia for 18-25 year olds, that combine international travel, inter-cultural exchange, adventure, volunteer community service work, and homestays.

Where There Be Dragons, 800 982 9203; wheretherebedragons.com. Gap year semester programs (13 weeks starting February or September) in Asia, Africa and Latin America (aimed at 15–22 years olds). Also runs programs in partnership with the Princeton Bridge Year in China, India, Peru and Senegal.

Susan Griffith specializes in books for travelers exploring ways to work and volunteer abroad. She has written a number of acknowledged classics including Your Gap Year and Work Your Way Around the World, as well as Teaching English Abroad and Gap Years for Grown-ups, all revised and published in new editions.

Editor's note: Please see her bio page to find out more about Susan and to conveniently order any of her books, including Your Gap Year.