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Gap Year Essentials

A Student Perspective

Taking a gap year off abroad

When the pomp and circumstance of college graduation is marred by a global economic crisis, it’s time to be creative. The conventional transition from classroom to cubicle becomes archaic, simply because there are no jobs to be had; even worse, those who did already have a job are being fired. Such was the case for many in my graduating class at Columbia College 2009.

While a general mix of disillusionment, anxiety and stress certainly hung in the air, some of my classmates were optimistic. Thinking outside the box became the new mantra, and for quite a number of us, including myself, this meant taking a gap year and going abroad.

Defining the Gap Year

As the name suggests, a gap year involves a break in the traditional course of one’s life. “Traditional” because life is a series of social constructs and expectations; for us college students, these include completing various internships and participating in extracurricular activities--all to land one step further up the career ladder and be “successful.”

This article is not the place to discuss the crippling pressures college or even high school students experience; it merely seeks to present the gap year as an opportunity for self-discovery, that which is often repressed in the career rat-race.

As a concept, the gap year originated in the 1960s in Britain, but nowadays has become more and more widespread on a global scale (for a more complete history, click here). Particularly in the United States, guidance counselors are encouraging both high school and college students to take time off, whether for a full year or less.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Some possible reasons to take a gap year have already been alluded to; that is, in the current economic situation, some college graduates were even “forced” to take time off because graduation was not coupled with the usual number of job offers. But taking a gap year should not be seen as merely a negative consequence of the economic crisis. On the contrary, a gap year can be an eye-opening experience that will allow students to live a foreign culture, develop their independence and countless other skills.

Regardless, what is important is to establish a list of goals prior to taking some time off. Ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you want to learn another language? Volunteer? Teach English? Travel the world at the same time? Whatever your goal(s) may be, it is essential that you do something during your time off. Too many students underestimate the importance of goals. Merely “hanging around” for a year does not make for a very enriching experience.

Keep in mind that what you decide to do does not have to be related to your future. A gap year is the time to explore your options. It is an especially great time for those students who are undecided with regards to their future career.

To offer an example, my own gap year included a variety of projects, from teaching English in Spain, taking tango classes in Buenos Aires, attending a sustainable development seminar in Morocco, to working as a freelance journalist and photographer in both Argentina and Chile. Every one of the above proved to be an inspiring and educational experience. Whether riding a camel in Marrakesh or hiking from refugio to refugio in Patagonia, my horizons broadened as I improved my language skills, gained independence, and interacted with people whose ways of life were entirely foreign from my experience. No doubt it was not all easy; my previous ideals were confronted with foreign values. I had to fight my way through cultural clashes – just the fact of being a young, blonde girl in South America brings about its own challenges. However, by approaching each situation with an open mind and a positive attitude, I ultimately became a more and more well-rounded and confident person, grounded in my values and aspirations.

When to Take a Gap Year

Clearly, a gap year can be taken at any point in one’s life. With respect to students, it can be debated whether to take one after high school or after college. Personally, I felt ready to go directly from high school to college; I knew what and where I wanted to study – Comparative Literature at Columbia – and was eager to go right away. It was only after college that I yearned to take time off to explore the world and my place in it.

However, I am aware that this is not the case for everyone. Several friends of mine were not ready to go directly from high school to college and a gap year at that point proved invaluable to them. Moreover, I met several students at college who wished that they had taken time off before enrolling. Others even took time off during college (inquire with your university counselor about this; in some cases, a simple period of study abroad may do the trick). Look into scholarships, as well, both within the university and independently (see links below).

Breaking Down the Gap Year

Taking time off may sound like an extended holiday. However, a successful gap year involves quite some planning. Before going abroad, tap into resources such as counselors, teachers, and friends. Recommendations and connections can be invaluable. Again, the importance of establishing goals cannot be understated. And last but not least, be realistic about your budget; while working abroad can certainly be part of a gap year, you may need to save some money initially. Taking several “gap months” instead of a whole year may also be an option.

The process continues during the actual gap year. While some preliminary planning is essential, don’t try to chart out every single day in advance. The experiences you have abroad, and especially the people you meet, will open up new perspectives and opportunities.

As for what happens after your gap year, that is, of course, entirely up to you. While some students decide to go back to school (whether that be undergraduate, graduate or any other kind of educational training), others take on a full-time job. At first, it may seem difficult to integrate back into a “normal” work routine, and explaining what one has done during a gap year may seem difficult. There are ways, however, to enumerate a gap year on a resume. And then there is also the option of working abroad, especially using the connections established during the gap year.

One final piece of advice for before, during and after the gap year is to be open-minded Do your research and planning but at the same time, let things happen naturally. A gap year can be one of the most liberating experiences, so make the most of it!

For More Information

General Gap Year Resources

Gap Year
Comprehensive database for finding volunteer and paid work, in addition to travel mates and other travel information.

First Gap Year
Another comprehensive guide to taking time off.

CIEE
In addition to serving as an informational resource, the above organization offers actual programs you can participate in during your gap year.

University-related Gap Year Resources

Yale offers deferral for students to take time off.
See Transitions Abroad's page on gap year programs abroad.

Gap Year Scholarships

Royal Geographical Society offers scholarship specifically for geography students.
Fastweb Scholarships lists Gap Year scholarships, in addition to general ones.

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