The Allure of the Gap Year Abroad
Why volunteering, working,
and traveling abroad or at home is an increasingly
popular historical alternative to an immediate move
from high school to college. The gap experience is now an accepted way of
learning for North American students.
A gap year is a great
alternative more and more students are enjoying.
Once completely unknown in North America,
the concept and even the term “gap year” is gathering momentum, with the benefits of the gap year becoming clear, accepted, and well-documented. As an illustration, Malia Obama took a gap year before entering Harvard, which "encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way" as part of its admissions advice.
Princeton University has introduced a prestigious Bridge
Year Program for a select group of students to spend
a year volunteering in locations such as Bolivia, China, India, Indonesia and Senegal 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 and Harvard 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. Work
abroad programs are offered by called SWAP,
where you can find out about their work and volunteer abroad
programs in Britain, Ireland, Austria, New Zealand, Australia,
Japan, South Africa, Thailand and China.
Why Take a Gap Year?
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
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
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
accepts aspiring journalists on a scheme in La Paz to write
for the English
language newspaper Bolivian Express, while exotic destinations
such as the Maldives offer
possibilities for enthusiastic young people to help out
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 Many Gap Year Options
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 or other
project willing to provide housing in exchange for their
help. Nor are their parents willing to let them try.
Directories for Gap Years
One good starting place—apart from
TransitionsAbroad's section on gap years—to research
organized programs is the website USA Gap Year Fairs, which
has links to dozens of 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 U.S.
Extensive resources for planning can
be found on British sites such as Gap Year Travel,
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.
A handful of specialist companies in
North America maintain databases of gap year semester and
volunteer programs. Consultancies like Taking
Off, the Center
for Interim Programs and Horizon
Cosmopolite in Montreal 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
Practical Tips For
Your Gap Year or Semester
- 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,
- 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.
- 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
- 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 Programs and Organizations
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 Volunteers.
245 affordable volunteer projects in 27 countries.
Gap year, internships, volunteer placements, teaching abroad
and semester/summer study opportunities from 1–12
months in Spain, Mexico, Chile and
Uruguay, as well as China and Scotland.
ARCC Gap Years and Semesters. ARCC Gap Year programs offer an educational and cultural
bridge between high school and college. Students are immersed into the culture
through homestays, service work, teaching, and
exchange. Offers semesters in Africa, Asia,
and Latin America.
Amigos de las Américas
Gap Year programs in Latin America. AMIGOS operates
summer and Gap programs in nine countries throughout
the Americas — in Mexico, the Dominican
Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panamá, Colombia,
Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. With AMIGOS, you'll
be immersed in another culture, collaborate
with your host community on a development project,
and work side by side with local youth meanwhile
building your own leadership skills. AMIGOS
Gap programs are located in Nicaragua and Colombia,
range from 4-8 months and are open to high school
graduates up to 25 with basic Spanish proficiency.
Administers a number of programs for US students
and young people including an Internship in Britain,
Work in Ireland, Work Australia, and Work New Zealand.
Gap Year Abroad.
Offers college-bound high school graduates
an opportunity to acquire a broader global
perspective, foster independence, and gain
self-knowledge in six countries. Programs
accelerate language growth through classes
and immersion into a foreign community, the
opportunity to live with a host family, and
experience abroad participating in organized
volunteer work in the local community.
Global Routes Gap. Experiential-based,
international programming for high school and
gap year students. Programs abroad are directed
by service, deepened through immersion, broadened
with adventure and contextualized by leadership.
Through this combination, participants may gain
profound perspectives of another country, cultures,
the world, and themselves. Examples of destinations include Nepal, Bolivia, Ghana, Haiti, and South India.
Global Visions International: Gap Year.
Large range of expeditions and volunteer projects
worldwide for pre-college teens, college students, and graduates.
InterExchange: Working Abroad.
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 South
Africa, Tanzania, India, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica,
Argentina and Australia.
Projects Abroad Gap Year Programs.
Volunteering overseas, for those who have completed high school, in large range of countries
and work experience placements in medicine, media
and other fields in selected destinations.
SWAP (Student Work
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.
Planet: Gap Year Volunteering Programs, In Person and
Gap programs in 30+ countries. United
Planet provides a variety of programs, even in more than
one country, for a virtual experience of another culture.
Fall and Spring semester experiential learning
programs, with college credit via Western Colorado University, in South America and Asia for 18-25 year
olds, that combine international travel, inter-cultural
exchange, adventure, volunteer community service
work, and homestays.
There Be Dragons.
Gap year semester programs (3 months starting February or September) in Asia, Africa and Latin America (aimed at 17–22 years olds).
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 Susan's bio page
to find out more about her and to conveniently order
any of her books, including Your Gap Year.