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Courtesy of Samantha Krieg
Samantha Krieg (second from right) and friends enjoy Siena, Italy, during her gap year.
I do find that this is one of the most powerful aspects of the gap year — choosing it, owning it and stepping into the world. We tend to infantilize our teenagers in this culture. They can step up to responsibility if they are offered it. —Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs

Samantha Krieg’s arrival in Florence, Italy began the worst day of her 18-year-old life — or that’s what she thought at the time. But now, Krieg appreciates her memories of not knowing how to get to her apartment, and being lost for hours in a foreign city where she couldn’t understand the language. Figuring out how to solve her dilemma became a fitting start to the “gap year” the New Jersey native spent between her high school graduation in 2012 and entrance to Georgetown University this fall.

“At the time, it seemed like the end of the world,” said Krieg, now 19. “Looking back, I’m so glad I had that experience. I learned more from that than anything else.”

In the U.K. and other European countries, it’s common for students to take a gap year — a year between high school and college for gaining useful life experiences. Traveling, learning a language, performing humanitarian or religious service and completing career internships are among many options for gap years.

There are no national statistics for the number of U.S. students taking gap years, but the Higher Education Research Institute estimated that 1.2 percent of U.S. college freshmen deferred admission to take a gap year in 2011. By that measure, there might be around 35,000 gap year students each year. Taking a gap year appears to be a growing trend in the United States, based on increasing attendance at regional gap-year fairs and a big upswing in the number of students applying to gap year programs.

That could be a good thing. Recent studies gathered by the American Gap Association show that taking a gap year can improve grade point averages for returning students, solidify academic major and career choices and lead to greater satisfaction at future jobs.

A survey of 300 gap year alumni for Haigler Enterprises showed that former gappers have stronger respect for different cultures and religions than their peers, and are better at following budgets and resisting credit card debt.

Samantha’s way

Krieg worked through the summer after high school graduation to help pay for her high-end gap year, which was divided into three segments. First, she went to Florence to learn Italian, soak up art and culture and take time for self-reflection after her hectic high school years.

Her next stop was the Bahamas, where she trained in yoga and became a certified instructor. Then, she was off to Dublin, Ireland for a business internship in the publishing industry. Her gap year experiences gave Krieg the confidence to chase her dream of becoming a neuroscientist — a dream she’d discarded as being too difficult. And, the year of travel made leaving home for college a cinch.

“When I first got to college, everyone was talking about how nervous and uncomfortable they felt,” she said. “I never felt that way.”

At Georgetown University, Krieg met many students who struggle to manage their money, a skill she mastered, by necessity, during her gap year.

“I think it gave me a sense of financial responsibility, something a lot of people my age don’t have enough of,” she said.

Many ‘gap year’ options

Gap years can be as individual as those who take them, said Karl Haigler, co-author of “The Gap Year Advantage.” Among the endless possibilities, Haigler noted these: Hiking the Appalachian Trail, training sled dogs in the Yukon territory, working as a sailor’s mate on tall ships, teaching English in Central America, doing outdoor education with groups of inner city kids, and interning on an organic farm in Australia.

Gap years don’t have to last a year, and don’t have to come right after high school, said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, a gap year counseling service. Gap experiences can last for a summer or a semester and students can tinker with a gap year plan as they go, according to interests they discover along the way, Bull said.

International travel anchors many gap year plans, but the number of U.S. students spending gap years within national borders is growing, said Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association, an accreditation organization for gap year groups. One close-to-home opportunity is AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. The group provides a scholarship and stipend in exchange for 10 months of service in inner city schools, making a meaningful gap year experience financially accessible to most students.

Working on an organic farm in any of 100 countries is one inexpensive option for global gapping. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers food and accommodations in exchange for volunteer work, meaning airfare is the only significant expense of the gap year.

Serving and teaching

Many gap years include a strong component of humanitarian service, such as building houses in South America, or working in an animal sanctuary in South Africa.

The chance to do Christian service is the draw for BMS World Missions’ Action Teams program, billed as “an opportunity to plunge yourself into another culture, share the love of Jesus in practical ways, inspire others and let God work in your life every step of the way.”

Missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not usually thought of as gap years, but have similar characteristics and possible benefits. The 2012 announcement that young men can serve missions at age 18 and young women at age 19 meant missions could happen at about the same time gap years typically do. Many Mormon missionaries return with foreign language skills and heightened cultural understanding; all learn to manage life away from home and interact with strangers.

Aubrey Dustin served a two-year Mormon mission in Japan in the late 1990s. In addition to spiritual benefits, the experience paved a path toward later college and career successes.

Dustin had struggled with reading, writing and spelling throughout his K-12 education, and worried that he couldn’t learn the difficult Japanese language. He applied himself to the task by memorizing long texts in Japanese and more than 200 verses of scripture.

Not only did Dustin learn to speak Japanese, he learned to memorize and retain large quantities of information, an ability that has served him well ever since. In Japan, he quickly learned to speak Portuguese so he could teach a group of immigrants from Brazil. After his mission, he was accepted into the U.S. Army’s Defense Language Institute in a program that resulted in an associate’s degree.

During two military tours in Iraq, Dustin relied on the confidence and interpersonal skills he gained during his mission as he did counter-intelligence work for the Army. The mission experience also helped him deal with living away from his family in a foreign country.

Now an Army officer and graduate student in engineering, Dustin still relies on memory skills developed on his mission as he masters multiple computer programming languages. For military leadership and life in general, other mission-honed abilities come in handy.

“The skills in working with people that I developed on my mission have played a part in everything I’ve done since,” he said.

Choosing their own programs

In the U.K., young gappers might simply take off on a cross-continental backpacking trip, but U.S. parents prefer a more structured approach to gap years, said Bull, of the Center for Interim Programs. The American Gap Association’s website (www.americangap.org) offers a list of accredited programs that offer field leadership, office support and high safety standards. Whatever is decided upon, it’s essential that the student take the reins in planning the gap year, Bull said.

“I do find that this is one of the most powerful aspects of the gap year — choosing it, owning it and stepping into the world,” Bull said. “We tend to infantilize our teenagers in this culture. They can step up to responsibility if they are offered it.”

Knight said an effective gap year should include an element of self-reflection and “some degree of appropriate mentorship.” The chance to see the world from a different perspective is important, too.

International travel makes that automatic, Knight said, but domestic gap years can freshen perspectives by taking a city kid into the woods or a farm kid to an inner city. Most importantly, a gap year should challenge the student and push comfort zones. That’s how the personal growth happens.

Allaying parental concerns

Parents often worry that students won’t enter college if they don’t go right after high school, and rightly so. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 15 percent of students who delayed college for a year after high school — for any reason — had their bachelor’s degree within six years.

Gap year students appear to have a much different outcome, however. Haigler’s survey of 300 gap year alumni found that 90 percent returned to college within one year of the gap year.

Another worry is that students will forget knowledge and skills they gained in high school. That’s a trade-off, Haigler said. Gappers might learn a foreign language, he said, and his survey shows that gap year students return to college with greater focus and clearer educational goals.

It's natural for parents to be concerned about safety, Haigler said, and there are precautions worth taking. Working with a reputable gap year organization that keeps students in groups with adult mentors and maintains constant communication heightens safety, he said. But parents must recognize that “there are always going to be risks wherever you are. College campuses are not without risks,” he said.

Bull recommended that families check online reviews and ask to speak with program alumni about their experiences.

“Ask them what the worst aspect was, so you know that,” she counseled. Apply due diligence, Bull continued, then let students spread their wings.

“A gap year teaches you things you can’t ever learn in school,” Krieg said of her adventures in Italy, Ireland and the Bahamas. “I think it’s an invaluable experience and I recommend it to anyone and everyone. Not just to people coming out of high school. You can take a gap year at any time in your life.”

Taking a year off between high school and college is a British custom gaining popularity in the United States. Gap-year agendas can include travel, language study, internships, religious service, humanitarian projects and more. Here are some quick facts about gap years:

There are no official statistics about the number of U.S. gappers, but the trend is growing. A 2010 Time magazine story said “the number of Americans taking gap years through Projects Abroad, a U.K company that coordinates volunteer programs around the world, has nearly quadrupled since 2005.”

Experts recommend that students gain admission to college and obtain a deferral before starting a gap year, and the majority of gappers do this. Most colleges will approve the deferral request if presented with a reasonable gap-year plan.

Academic burnout and a desire to learn more about themselves are the top two reasons students give for taking gap years, according to a new survey of 300 gap-year alumni.

Gap students in the survey generally returned to college within six months after the gap year, and 90 percent returned to college within one year.

Typically, gap experiences cost less than equivalent time in college. Some gap programs feature work experiences that include stipends or payment, bringing gap-year benefits within reach of students at most income levels. A high-end gap year of international travel can cost $35,000 or more.

Get more information about gap year opportunities at usagapyearfairs.org/programs, americangap.org and interimprograms.com.

Sources: The Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet” blog; survey by Howard, Merrell & Partners for Haigler Enterprises; Center for Interim Programs

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