Don’t mind the gap…

willgapITV_428x269_to_468x312Never mind that it was good enough for Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, there are plenty of other reasons I believe the United States and the vast majority of its students are missing out on the mega-growth opportunity a planned and programmed gap year of service would offer. Gap years between high school and college are standard practice for many in England, though they could occur at the end of college too.

A select few American universities, including Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applaud the practice and have formal policies and allow students to defer admission. According to the university’s admissions web page, Harvard encourages admitted students to take a year off “to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way,” and has done so for nearly 40 years.

In fact, Harvard’s dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, has written an article called, Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation. He writes, “It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.”

Fitzsimmons goes on to say that the results of having growing numbers of Harvard students take a year off to volunteer, serve others or work on a project have been “uniformly positive.” There are plenty of programs that help match students with volunteer opportunities, which aren’t expensive — certainly much less that the standard first year of college, no matter the college. My point is that taking a year off to go some place different and serve others shouldn’t be limited to fancy-schmacey schools in the Northeast. There is plenty of evidence to show that gap years between high school and college are linked to higher motivation once the student enters higher education.

I believe most students most anywhere would do well to take some time outside the classroom to learn more about the world and how it works — and doing so doesn’t have to break the bank. It just requires planning and the courage to think in a different way. Even of the students heading to Harvard, not all can afford to travel to exotic, far-away places — there are plenty of service opportunities not so far from home too.

If more colleges, counselors and parents encouraged students to take a structured year to serve others between high school and college, who knows what differences it could make? According to the 2013-2014 TOPS Questions and Answers for High School Students and Counselors (revised August 28, 2013), presented by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, even TOPS offers qualifying students the opportunity to wait until “the first semester following the first anniversary of the date you graduated high school” to enter college until.

Of course, every student entering college is not going to choose to do a gap year, but if colleges made the process easier, more could — and we can’t estimate the difference creating a spirit of service and building stronger work ethics in more students could make.

Furthermore, a gap year doesn’t have to occur the year between high school and college. It could happen any time — after college and before a job, in-between jobs or after your youngest child graduates from high school. Whenever someone chooses to do it, I believe a year of serving others is an opportunity for growth and the chance to make the world a better place.

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