Gap Year

An Open Letter to Malia Obama: Thank You For Taking a Gap Year

Mandi Schmitt

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania...

Dear Malia,

When the Go Overseas team filed into work yesterday morning, we were met with a flurry of phone calls and emails from reporters who wanted to learn more about the concept of a gap year. The number of visitors exploring the gap year programs and articles we have on our site shot up, literally, overnight. It didn't take long for us to figure out why: you, Malia, had decided to take a gap year and the nation is listening. Which is why we want to thank you for giving gap years the long overdue attention they deserve.

You may have seen this coming, but your decision to take a gap year has a much larger impact than your average student. See, in one weekend, your decision has already inspired more curiosity about gap years than years of advocacy and dozens of articles have done. In one weekend, you helped the term gap year move to the forefront of Americans' minds. In one weekend, you've given gap years the steam they need to finally help America join in on a trend Australians and Europeans have long ago embraced.

But more importantly, all of us at Go Overseas are beyond excited for you. We know your decision will help you discover unknown interests and engage in transformative experiences. It'll help you explore the world outside of the classroom. Become more independent. Find focus in your academic career and return to Harvard in 2017 feeling rejuvenated and inspired. It'll give you enough stories to last a lifetime and, hopefully, you'll share a few of them with us.

In the meantime, thank you for these other transformations you're helping to inspire:

Inspiring Your Peers to Take a Gap Year

Many students about to graduate high school are looking forward to attending college and earning their degree. This is absolutely a worthy option -- but it doesn't have to be the only one. The problem is, most high school students don't realize there's a second option; the option of a gap year.

However, we think this will change now that you, someone in the public eye, has chosen to defer acceptance to Harvard in order to take a gap year. Having seen someone else take the leap, we're betting more soon-to-be high school grads will be inspired to do the same.

Malia, you're encouraging your peers to think outside the box and explore other paths, to develop independence, resiliency, and become global citizens. Now with the upcoming elections, it's even more important that our next generation of voters are well-informed and understanding of the world. Gap years can help this.

As Ethan Knight of AGA said in an interview with the New York Times, "the world is literally your oyster, and you can’t even imagine the cool options that are available until you start reading about them."

Getting Parents on Board with Gap Years

More importantly, though, is that you and your family are helping parents feel more comfortable with the idea. Typically, their buy-in can make or break a students' decision to take a gap year and, unfortunately, we've seen that parents often have some negative connotations. Many believe that gap years are for students who are lazy and irresponsible. Others think that going on a gap year will deter their students from eventually going to college. Probably the most understandable argument against going on a gap year, though, is the fear of something bad happening and not being able to help.

We understand that, as a parent, seeing your 17 or 18-year-olds go on a gap year is scary. It can be tough for parents to trust that their child will be safe, or that it's a worthwhile endeavor.

We haven't actually asked them (yet), but we think it's safe to assume that your parents understand the value of a gap year and are giving you their full support. The fact that they are supportive of your decision sends a message to parents everywhere: they should also encourage their students to take a gap year.

Educating America On Gap Years

Lastly, you've just introduced the concept of a gap year to a huge portion of America. Though taking a gap year has long been accepted in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, Americans have had a harder time adopting this practice -- perhaps in part because they simply didn't know what one was.

Happily, the last decade has shown a major increase in the number of people talking about and taking gap years, but there is still a lack of knowledge on what a gap year is, what it entails, or why students should take one. Many Americans wrongly assume that a gap year means spending a year sitting around on a beach or goofing off in some exotic location. They don't realize that gap years, when done properly, can help young people gain crucial life and learning experiences. Thanks to you, that might change.

Malia, you are single-handedly helping to educate a nation. After your announcement went public, people began actively learning about gap years. Journalists are publishing articles about your decision, meaning hundreds of thousands of readers will now have a better understanding of what gap year means. They're learning that a gap year isn't detrimental to a students' success in life, but rather, it can help make students more successful than they would be otherwise.

Taking a gap year doesn't delay success. It doesn't hurt your career. It supports it. The layer of credibility that you've added to taking a gap year will be remembered by students, parents, and colleges.

So, we at Go Overseas simply want to say, thank you. Thank you for taking this unconventional life step and for understanding the value of experiential learning. All of us here have taken a gap year in some capacity, and we're thrilled that you'll soon understand how impactful and awesome they are. We don't know what you're doing yet -- volunteering, interning, working, backpacking (the options are endless!) -- but we're sure you're going to make the most of it.

We also sincerely hope that this isn't the only gap year you take in your life. A break from a structured educational or work environment can, and should, be taken at different points in life -- not just after high school. A gap year is a great way to gain perspective and take a step outside of your comfort zone at any age or stage in life.

Thank you again for helping us increase awareness about gap years. We wish you the best of luck on the adventurous year ahead!

Your friends,
The Go Overseas Team

Helpful resources for a pre-college gap year