In 2006, as I was about to head off to college, there was nothing I wanted more than a break. After 13 straight years of school, I was mentally exhausted and itching to explore the world. However, I didn't take a gap year because I didn't have parental support.
At the time, discussions about gap years in the U.S. were not as prevalent as they are now. There was no Malia Obama, no Go Overseas, no American Gap Association. There were fewer statistics about gap years and options for gap year programs. Americans didn't quite understand the concept.
All of this made it difficult to get parental buy-in -- which is hugely important for a student who wants to take a gap year between high school and college. In fact, parents and peers influence 24% of all gappers' decisions to go on a gap year.
Since gap years typically entail a break from the typical academic tract, they're often misunderstood as a long vacation. As anyone who has taken a gap year will tell you, this couldn't be further from the truth.
Today, though, things are different. Gap years are better understood, and there's growing data in support of them. Speaking as someone who both took a gap year (after college) and now works in the industry, parents have more resources to make a more informed decision. To help you, I've partnered with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), a volunteer and gap year provider with over 20 years experience, to break down what parents need to know about a post-high school gap year:
What is a Gap Year? A Chance to Explore Personal and Professional Interests
A gap year is a period of time, typically between high school and college, where gappers take time away from the normal course of things (high school --> college --> job) to deepen other personal or professional interests. It's a chance to learn outside of the classroom or workplace and explore their interests rather than a required curriculum, to see the world, and to focus on personal growth.
Despite its name, a gap year doesn't have to be a year long commitment. They can last anywhere from a month or two to over a year. Gappers also have the option to take one at any time in life -- before college, after college, mid-career, retirement.
Since gap years typically entail a break from the typical academic tract, they're often misunderstood as a long vacation. As anyone who has taken a gap year will tell you, this couldn't be further from the truth. It isn't a year off, but a year "on" and can (and should!) be spent volunteering, interning, working, studying, or traveling and exploring new interests.
Especially for a gap year taken before college, it's a chance for students to spend time learning about their potential major by taking on an internship/job/volunteer position in the field.
Gap Year Programs Help with Logistics, Education, and Support
Since gap years were introduced to Americans in the 1980s, there's been an influx of companies offering structured gap year programs (often for a fee). But what are they exactly? And what value do they serve?
Like a travel tour or study abroad program, a gap year program offers support -- especially with logistics -- local knowledge, and connections (e.g. a volunteer gig or internship) that you wouldn't have access to on your own. Some program providers (the companies who offer gap year programs), like Cross-Cultural Solutions will even help students customize a gap year according to their goals and interests.
Some reasons parents and students choose to use a gap year program instead of independently organizing one include:
- Safety: you'll have a point of contact to talk to about safety, and travel insurance is almost always included in the program fee. CCS, for example, partners with Starr Indemnity and Liability Company to provide gap year volunteers "for up to $50,000 of in-country medical insurance as well as medical transportation insurance and up to $1 million of Medivac insurance".
- Mentorship and education: gap year programs, particularly those structured around learning a new skill, will have guides or mentors to work alongside students and help them learn and process their new surroundings.
- Logistics and support: gap year programs can help with on the ground transportation, vetted homestay families, arranging a volunteer / internship placement, and sometimes (but not always) flights. Parents and students also have staff -- both abroad and at home -- to act as a point of contact before, during, and after a student's gap year.
Gap Year Accreditations Matter
As the number of gap year program providers grow, so does the need for a standard accreditation system to guarantee gap year programs are meeting an international standard.
If students are signing up for a gap year program, parents and students should look for an accreditation stamp by the American Gap Association (AGA), which is the only accreditation body in the U.S., or U.K-based Year Out Group, which has been operating for a little longer.
Both of these organizations' accreditations let parents know that programs recognized by them have been vetted by gap year professionals to make sure gappers are safe and provided with a quality experience.
After accreditations, I'd also recommend reading reviews from former gappers to make sure students understand if the program is a good fit for them.
A Gap Year Can be Spent Traveling, Volunteering, Interning, or Working
Gap years can often seem like a vague concept since you can truly do anything on a gap year. To avoid wasting this incredible opportunity, though, gappers should think about including some sort of structure or intentional learning opportunity during their time away from school.
High school graduates won't have as many options to work (unless they take a working holiday visa in Australia or New Zealand and spend a year as a server / barista / hostel employee) as those with a degree do, but they have a number of opportunities to volunteer in projects that could directly influence their major or direction in college:
- Volunteer in Costa Rica to support childcare and get a better understanding of what becoming a social worker or educator entails.
- Volunteer in India in support of women's empowerment issues and decide if a major in feminist studies is a practical choice, as well as what jobs it could help students get on graduation.
- Participate in a volunteer + Spanish immersion program to learn a practical skill, while figuring out if working with immigration rights is a path students want to explore.
- Hop on a global gap year program to explore the world, while also learning from community leaders to create an experiential learning experience.
- End a semester on an Africa gap year program and figure out if Peace Corps after college is something students would want to do.
90% of Students Return to College Within a Year and Have Better Direction in Their Studies
When I wanted to take a gap year, my mom's biggest concern was that I wouldn't return to college afterward. It's a fair concern, but gap year statistics have shown that for most students it's unfounded.
According to AGA, 90% of college students return to college within a year of taking a gap year. Further, they're also more likely to complete college and have a better direction in their studies. By taking a gap year, they've explored their interests, have a better idea of what they'd like to do in life, and are more independent and mature.
In the end, I'd argue that the concern shouldn't be around "will my student go back to college", but rather "will they get the most out of their college experience? Will it be a worthy use of time and (possibly my) money?" Taking a gap year ups the odds of answering "yes" to that equally important second question.
There are Practical Steps You Can Take to Ensure Students are Safe
We tend to fear the unknown simply because it's unknown. And as a parent, you have a prerogative to worry for your kids no matter where they are or what they're doing -- even if they've chosen to spend a year in a country (e.g. Malta) that is by all accounts 10x safer than my home (e.g. Washington, D.C.).
A few tips on making sure your student is safe abroad:
- Talk to them about safety protocol and what to do in the case of an emergency.
- Understand the actual risks in their destination. I recommend pairing the U.S. embassy's travel warning for that particular destination with traveler reviews and expat blogs so that you have a more holistic view of the situation, as the embassy tends to be very cautious with their advice.
- Consider using a program provider. They'll give country-specific safety training, act as a go-to agent in case you have any questions / worries, and make sure your student isn't wandering into an un-vetted homestay or volunteer project.
- Think about getting travel insurance, which would help you from lost luggage and stolen cell phones to emergency evacuations and more serious situations. Most program providers, including Cross-Cultural Solutions, will include travel insurance as part of their program package.
It's Not a Vacation, It's Experiential Learning
Many parents ask, “Aren't they just taking an extending vacation? Traveling around the world visiting beaches and partying?" Not necessarily; a gap year is going to be what you make of it.
Take for example, my high school friend who spent a year after high school volunteering with children in Bolivia while perfecting her Spanish; or my roommate who interned in D.C. before starting at NYU. Or Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer, Mark, who volunteered in Guatemala and said of his experience: “From language immersion and giving back to cultural engagement, this experience had it all. […] My life is forever changed by having this experience."
As a parent, it’s best to ask your student how they plan on spending their gap year in order to help them figure out a way to make sure it's a valuable period of time. Are they going to volunteer in Tanzania, Morocco, and Ghana and explore whether or not they want to work with non-profits? Or are they going to spend a year with Spanish immersion and set themselves up for a Latin American studies major? A gap year is not meant to be a vacation, so don't let it be one.
Consider a Gap Year
Right now, the data about gap years and conversations in support of them are growing on a daily basis in the U.S. Those of us who have taken a gap year or directly seen the results want the rest of the nation to learn how impactful a gap year can be. Help your student take advantage of this in their life, and learn as much as you can about gap years before deciding whether or not to give your student the support they need. I hope you do!