Widening the gap

by Becky Hayes
High school. College. Job.
These three words are the expectation many parents and educators drill into students throughout their educational journey. Yet some believe there are benefits to breaking this cycle for one year, between graduating high school and entering the junior year of college.
A gap year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers, according to the American Gap Association, an organization which encourages more students to take gap years.
Usually, students spend this time traveling, volunteering, interning or working. 
Students often take gap years because of burnout from the competitive pressure of high school and a desire "to find out more about themselves,” according to a survey of 280 people who did so by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson of Advance, NC, co-authors of a forthcoming guidebook on the topic. 
The American Gap Association argues that gap years contribute profoundly to an individual's personal development, give students practical field experience and eventually lead students to go to college with a purpose, not arbitrarily because it is what society recommends.
Three Vermonters share their gap year experiences below:
 
Name: Devan Piniewski
Age: 21
Intended Year of College Graduation: 2015
Gap Year/Semester Dates: Fall 2010-Spring 2011
College/ University: Saint Michael's College
Q: What did you do for your time off school? 
A: I spent three months in Ecuador teaching English to elementary school students. I spent the spring traveling in India and volunteering at a secondary school. 
Q: What did you gain from the experience?
A: Everything. But actually - maturity, independence, confidence, patience, new friends, and a better idea of what I wanted to do with my life.
Q: Was it right after high school or did you attend some college first? 
A: I went right after high school.
Q: Why did you take the time off? 
A: I was burnt out. I spent so much time studying in high school that I needed a break before jumping into a pre-veterinary course load. 
Q: Did you feel prepared for college immediately following high school and/or did the gap year help you feel more prepared upon your return to school? 
A: Academically, I felt prepared. The gap year gave me the independence and confidence that I needed to excel in college.
Q: What would you suggest to high school students interested in doing the same? 
A: DO IT! If you know you'll go to college eventually, it could just be the best decision you'll make as a young adult. If it's not for you, at least you tried it.
Q: What is something awesome about yourself?
A: This one is too hard. I'm going to Chile next year!
 
Name: Jake Kenney
Age: 31
College Graduation: 2007
Gap Years/Terms: 2001 to 2003
College/University: Castleton State College
Q: What did you do for your time off school? 
A: During my gap years I worked retail, saved some cash, really tried to figure out what I truly wanted to do, took a few courses at CCV, and really just lived life.
Q: What did you gain from the experience?
A: I gained a new sense of who I was and what I wanted. I originally was slotted to go to the University of Northern Colorado right after high school for a degree in sociology with an emphasis in Criminal Justice, which was always my dream to be a cop. I ended up realizing, while working at Dicks Sporting Goods, that that wasn't what I really wanted. I really liked working backstage at events and plays during high school so that's what I ended up doing. I also gained some important values, like the value of money and how blowing it on random stupid things really wasn't as fun as I thought it was. 
Q: Was it right after high school or did you attend some college first? 
A: I fell into my gap years actually. I was planning on just coming back East to visit my dad for the summer and working, then going to school in the fall. Well my summer of working turned into two years of working. 
Q: Why did you take the time off? 
A: The reason why is honestly I didn't feel like leaving and going to school. I was making money and at that point that was what I thought I needed to do, so school took a back seat.
Q: Did you feel prepared for college immediately following high school and/or did the gap year help you feel more prepared upon your return to school? 
A: I think that compared to a lot of the other freshmen who didn't take a gap year I was more prepared. I was a bit more responsible; I kind of had a more realistic idea of what the actual real world was all about.
Q: What would you suggest to high school students interested in doing the same? 
A: I would suggest that all students take at the very least a year off between high school and college. I think this because I believe that a lot of kids are just doing what everyone thinks they should do and not what they want to do. I think a gap year could help a lot of people with this and also teach some responsibility to the kids. 
Q: What is something awesome about yourself?
A: Something awesome about me is that throughout high school, my gap year, and college, I was still working as a stagehand and pyrotechnician and meeting awesome famous people.
 
Name: Annabelle Dally
Age: 23
Intended Year of College Graduation: December 2013
Gap Year/Semester Dates: Spring 2010-Spring 2011
College/University: Boston University, transferred to University of Vermont
Q: What did you do/ are planning to do for your time off school? 
A: I came home, worked, and evaluated what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was in Biomedical Engineering at BU. But I wasn't sure if I was happy doing it. I took the year off and worked as a naturalist at Wildlands Conservancy. 
Q: What did you gain from the experience?
A: I gained a lot of insight. I had always worked at places that were really involved in the environment and hands on in nature. I realized I missed it and decided to change my major to Environmental Engineering; UVM had a great program so I transferred there.
Q: Was it right after high school or did you attend some college first? 
A: This was after my first semester of sophomore year.
Q: Why did you take the time off? 
A: I needed to figure out what I wanted to study and what I saw myself doing after college. Things fell into place after I figured that out.
Q: Did you feel prepared for college immediately following high school and/or did the gap year help you feel more prepared upon your return to school? 
A: No one is prepared to decide their lifelong career path fresh out of high school. In some disciplines you have time to experiment and figure out what you want to do. Engineering is not as forgiving. The year off let me reevaluate and I came back with a major I felt committed to.
Q: What would you suggest to high school students interested in doing the same? 
A: There is no harm in taking the year off. If anything it can be beneficial. College can be stressful and going into it with complete certainty and clarity makes a lot of difference.
Q: What is something awesome about yourself?
A: I raised a baby skunk while at Wildlands and this summer I have been raising a baby opossum through the same place!