Over the next few weeks, students around the country will receive offers of admission to colleges and universities. But before students jump online and accept an offer, I have one piece of advice for them: They might be better off not going to college next year.
Instead, they should think about taking a gap year, to defer college for a year to live and volunteer in a developing country.
In the traditional sort of gap year, students immerse themselves in a developing community to volunteer with a nonprofit organization by teaching, working with local youth, or assuming some other community role.
Gap years have been rising in popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. I’ve spent the last few years researching what happens to young people when they have such an immersive experience in a community radically different from their own.
The answer, in short, is that gap years can help change students in ways the world needs.
The challenges of our time demand an educational system that can help young people become citizens of the world. We need our students to be smart, critical, and innovative thinkers but also people of character who use their talents to help others. Gap years help young adults understand themselves, their relationships, and the world around them, which deepens capacities and perspectives crucial for effective citizenship. They help students become better thinkers and scholars, filled with passion, purpose, and perspective.
How do people learn from gap years?
One principal lesson is clear: We often develop most when our understandings of ourselves and the world around us are challenged—when we engage with people and ideas that are different. Despite this insight, we often prioritize comfort and self-segregate into groups of sameness. We tend to surround ourselves with people who think, talk, and look similar to us.
Taking a gap year speeds our development by upsetting these patterns. Trying to occupy another person's way of life in a different culture—living with a new family, speaking the language, integrating into a community, perhaps working with local youth, for instance—these are valuable experiences that help young people understand themselves, develop empathy and virtue, and expand their capacity to see the world from others' perspectives.
Traditionally, U.S. higher education has championed the idea of liberal arts as a way of getting students to engage with difference, to expand their worldview beyond their known universe by (in the words of a Harvard research committee on education) “questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection … by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations.”
However, formal classroom education alone cannot accomplish this aim. The classroom is limited in its ability to engage students with difference and contribute to their development as able citizens. We also need new experiences that inspire critical self-reflection to cultivate the right moral feelings and dispositions.
What’s important here is the productive dissonance that these long-term, immersive gap year experiences provide. It's unlikely that a young person staying in America—or even traveling overseas for a short time—would have assumptions about herself and the world around her challenged with the same intensity, frequency, and breadth as in a gap year in a developing community.
It's interesting that spending time in developing communities can help young people appreciate ways of living that we need more of—such as a more active and intimate sense of community. Going overseas also helps cultivate a type of independence and self-confidence that staying close to home in a familiar environment probably does not.
Furthermore, taking the traditional kind of gap year after high school helps students take full advantage of their time in college. One telling observation is that many students who take gap years end up changing their intended major after returning. During college, their gap year experiences enrich their courses, strengthen co-curricular endeavors, and animate undergraduate research and creative projects.
To be clear: Though these gap year students are working in partnership with a community organization and aim to make some positive impact, the students typically, at least in the short term, gain more than they are able to give. But this empowers them to bring new perspectives to bear in other personal, professional, and civic efforts. Gap years, borrowing a line from the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, can help create leaders for the world’s future.
Despite the benefits of these kinds of gap year experiences, too few Americans take gap years and too few colleges encourage them. The treadmill from high school to college makes it hard for students to see alternative paths. But that is changing. More people and organizations are beginning to see gap years for the formative experiences they can be, given with the proper training, support, and community work. In fact, all the Ivy League universities now endorse gap years for interested students. And they’re right to do so.
Many parents and students are nervous about the idea of spending an extended period in a developing country. But these experiences, especially through structured gap year programs like Global Citizen Year, are generally very safe and supported. Are there some risks? Of course, there are risks with any travel or change—but the risks are worth taking. The investment in taking a gap year will pay dividends throughout one’s college career and beyond as society and one’s life are enriched.
However, one central challenge that remains is how to finance gap years for students from lower-income families. This is also beginning to change. The University of North Carolina and Princeton University, for instance, have both begun to subsidize gap years for incoming students. Other organizations, such as Omprakash, now offer low-cost volunteer placements as well as scholarships to those with need. And with the help of crowdfunding sites, students are able to raise money for these experiences with greater ease. Despite these efforts, if gap years are to really expand, we’ll need more institutions or governments to offset the costs.
Higher education is society’s last mass effort to really shape the character and trajectories of our young people. Let’s help them take more advantage of the precious time in college by taking a gap year beforehand.