College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Before College, Take a Gap Year

By David Santulli — May 17, 2016 4 min read
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Malia Obama recently became the U.S. poster child for electing to take a gap year—the break between high school graduation and the start of college. Who can blame her for postponing her matriculation to Harvard University to have a meaningful life experience?

We ask our youths to follow a structured path from primary school all the way through four years of college, with the added expectation that they will decide upon a major and career path during this time.

Is this a fair, realistic expectation to place on our young people?

The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” is inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For more than two thousand years, it has provided generations with sage guidance. After all, how can we expect youths to make long-lasting decisions when they have not had time to take the most important journey of all—the internal one?


Whatever you call it—a gap year, an interim year, a bridge year, a sabbatical—time away from scholastic pursuits offers an opportunity for both external and internal exploration. It is a time to learn about the self away from the competitive academic and social demands of college. Many use it as a chance to travel beyond borders and comfort zones to explore foreign ideas, languages, and cultures.

A gap year provides a creative disruption to peel away the layers of the self, discover new passions, develop new skills, expand perspectives, and grow as a person.

Where did this gap-year concept come from?

Theories differ on its genesis: Some believe it harkens back to the 1960s, when backpackers trod the hippie trail from Delhi to Goa. Others claim the gap year started in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a way to fill the seven- or eight-month void between the completion of final high school exams and the start of university.

Some argue that it dates back to the end of World War II. Even more than the physical and infrastructural toll of the war, relationships between many countries were broken. Governments, churches, and nongovernmental organizations joined forces to create such programs as the International Cultural Youth Exchange Federation and the American Field Service to bring young people together to rebuild trust. These programs were founded on the conviction that what the war had destroyed, exchanges between young people could help to restore.

Gap years fill a basic human need for self-discovery.

But is the gap year just a 20th-century invention, or has humanity recognized this basic human need for self-discovery throughout the ages and expressed it in various forms across cultures?

Walkabouts and vision quests to gain clarity about life’s purpose and to connect with nature are rites of passage across diverse indigenous cultures, including the Aboriginal Australians. Consider Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, who traversed the seas, facing countless struggles and ultimately transforming his own heart, mind, and soul.

The monomyth—or the hero’s journey—as written about in 1949 by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces outlines this narrative as a basic human need to explore, struggle, and re-emerge stronger and more equipped to fully serve humanity.

According to the Council on International Educational Exchange, most U.S. colleges and universities find students who have taken a gap year more academically desirable. In the last decade, Harvard has seen a 33 percent jump in the number of its incoming students taking gap years.

In a study by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, the authors of The Gap-Year Advantage, students who take a gap year are more likely to finish college in four years, and 60 percent of the respondents said that the experience influenced or confirmed their choice of major.

But gap years are also expensive. Programs range from $8,000 to $50,000 or more per year. Some programs exceed the cost of a university education, but others provide the opportunity to live in a country such as Iceland, Finland, or Switzerland at far below the cost of what it would take to live there independently.

Some gap-year organizations, such as United Planet (which I run) and the International Cultural Youth Exchange, provide a monthly stipend to offset costs. If the gap-year organization is a nonprofit, students can fundraise to cover expenses, and program fees are often tax-deductible. Many organizations also offer scholarships.

The “Malia effect” is building momentum for gap years not only in the United States, but also abroad. According to Kaoru Sunada, the CEO of the Japan Gap Year Organization, Malia Obama’s gap year has already had a great impact in Japan, as evidenced by a recent surge of interest from potential students.

Whether you take a domestic or international gap year, are finishing high school or college, or are between careers, gap years fill a basic human need for self-discovery. Every student and adult in America and beyond should have the opportunity to experience a gap year—a time away to “know thyself” and strengthen the pull of one’s own internal compass.

A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Malia Effect


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