Like many of his peers, Matthew McIntosh counted down the months to starting college. After graduating from White Station High, he would buy textbooks and meet new professors. Then, just prior to the deadline to commit to a school, he gathered his parents for a candid talk. “Going to college now doesn’t feel right,” he admitted.
“I couldn’t relate to my friends who were excited about college,” recalls the 22 year old.
Instead, Matthew enthusiastically pitched a hands-on learning experience in the great outdoors. He wanted to explore his passion for writing, using material from the adventure. Several years earlier, his parents introduced a gap year option. “We felt taking a gap year could be a natural, positive part of growing up,” says his father Stephen.
There’s no formula for a gap year — it can involve travel, work, study, volunteering, or research. The experiential semester or year is typically taken between high school and college to explore the world and gain valuable life skills and experience while transitioning into independence. Domestic and international programs provide structured experiences, but some teens prefer to design the year on their own.
According to American Gap Association (AGA), teens grow more aware of academic and professional passions, avoid academic burnout, and return to studies with more focus. In fact, students who take a gap year graduate with higher grade point averages than individuals who head straight to college.
Stephen and his wife Mary pledged support but still had concerns. “We told him that the year had to have some structure and that he had to work some to help pay bills,” says Mary. “We figured out parameters so that we weren’t lying in bed worrying about safety.”
First, Matthew contacted Student Conservation Association (SCA is affiliated with AmeriCorps). Through SCA, he found an opportunity to work in
Los Padres National Forest in California, where he identified invasive plant species. SCA placed him at Casper Mountain Science School, a STEM program in Wyoming, where he instructed younger students.
SCA provided a food stipend and housing, along with a $2,300 scholarship. To cap the year, Matthew worked as a counselor at Sanborn Western Camp in Florissant, Colorado.
In between, he built funds working at a restaurant, hiked in Alaska, and paddled 140 miles on the Buffalo National River. With writing inspiration, he wrote an article that was published in Canoe & Kayak magazine.
Matthew has no regrets. “I came home excited about going back into a classroom environment,” he says. “I grew up fast, which gave me more discipline.” He applied to Marlboro College in Vermont, where he is now a senior majoring in political ecology. He maintains a 3.8 GPA, runs a campus outdoor program, and engages in political activism.
“Gap year boosted Matthew’s confidence and empowered him with choices to steer his life,” notes Stephen. “On a practical level, he learned to survive in the world and find a job.”
If your child has motivation and initiative to express her interest in a gap year, consider it, says Stephen. “One thing's for sure — it will unquestionably change her life.”
World Race Adventure
Nineteen-year-old Lily Johnson spent nine months doing service work with Christian-based World Race. Lily had never left the U.S. and experienced a cultural awakening: “I spent three months in three different countries and each culture was different,” she says.
What motivated her to delay college? “I never had a ‘wow’ kind of certainty about a future profession and was open to doing something unconventional and new. I’ve always been very independent.” She adds, “I’m passionate about building relationships with people and serving communities.”
Lily raised $12,000 to participate, saving $6,000 from babysitting jobs and pooling donations and graduation monies. The World Race connects participants to organizations worldwide. In the Philippines, she helped Kids International Ministries, working at a school and orphanage, and also hosted summer camps for street children. In El Salvador, she cared for infants in a Catholic program. “It was an overwhelming, stay-at-home mom kind of experience,” she says with a laugh. In Malawi, Africa, she worked on a sustainable farm, selling eggs to support a local ministry. Then there was work implementing community water filtration systems and teaching HIV awareness classes. She blogged about her experiences throughout the year.
Now she is enrolled at the University of Memphis. She admits that the year didn’t provide her with a “script” for her future. Instead, “It helped me to understand that life is a journey, and it’s okay not to have figured everything out,” she says. “It reminds me to always stay open to things.”
Positive Ripple Effects
At Rhodes College, a handful of students (five to
10 each year) take a gap year before college. “This seems to be an upward trend,” says Daniel Vanaman, assistant director of career services. Whether
traveling abroad or staying close to home, kids make real-world connections to academics and collect experiences to share in job interviews, he says. International travel is popular, so Vanaman suggests finding a pre-immersive class to prepare teens (and parents) for another culture.
Will universities hold admissions status and scholarship offers for students who decide to step away for a year? That varies, so check with your child’s school, Vanaman advises.
He points out that Student Conservation Association provides short- and long-term opportunities. In Projects Abroad, pre-medical and medical students can visit developing countries and learn how medicine is practiced. In Projects Abroad’s High School Special programs for teens 16 to 19, students participate in two- and four-week programs that address archaeology, law and human rights, healthcare, and conservation.
It’s worthwhile to consider a post-college gap year. “There are ripple effects that make you a better student and candidate for post-graduate school, fellowships, and acceptance to law school or medical school,” Vanaman says.
A gap year isn’t only for the affluent. In 2015, AGA members and provisional members gave away approximately $2.8 million in scholarships and needs-based grants. The Segal AmeriCorps Education Award is designed to encourage AmeriCorps alumni to seek postsecondary education opportunities. The award may be used to pay educational costs at eligible postsecondary educational institutions (including many technical schools and GI Bill-approved educational programs) and to repay qualified student loans. A growing number of higher education institutions match the education award with scholarships and/or academic credits.
To find a quality program, the American Gap Association recommends starting with AGA Accredited Organizations, which are recognized by
the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal