Bridging the Gap (Year)


The gap year is gaining momentum in the United States, although students in the UK and Australia have known about it for decades. So what’s taken us so long to figure it out? It’s probably because we’re programmed to think that if we don’t start college right after we graduate high school, our chances of earning a degree diminish. Not so. By taking a gap year before college to explore interests outside of the classroom, you can actually increase your chances of discovering what it is that you really want to do in life and then pursue your college education accordingly.

Of course, a gap year doesn’t mean spending twelve months contemplating your world view from a hammock. It means getting out there and doing something of value, like participating in community service, conducting research, or studying abroad. In fact, choosing how to spend your gap year can take on as much importance as figuring out where you’ll spend the following four years. Consider some of these tips as you decide whether a gap year is right for you:

  1. The gap year should not be an excuse to procrastinate from applying to college. You should still continue with the entire college admission process, then defer admission for a year.
  2. Many colleges and universities are really taken by the idea of a gap year. In fact, some are even encouraging it: Princeton University has established its own tuition-free “bridge year” program involving a public service project abroad that is completed before enrollment.
  3. By taking a gap year, you might find that declaring a major is an easier decision now that you’ve found a discipline or field that you’d really like to pursue. This could actually save you time and money in the long run-it’s not uncommon for students who switch majors to have to spend an extra semester or two in school to complete their degree.
  4. A gap year program will still cost you money for travel, lodging, and other incidental fees, but the price is still thousands of dollars less than a year’s tuition at a private college.
  5. Did you get rejected by your dream school? Spend your gap year taking classes abroad, then reapply and show off your academic enrichment. For some students, it has resulted in an acceptance letter the second time around.
  6. Although there hasn’t yet been any formal research to prove it, MSNBC has reported that colleges around the country find that their accepted students are indeed following through with their college plans after returning from gap year programs.

Remember, the “gap” in gap year refers only to the gap in your formal education. If you choose wisely, your gap year program will provide you with an experience above and beyond anything you would learn in the classroom. A successful gap year should leave you refreshed, inspired, and better prepared for four years of college.


A Helping Hand Leads to the Future

High school graduation can be a daunting hurdle on the road of life, and once overcome it leads to even bigger questions: Where am I going? What do I want to do with my life? What career or education should I pursue? In recent years, society has placed an increased importance on jumping from high school to college without any hesitation, but is this the right decision for students who don’t yet know where their interests lie? Marty Guise, now the president of the non-profit Lay Renewal Ministries in St. Louis, Missouri, was once a good student seized with doubts about the prospect of higher education. His solution? A gap year.

“I wouldn’t say the freedom was the catalyst,” says Guise, recalling his decision to take a year off after high school graduation. “I just really didn’t want to mess up. I didn’t want to go into school and then decide a year later this was not what I wanted to do with my life.”

Spending a six-month gap year in war-torn El Salvador where he lent a much-needed hand in work projects centered around a children’s home, Guise gained a new perspective on life. “I realized I need enough to live on and that was it. I became much more compassionate and understanding; I became much more flexible.”

It was a lesson he shared with teens who flew in from the states to volunteer their help — letting them know that the simple luxuries they were used to, like hot water, weren’t as plentiful, but that they would be able to make it through. Explains Guise, “A lot of us are spoiled, so having someone from the U.S. there to bridge that gap — it helped ease the tension.”

When he finally returned to the states, Guise says he couldn’t help but wonder why everyone back home had changed so much — until he realized he was the one who had undergone the dramatic transformation. Deciding that the longer he waited to start college after his gap year, the harder it would be, Guise enrolled at University of Missouri – St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri) on a part-time basis and worked full time in the medical records department of an area hospital.

After completing his degree in education, an act inspired by his time spent in El Salvador, Guise realized that though he still wanted to work with children, he wanted to find another way of giving back to others. He spent a year-and-a-half studying at a seminary, and then worked in a Christian bookstore before finding himself at Lay Renewal Ministries. That was 12 years ago, and now Guise, as president of the non-profit group, is dedicated to its mission of helping churches understand how they can best reach out to others.

While Guise didn’t stick to his original plan to work as an educator, one thing’s for certain: had Guise not reached out his hand to children in El Salvador in 1989 during his very valuable gap year, he wouldn’t be able to help others do so today.


Learning to Bridge the Gap

Go to high school, graduate, go to college, graduate, get a job. It’s a pattern that most of the population is familiar with, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. While some people, especially those who have a clear picture of where they want to go in life, may be able to jump right from high school, to college, and then into the career of their dreams, others may need time off to do some searching. The “gap year,” as it’s called, can help people define the rest of their lives.

“I’d like to say it was because I was super-motivated, but I was really drifting aimlessly,” recalls Dan Clements, author of Escape 101 (The Brain Ranch, 2007), about his first gap year spent working as a scuba instructor in Mexico. A recent university graduate with a degree in business, Clements shucked the post-grad career search and answered a newspaper ad that instead sent him to Mexico for six months. “It happened so fast. I think I didn’t have time to hesitate.”

Returning home from his sojourn to the south, Clements was surprised to find that things hadn’t changed much in his absence. “It was like the whole world had stood still,” he explains. “Everyone was exactly like I left them sitting on the couch with the remote in their hand.” Clements, meanwhile, had undergone a change for the better.

Building Confidence and Finding Your Way
“The act of doing something different from the rest of your life; it gives you confidence,” says Clements, who believes that six-month sabbatical shaped life for both him and his future wife. “I think how different my life would be if I hadn’t taken that break and how much different for the worse.”

These days, Clements works as a speaker and writer about topics like business, health, and life design, and recently had his first foray into book publishing with Escape 101. Essentially, it’s a guide for everything you need to know about planning and following through on a gap year, career break, or sabbatical. “Between college and work is the easiest time to get away; your obligations are at an all-time low,” asserts Clements. “Don’t be too hasty to jump into work. That gap year is a year out that could turn out to be 50 to 60 years of work.”

If you’re considering taking your own gap year, Clements suggests taking small steps to set yourself up. “Sometimes it’s as simple as making a gap year fund,” he advises. “And start telling people. For [my wife and I] the social commitment has become sort of powerful. You start to make connections.” That could mean something as simple as a friend knowing the best places to go during your trip, or as helpful as a relative finding someone willing to hire you in another country. The point is to commit to what you plan to do — just remember to eventually return to your roots.

Says Clements, “Home is pretty fun too. It’s not about escaping forever.”