By Anne Stanton
This summer, many high school graduates are busy working to save money for college in the fall. But not everyone is getting ready to enroll in classes. Some are taking a year off before they jump back into the pressure cooker of academic life. This is often referred to as a gap year. It’s a time for students to reflect and define what they really want to do in life before going to college.
A lot has been written about gap years, and the consensus is this: the best gap years provide experiences that fire you up for college and for life. No one could fit that definition better than 18-year-old Alyssa Padden. After graduating from Traverse City Central High school she took an 11-month tour of Asia and Europe. Padden said her idea to travel was sparked three years ago after her friend talked about the amazing year she had in the African country of Ghana. So she worked summers and saved every dime for a trip of her own.
Her parents gave the plan their blessing, even though her relatives were scared to death. So was Padden just before she got on the plane.
“When I first left and I was flying to Greece, I was terrified,” said Padden. “I was looking at my parents saying, ‘How are you letting me go? I’m seventeen and you’re letting me leave for a year? How could you be doing this?’”
Alyssa’s mom, Laurie Padden, says it was hard to see her daughter leave with a one-way ticket and no real travel plans but she pretty much knew Alyssa was up to the challenge. And she knew it for sure after hearing how she scared off a would-be bandit in France.
“She was on in Paris on the subway,” she said, “and she felt some pressure in her backpack and she turned around and grabbed this guy’s arm and sure enough he’s going through her backpack and she just makes a scene and she just wouldn’t let go of his arm and he was appalled and he didn’t know what he got himself into. And finally she let go of his arm and he took off.”
College adviser Mary Kay Trippe helps families apply and make decisions about college. She says experiences like Padden’s can make gap years valuable. It provides students the chance to come up against real-life challenges.
She says many high school graduates arrive unprepared for the combustible mix of an intense workload and the freedom to party.
“Many times you kind of blow the first year,” Tripp said. “No one is checking to see if they get out of bed and get [to class] and it all shows up in their grades at the end.”
And some teens are simply burned out from too many years of super achieving, according to a report written by three Harvard University professors. In fact, Harvard believes a gap year is so worthwhile that they offer the option in every acceptance letter to incoming freshmen.
But not everyone agrees. One group that has consistently opposed gap years is the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.
Executive Director Michael Reilley says if you want an international experience, there are lots of universities that will give you college credit to study or work overseas. Reilley says studies show that once students gets a taste of freedom or a paycheck, they are less likely to finish college. And Reilley says you also forget a lot of what you just learned in high school.
“We already see when students don’t take math in their senior year in high school, they don’t do as well when they take it their freshman year,” he explained. “So when you postpone that year, there’s an attrition in study skills and habits.”
If cost is an issue, he encourages students to attend community college to save money. He points out tuition won’t be less a year later.
Finding your path
Ironically, though, Reilly had a rocky start in college and he took off a year and a half. He worked in a coal mine.
“I actually found myself working underground in a coal mine of all things, which was part of my family history from Western Pennsylvania. And that proved to be actually inspirational because I reached this epiphany—I did not want to be doing that,” he said.
When Reilley returned to school he earned straight As and became president of student government.
Alyssa Padden believes her time-out from academics will make her a better student too, one who can measure classroom lessons against real-life experiences. She planned to get a nursing degree before her trip. And she still does. She credits something that happened with a taxi driver in Cambodia. Knowing that she wanted to be a nurse, he took her to the hospital where his sister was having a baby.
“Being in that room and being with that family, I really wish that I could have helped. And I was definitely happy I was going to be study nursing, so eventually one day when I come back would have been able to help in that situation.”
When Padden looks back at her year away, she is still amazed that she did it. She admits her trip had one major drawback. She spent nearly all of her savings of $9,000. And that means she’ll have to borrow more money to pay her college tuition at Northern Michigan University. And she’s a year behind the rest of her friends in college. But it doesn’t bother her.
“I really don't see it as a race,” says Padden. “I learned a lot and I wouldn’t trade that for any freshman year ever.”