Campus | August 12, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Mind the Gap: An Analysis of Gap Years

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A backpacker sets off for an adventure in 1985.

For college freshmen, August is move-in season. New comforter and desk lamp in tow, students move into the communities they have prepared for, and in some cases desperately envisioned, throughout their high school careers. Yet, after they are dropped off and left to enjoy the fruits of their hard work, students frequently lose their sense of purpose. Bob Clagett, former Harvard College admissions officer, explained that “there can be a feeling of walking into your dorm and saying, ‘okay, now what?’” The transition to college can leave students aimless. After achieving the goal of getting in, many struggle to find new motivations.

To alleviate the challenges of this transition, which can lead to under-performance in the classroom as well as poor emotional and physical health, some colleges are looking towards the gap year. Harvard has long encouraged the practice, while other universities, including Princeton, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Tufts, offer financial support to fund service-based gap year opportunities. This recent administrative support for taking a gap year is not solely focused on the students who choose to defer, but also on the expected impact they will have on their peers. Universities are turning to gap years to eradicate challenges that commonly plague college freshman.

Challenges facing freshman commonly involve drugs and alcohol. Abby Falik, CEO of Global Citizen Year, explained that the difficulties frequent among freshman include burnout, high levels of stress, binge drinking, and sexual assault. College administrators believe that these issues stem from difficulties transitioning. Clagett explained, “Students are trying to refocus and decide what their new goal is going to be.” Gap years provide a context to help students with this transition by giving them the time to re-prioritize and realign their motivations. As a result, Falik described that gap year students “arrive in college much better prepared to contribute.”

Clagett created a methodology that showed that gap year students tend to also be better off academically. He found that freshman who opted to take a gap year at Middlebury and UNC Chapel Hill ended up performing better than they were predicted to in their admissions review. More than benefiting the individual student, administrators count on gap year participants to influence entire drinking cultures. Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College of Tufts University, explained, “I think that every college struggles with some of the issues among freshman with binge drinking and other activities…and we think that [gap year students] will have a very positive influence on their classmates and on campus.”

The immersive experiences that often constitute gap years allow students to develop in ways that often motivate and promote social values. Falik explained that “there is data that shows that certain parts of the brain are still forming in the late teens. It’s this very special window of time that happens between eighteen and twenty when things are still crystallizing— when there’s still a real opportunity to influence how a young person sees them self in the world.” Social scientists and educators emphasize that this period of time, from eighteen to twenty, is critical for the development of social values. Dr. Joe O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, told the HPR, “With many students, building deep, meaningful relationships with others [becomes] increasingly important. They remove the focus on themselves and shift to become more others-oriented.” College administrators anticipate that the development in social values will positively influence college communities and, moreover, civic life. According to O’Shea, “Students come back wanting to have a greater and more active sense of community, which is important for democratic life and public life generally.”

After spending a year learning outside of a formal classroom setting, gap year students frequently reenter school with a shifted perspective on their education. This change can enhance both individual academic performances and classroom environments. University funded service opportunities and many gap year programs focus on experiential learning. This educational model can help students make connections between theory and application that can otherwise be difficult to achieve in the classroom setting. Clagett explained, “I think when most students graduate from high school now there’s ‘life experience’ in one circle and ‘education’ in another circle … I think that what gap years can do is cause those circles to come together … they [begin to] see the purpose in their education that they might not otherwise see.” This added sense of purpose allows gap year students to face the “Now what?” that can often paralyze first-year students.

Learning through experience can ground theoretical learning with personal meaning. This understanding causes students to approach their coursework with greater purpose and urgency. Ethan Knight, a representative of American Gap Association, explained, “I think a lot of the time students really go through the whole academic process and get a strong sense of all the theories of social change, but they don’t understand the people that are impacted.” He adds, “It’s one thing to say ‘Oh, the sea levels are going to rise,’ but if you go to a community where the sea levels are actually rising, it contains a completely different set of importance and relationship.” Kevin Loughlin ’18 told the HPR, “I got a new sense of respect for my friends who are foreign and had to learn English because I went through what it was like to not know what the word meant, and I went through what it’s like to have everyone around you laugh at a joke and have no idea what they said.” Danielle Strasburger ‘18 elaborated on how studying in-field challenged her perspective on development. “It really helped me with going deeper into that idea of aid and development and seeing how complicated it is and how a lot of times, good intentions aren’t really enough.”

While evidence of the benefits of a gap year are vast, the issue of which students can participate still lingers. Although Princeton, UNC, and Tufts offer financial support for selected students, and some gap year organizations, including Global Citizen Year and American Gap Association have adequate financial aid and scholarships, the concept of a gap year has not spanned socioeconomic barriers. Even with resources available, many students from underprivileged or underrepresented backgrounds do not consider taking a gap year as an option. Falik cited the language surrounding gap years as a source of preconceived exclusivity. Some educators are concerned with the term “gap year” itself, preferring the term “bridge year,” as to not make the experience exclusive from education or separate students who defer from their peers.

Falik further warned that if college administrators and programs do not make a “clear and deliberate emphasis on inclusion” then gap year opportunities could exacerbate a particular inequality with “the same set of kids who’ve grown up with various privileges who continue to have opportunities to travel and learn new languages.” Institutions that do not offer administrative financial support, but do actively encourage taking a gap year, contribute to this inequality. According to O’Shea, “we need institutions like Harvard to step-up and do more than encourage students, but support students who are having these types of experiences, so it’s not just the well-off students who have a probably transformative year.”

While traditionally considered means of self-development, gap years are growing into an experience expected to inform whole communities. College administrators recognize that the reflection, redefined motivations, and experiential learning opportunities students have during their time off are difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate in a classroom setting. As the gap year continues to grow into an educational supplement, administrators who support the experience need to consider who is participating, while institutions that simply encourage the practice need to recognize the implications. As gap year support and encouragement increases, college administrators need to ensure that they are in fact funding a positive contribution to the first-year culture and university communities, and not further exacerbating an existing and pressing inequality.

Photo from Geograph.org.uk

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