Mind the Gap

Put College on the Waiting List

Get in. Get out. That’s my advice to high school seniors: get in to college, then get out of your comfort zone.

My Los Angeles high school was the quintessential pressure cooker. In the months leading up to application deadlines, college counselors guided us towards “reach” schools, “realistic possibilities,” and “safeties,” supposedly tidy categorizations that only served to heighten competitiveness and stress. Class assemblies reminded us to avoid discussing our choices or wearing any college gear.

Then the letters came. Conflicting emotions washed over campus. The dust settled. The school paper published a list of everyone’s final destination; before even graduating it was as if the next step had begun.

So goes life’s achievement track. It’s a race that for some can start as early as a waiting list for preschool, and points toward a college diploma or graduate degree or prestigious job or, quite possibly, never actually ends.  Increasingly we’re urged to accelerate – the track offers early admissions here and there, as if we weren’t hustling already. There’s a brokerage ad on TV these days that shows people following a green line they must follow through the end of their lives, extolling the virtue of never, ever, deviating. It’s a different context, of course, but a chilling metaphor.

The proverbial rat race offers no respite, no diversions. It’s a track that seeks to remove any and all gaps – a life without parentheticals.

At this time six years ago, I was as caught up on the track as everyone else. The most caught up, some might say, but luckily I fell prey to the travel bug. Inspired by classic adventure tales –  Into the Wild, On the Road, The Motorcycle Diaries, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – I contacted a student travel company that helped with an itinerary and I headed off for nine months of backpacking around Asia, Africa, and South America, narrating all aspects of the journey on a blog.

As I wandered through cities, villages, and slums, the driving force was a desire to understand how other people live. Major attractions like Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu were extraordinary, but it was more ordinary conversations that had the deepest impact on me: a Kenyan farmer asking what crops I grow back home, a Thai fisherman explaining how the 2005 tsunami destroyed everything, a Peruvian woman showing me how to cook guinea pig. I was invited to a wedding in China, an elephant funeral in Sri Lanka, and I’m pretty sure a newborn baby in Tanzania was named after me.

I fully recognize the eye-rolling potential in preaching the transformative power of traveling abroad. The British comedy skit aptly titled “Gap Yah” became a YouTube hit for mocking deliberate attempts at self-discovery and the corresponding air of pretension, with such lines as: “I’m in Burma on this kind of spiritual, cultural, political exchange thing.” Admittedly, returning home with long hair and an eyebrow piercing was easy fodder for friends who jokingly asked if I “found” myself. I’d often play along, responding, “Yep, I met the Dalai Lama and now know the meaning of life.”

But the truth is, self-enlightenment clichés aside, that the year put me on a different track. At the end of high school, I was overwhelmed by the thought of more class in just a few months. At the end of the gap year, I was craving just that – a return to structured learning, dorms and dining halls, students my age.

The wonderful thing about the American university system, no matter the campus, is that it offers a uniform cultural experience. I came to realize this very quickly as I corresponded with friends. Regardless of their geographic location or major (or fraternity/sorority), there was an underlying consistency to their odyssey, down to the Ikea lamps and Bed, Bath & Beyond towels. Yes, I wanted that too, but not yet. And far better to take an explicit year off than to treat freshman year as such, which seems to happen all the time.

I have no delusions about the good fortune that enabled my travels. I pooled my bar mitzvah loot and odd job cash, and my parents pitched in the rest, viewing it as an investment with lifelong dividends. Without their support, financial and otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened. So perhaps this is more a call to parents than to students – urge your child to consider a gap year. Or at the very least, allow it. Maybe the cultish success of Eat, Pray, Love is an auspicious sign that moms at least will become more appreciative of the idea of replenishing breaks in life.

Parental understanding is as important as financial support, as meaningful gap years needn’t be costly. Plenty of kids combine work with travel or service, and you don’t have to hang with the Dalai Lama to have a worthwhile experience. And American kids should realize that regardless of prior professional experience, as English speakers we have a mobile skill in demand all over the globe.

There are an increasing number of programs offering gap-year experiences around the world, whether you want to volunteer in Botswana, trek in Nepal or learn guitar in Argentina.

From the “track” perspective – the whispered “This doesn’t look good” – virtually every university permits gap years, and many overtly encourage it. My Harvard acceptance letter floated the idea. The dean of admissions responded to my note explaining my plans by writing, “Wish I could go with you!” Princeton has introduced the Bridge Year Program as a formal gap year application following admittance. It sponsors select students to perform service activities in Ghana, India, Peru, and Serbia, with the confident assertion: “When you return, you’ll enter your first year at Princeton University with a wealth of experience and maturity.”

High schools are catching on as well. My alma mater recently established a gap year fellowship that awards $10,000 to a graduating senior. The application “encourages proposals that embrace independence, a spirit of adventure, and a sense of social justice with a humanitarian perspective.”

I’m currently in graduate school in England, where a “gap yah” is the norm. It’s commonplace to hear people swap stories back and forth, comparing the various ways they filled their year. It’s not what you do, but that you do it. Worst-case scenario is that a stint of boredom makes you even more eager to dive into your next academic setting, but the more likely result is that you become a well-rounded person. We need to balance standardized tests with non-standardized experiences, APs with GAPs. You have the rest of your life to be on track, to follow that green line, so hop off and see where it takes you. The question isn’t why would you take a gap year, but why wouldn’t you?

Charlie Melvoin is a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University pursuing a master’s in development studies. A native Angeleno, he graduated from Harvard-Westlake School and Harvard University.

*Photo courtesy of besighyawn.


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