the Gap Year (or decade)

So Princeton is hoping to send 10% of their incoming first-years to do a year of social service work in other countries before they ever enroll in classes. I saw a mention of this in Inside Higher Ed yesterday and I keep thinking about it. On the one hand, this seems like a marketing thing – go to Princeton! see the world! It’s pretty easy to imagine a program like this making the difference for the student making the choice between Princeton and Yale or Stanford or Duke.

On another hand, I got a little twinge thinking – amazing subsidized experience for kids who are already going to Princeton? It feels a little bit like the way that the really rich and famous people at the Oscars get showered with tons of free stuff they could afford to buy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Princeton students shouldn’t have this experience – or that they won’t get a lot out of it. I went to a similar kind of school and I think I would have been a much better college student and that my classes would have been really enriched by this kind of experience. But I think about how much students I’ve known since would get out of something like this. Students who come to college without ever having had the chance to see people who aren’t a lot like them and not on TV.  Who might not expect they will ever live and work with people so different.  And then there’s a little twinge.

But mainly I’m thinking about it because I’m a big fan of the gap year concept. As a grad student/ new teacher at Syracuse I encountered a lot of students who were in college because that’s what you did after high school. They didn’t really know why they were there, and they didn’t really have the life experience to apply to what they were learning. That made for some frustrated and unmotivated students. In my own life, I have several relatives who struggled with school as traditional undergrads, not because they weren’t talented but because they weren’t motivated. These relatives all did kind of a Gap Decade, went back to school in their thirties and had much more successful experiences the second time around.

But I wonder what’s happening to the gap year idea. Is it getting too structured or too achievement-oriented too? A few years ago, Harvard began encouraging all of their new students to defer admission for a year, which I thought was a great idea. (And it’s an fact I’ve used a lot trying to convince my parent friends not to worry if their kids aren’t ready for college at 18. “Harvard thinks it’s okay” carries a lot of weight).

Now, Harvard focused on how the gap year is an important time for students to reflect and really take ownership of their own learning and their own life plans. They warned parents of burnout and suggested that teens with over-scheduled, intensely achievement-focused lives were at risk, ironically, of never developing the tools they needed to create their own happy, fulfilling adult lives for themselves:

So the problem can often be well-meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the program before they have any capacity to make such a choice for themselves. Yet the paradox is that the only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself. So the pressures placed on many children probably have the unintended effect of delaying a child’s finding herself and succeeding on her own terms.

So this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Princeton’s plan, but I am wondering if the message that the gap year is a time for the student to take control of some things isn’t getting a little bit lost. I’m thinking that more because of stories like this one in the Washington Post. The student highlighted in the story seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity just like Harvard (or in his case, Miami of Ohio) would have wanted: “‘I want to find out what I can accomplish without my parents or my school telling me what I can do,’ Neville said”

But there’s stuff like this in there too — there’s a whole gap-year industry now.  There are consultants and books and websites out there that are designed to help families and students plan this year out fully – even “intensively.”  To me, this kind of smacks of making sure that the gap year is done “right.” Which, on one level, is exactly how to do it wrong. If the gap year just becomes another way to keep up, stay competitive, qualify for the best opportunities then we’ll start to need a gap year for the gap year. Studens won’t get the chance to reflect, to make choices, and to make mistakes on their own.

As a teen, I was way to impatient to start college to even consider the concept of a gap year. Sometimes now, though, it sounds kind of nice.

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