The Case for a Gap Year
Some high school grads are experiencing independence and growth before heading off to college
Sarah Montross threw her parents a curveball when, following her senior year of high school, she announced that she wasn’t going to UNC-Chapel Hill … right away. Instead, she wanted to spend a year in Ecuador working in a fellowship program with an organization called Global Citizen. She would be teaching English, living with a family she had never met, using public transportation and managing her own finances. She was taking a gap year.
Montross had a few weeks of tension with her parents, but eventually, they came around.
“It took some convincing,” she says. “It’s a new concept for a lot of people. They think kids should go straight to college. It’s not that I wasn’t ready, I just wanted time to grow.”
Unlike a college study abroad program, Montross’ gap year was totally immersive.
“It throws you into being super independent. It was the most challenging nine months of my life, but I’m glad I did it,” says Montross, now a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I’m more excited now and prepared to study what I love.”
For Montross and others, a gap year can be transformative, setting them up for collegiate success and personal growth. Bethany Nolan’s parents of Asheville actually encouraged their daughter to pursue a gap year. Bethany pieced together her own, working long hours at a restaurant in Colorado, enrolling in a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Utah, traveling through South Dakota and Wyoming — where she learned self-reliance — and an intensive summer internship in the Caribbean through Raleigh-based, Broadreach Summer Adventures.
“The terms were that I’d be working toward something,” Nolan says, adding that she would have been nervous to start college on her own, had she not taken a gap year. “I have no reservations. I’m so glad I did it.”
William Clayton, a 2012 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Morehead-Cain scholar, used his gap year to work and explore the world. His experiences included a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Mexico, a church missionary project in Peru, time with Habitat for Humanity in Chile, a trip to Greece and a computer science teaching gig in Ecuador. Clayton says attending UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman after a taking gap year was like coming home.
“Suddenly everyone understands you, you’re comfortable,” he says. “I had been moving every four or five weeks. I’d build these great relationships, then I’d leave and not know if I’d see them again.”
Clayton credits his ability to adapt to his yearlong, nomadic lifestyle. He decided to study economics after observing large contrasts in wealth and uncorrelated differences in happiness while living with a wealthy family in Venezuela.
Clayton, Nolan, and Montross all had some form of financial assistance — whether from financial aid, scholarship or parent support — to help execute their gap year. UNC-Chapel Hill is working to open doors for students who might not come by gap year opportunities so easily.
Sarah Smith, director of the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill and Gap Year Association board of directors member, says the university seeks out interested students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation students, students of color and students from rural communities for gap year opportunities.
“We definitely find students who fit that demographic, who are ready and open to this opportunity,” Smith says.
A Growing Concept
The primary challenge for students who want to take a gap year, Smith says, is convincing their parents to support them and showing them the value of it
“The plan was to go to college,” she says. But Smith notices the students who go through the program find their footing in college a little easier.
“They’re flexible. College is less of a challenge for them. It sets them up to succeed,” she says.
The students commit to at least six months of service, with assistance; do their own planning and budgeting; learn conversation skills; and are required to regularly recount their experiences. Interest in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship program is increasing, Smith says.
“In the first year, we had about five students do the fellowship, and now we have plans to support 21,” she says.
If your teen is interested in taking a gap year, here are some resources to consider.
• UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Gap Year Fellowship program: globalgap.unc.edu
• Duke University Gap Year Program: dukegapyear.duke.edu
• National Outdoor Leadership School: nols.edu
• Thinking Beyond Borders: thinkingbeyondborders.org
• International Wilderness Leadership School: iwls.com
• International School for Earth Studies: gapearthstudies.com
Addie Ladner lives in Raleigh with her husband, two young children and beagle mix.