Hurry up, Take a Year Off


It has long been a tradition for European students to take a year off after graduating from high school. Increasingly, the wander, or gap, year has been gaining acceptance in this country. With the cost of a college education skyrocketing, a little maturing before setting out has many advantages.

Opportunities abound, from traveling the world, volunteering with community service organizations or holding down a job. Many students would be better served gaining life experience and not having a college experience until they are really ready for the responsibility.

This especially is true since the "college experience" has come to be defined by rounds of partying, drugs and sex. Once into this routine, established classes are skipped, tests are not studied for, and homework is abandoned.

At the end the first semester, many students face probation, being asked to leave school or take a year off.

The gap year can be just the antidote needed before starting a rigorous four years at college. It is certainly better to sow one's wild oats during a gap year than during the first semester of the freshmen year.

President George W. Bush would concur, having allegedly advised his twin daughters, "Girls, if you're anything like your dad, you've got some wild oats to sow. Not to mention wheat, barley and rye. Hell, the entire granary."

Bush himself might have benefited from an academic timeout as his lackluster college career indicates.

Planning a successful gap year can be a daunting experience and one that requires time and patient research. Agencies have cropped up to help with the selection process. Consultants charge hefty fees and may provide a valuable service for those with unlimited funds.

However, resourceful individuals can accomplish the same by sourcing books at the local bookstore or online. Some feature informative and entertaining first-person narratives by students about their personal experiences and pitfalls.

"The Gap-Year Advantage" by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson is particularly recommended for the breadth of its resources.

In the process of researching this article, I came upon "The Ethical Volunteering Guide" written by Dr. Kate Simpson. She warns that while there are some excellent international volunteer programs, there are also some terrible ones.

"Problems range from volunteers who are imposed on host communities to projects that do not exist to projects that are a waste of everyone's time and money," she wrote. Dr. Simpson recommends a proactive approach in which the potential volunteer makes a careful study of programs before making a commitment.

"The Ethical Guide" can be downloaded without cost on Dr. Simpson's Web site .

A well- planned gap year often helps a student with a lackluster high school career mature. The son of an acquaintance had a less than sterling high school career despite his considerable potential.

His parents were apprehensive about more of the same at college. They suggested he consider becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer. This service organization of 70,000 volunteers of all ages provides support in areas of education, public safety, health and the environment.

My friend's son spent his year of service working on construction projects and as a tutor to inner-city children. In September, he will matriculate into the honors program of a highly regarded state university.

This surge of focused ambition is a far cry from the lack of motivation his parents witnessed in his last years in high school. He has grown to understand the differences between privilege and poverty and is grateful for the advantages he received that, theretofore, were taken for granted.

Another of this past June's graduates was accepted into a prestigious college in the Midwest and elected to take a year off for professional reasons. This particular student has her heart set on an acting career. Working since childhood as part of a profession that idolizes youth, she does not want to miss opportunities.

Although it took a bit of convincing, her parents acquiesced to her wishes, a wise move on their part. Had they not agreed, she might have become resentful, forever lamenting what was perceived as a lost opportunity.

This fall, rather than moving into a dormitory at a prestigious college, the young thespian is Hollywood bound with a parent as chaperone.

Decades earlier, my gap year became a gap decade. After high school, I attended acting school in New York and California and became a sometimes-working actress.

At 21, I took off for Europe on a Yugoslavian freighter for $108 and landed in Casablanca, Morocco. From there, I hitchhiked to Berlin, Germany, and spent the next six years working in nightclubs, bookstores and selling the New York Times on the Left Bank of Paris.

Ultimately, recognizing a yearning for a more standard education, I returned to the United States and entered college. This decade of travel provided memories for a lifetime I do not regret one moment.

This country tends to rush its children through their lives from one activity to the next. Early childhood is spent in preparation for an adulthood that is years away.