Mind The Gap: A Crash-Course In The Latest 'Fad' For High School Seniors

by Ronnie Charrier


If you work in a high school or have a high school aged child, there’s a good chance you’ve heard these 7 words recently: “I’m thinking of taking a gap year...”

Thanks Malia Obama.

A short, two-sentence press release from the White House this spring has given students a new answer when parents and teachers ask them about their postsecondary plans, regardless of whether or not they understand what the answer they’re giving actually means. In fact, Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association said that the day after Malia’s announcement, their “website traffic … was more than nine times what it usually is.” I decided to check Google’s search data for the term “gap year” and two things become immediately clear: one, interest in gap years has been slowly growing over the last decade; and two, it spiked significantly after that White House announcement.


My guess is that a lot of these searches were people just wondering, “what the hell is a gap year, anyway? And why is everyone suddenly taking one?” Just like all buzz words, it’s not necessarily as prolific a phenomenon as it appears. You may say that what’s good enough for the first daughter is good enough for you, but Malia Obama, and the 40,000 other students planning to gap their way through this next year, actually represent only 1% of their graduating class across America.

First, let me tell you what a gap year is NOT. Let me dispel your (or your teenager’s) vague notions of sleeping till noon and binging on Netflix, whilst avoiding responsibility for another 12 months. A gap year is not a solution to your financial, academic, or adolescent problems. It can actually be an absurdly expensive undertaking, and if done incorrectly, could jeopardize your chances of getting into college rather than enhance them. There is a right and a wrong way to take a gap year.

Now I should point out that I believe that a gap year is a great opportunity for students who can afford it, and who choose to do so with intentionality and purpose. In an article I wrote last year about why I wanted more people to travel, I began with:

I hope there comes a day when a generation of Americans understand what it means to be a citizen of the world, not just a citizen of their country. A multicultural understanding and the ongoing exchange of ideas is imperative to a world that is becoming smaller and smaller through globalization and access to the Internet.

Phoebe in Petra, Jordan

I would love for more students to have more diverse experiences with people from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, and with different experiences. And if a student is choosing to take a gap year for those reasons, then I support them 100%. But most of the conversations I’ve had with students this year are more around the idea that a year off from school sounds pretty good right about now. My response is, of course, “that’s not a gap year.”

Here is Phoebe before hiking the Lang Tang Trail in Nepal

The original idea behind a “gap year” is based on the idea that a student would spend a year away from the structured routines of the education system to pursue some other interest. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a gap year as “a one-year hiatus from academic studies to allow for non-academic activities.” When it comes down to it, a gap year should serve one of two purposes: to better yourself, or to better the world around you.

After finishing her undergraduate degree, and having already been accepted into graduate school, my fiance took a year to travel from Spain to Thailand, spending time working, learning, volunteering, and frankly, stepping back from her life’s trajectory to get a bit of perspective on her long term goals. When she returned, she jumped into her postgraduate teaching degree with a certainty that this was what she wanted to do with her career.

Ronnie celebrating an undefeated season

Between my undergraduate degree and my master’s degree, I lived in Australia, where I spent time coaching after school sports for younger children, a women’s college basketball team, and the Sydney University men’s football team (who won the first ever Australian National Championship… just saying). Those are memories I’ll never forget.

Ronnie at the base of Mount Tongariro in New Zealand

I am in favor of gap years.

However… data from the Department of Education shows that, on the whole, not going straight to college from high school often means never going at all. And that is where we need to be very careful. The factor that differentiates our experiences of gap years from the idea of simply taking some time off, is that both of us had already been accepted into our programs, and had decided to spend some time pursuing new experiences that we thought would help us with our future goals. It was a “gap” because it was a break in a continuing path, rather than the next step with no plan for return. If you (or your teenager) feels that they need a break, that’s fine. Just make sure they have something to come back to when they’re done.

Instead of just telling students I work with (or their parents) that a gap year is a bad idea, I want to provide a list of ideas and organizations that can help students to truly better themselves and the world around them.

Volunteer in your community. Yes, volunteering, working, or traveling abroad sounds exotic. However, it's likely that there are plenty of organizations closer to home that could use your help as well. Not sure where to start? Take a look at an online network like VolunteerMatch.

Help rebuild America. Both the National Civilian Community Corps or AmeriCorps are great places to learn leadership skills, help strengthen communities in need, and work with people from all around the country.

Work to save an endangered species. Both within the U.S. and around the globe, there are people who are working tirelessly to help rebuild and protect populations of seriously endangered species. If that seems like a worthy cause to you, volunteer your time to help their efforts.

Become part of a conservation effort. There are countless opportunities offered by the Student Conservation Association that would put your your time off to good use, helping to save trees, national parks, and American wildlife.

Join City Year. You can spend a year of your life with this organization, which is focused on helping keep kids interested, engaged, and excelling in schools around the country. What better way to spend next year than by helping other kids who just went through what you did?

Teach in South America. Ok, so you've decided you really want to leave the country. How does gaining some teaching experience in South America sound? Head to Ecuador or Chile to help young children learn English and gain valuable academic skills while also enjoying some jungle treks, mountain biking, and white-water rafting.

Teach English somewhere further away. If South America is far enough for you, head to Asia or the Middle East to see what life is like on the other side of the world and gain some valuable work experience in the process.

WWOOF your way around the world. If you need a way to fund your gap year, consider WWOOFing it. Not sure what that it is? It's a group called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms that can help young high school grads work as they travel by offering work on farms around the world.

Take on an internship in another country. There are numerous programs that can help you find internships abroad, letting you gain experience while living and working in a new and exciting location. Many of these internships offer lodging, food, and even stipends.

Travel with a cause. Ecoteer is a non-profit organization that connects travelers with grassroots charities and social enterprises around the world. Most placements are in ecotourism. Further volunteer opportunities are available within conservation, humanitarian aid and teaching. After registration, costs are usually limited to transport, insurance and spending money.

Become an au pair. Being an au pair can be a truly wonderful way to experience a bit of the world while working. You'll get to live with a local family, learn the language, and taste all aspects of the culture.

Help wildlife in Borneo. Borneo is a popular place to volunteer, largely because of the wildlife. You can work at centers that help rehabilitate orangutans, monkeys, and even some unique species of birds.

Become a camp counselor. Camp America offers nine to twelve-week work placements in summer camps across the US. This is a good chance to try something different, experience a new place away from home, and add work experience to your resume.

Volunteer for community projects in Africa. Whether you teach school, help bring water to villages, build homes, or something else entirely, a trip to Africa can help you see the world while helping others.

This is not an exhaustive list of gap year options but I hope it provides a jumping off point to begin looking into how you (or the teenagers in your care) can best use the next year. Whatever you choose to do, do it with purpose, and make this year a part of your journey… wherever that may lead.