I know it might sound a little weird — especially here in the U.S. — but after graduating high school many years ago, I took a gap year that my parents actually encouraged. I mean, what parent would actually tell their child to aimlessly roam the world or live thousands of miles away with next to no money and worse, little care in the world? That right there sounds like most parents’ worst nightmare, right?
Well, mine did. And to this day it was the best thing they’ve ever done for me.
According to reports this week, the Obama’s 17-year-old daughter Malia will be delaying her freshman year at Harvard in favor of a “Gap Year” instead. In other words, she’ll be trading a year’s worth of schoolwork and studying for self-discovery, adventure, and globe-trotting. And while the concept itself sounds glorious (and more than a little glamorous) for some, the idea of taking a year off to travel abroad is viewed by others with heavy trepidation — in this country, at least.
Critics often argue that gap years are expensive, 12-month-long vacations that are only good for college-bound kids with deep pockets and lots of time to spare. Some also say that unless you’re “rich and well-connected,” it’s unwise to delay college anymore than you should. Others are worried that a year off might also lead some young people to turn their Gap Year a “Gap Decade” by quitting on their college dreams altogether. According to the nay-sayers, if you don’t go to college while that ink is still fresh on your high school diploma, you’ll be eternally damned to a low-paying job and a 50-hour work week you’ll hate for the rest of your life.
Yet, studies have also shown that you have every reason to be jealous of Malia’s upcoming year off the grid, since taking time off to figure out what you want to do career-wise can be incredibly beneficial. Just think about it: How many people do you know who have changed their majors multiple times during the course of their college careers? During my own university stint, I couldn’t even make up my mind on what music genre I wanted to listen to or hair color I liked best for more than six weeks. Yet so many people are expecting you to make permanent life decisions that are going to follow you around for years to come.
According to a paper published by the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers studied 2,5000 students from Finland and Australia and found that there was absolutely no difference in goal commitment, effort, expectations of attainment and strain, or in actual university enrollment between those planning to enter university directly and those planning to take a gap year.
And who says that gap years have to be expensive, anyway? Not me. I spent my year teaching English at private schools in Europe and earned enough money to spend my weekends in Paris and Rome, while also taking longer trips to far off destinations like Thailand and Australia. In other words, my paychecks covered my food, accommodations, and travel expenses, along with the best memories that money could never buy.
Jeffrey Selingo, author of There Is Life After College, recently told NPR that students who have “transformative” gap year experiences do better than those who just delay college at low-wage, low-skilled jobs instead.
“For a gap year to have a significant impact, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything that students have experienced before,” Selingo writes in his book.
To clarify, students are better off doing meaningful work that captures their interest — things like specialized studies, community service, or horizon-broadening travel. During my own gap year, I came home armed with one year of teaching experience and a clearer vision of what I wanted to do with my life. Not to mention, a better understanding of the world. You can call it grifting, but I’ll call it the best damn experience of my life.
And I’m sure Malia Obama will say the same thing one year from now, too. Because now that I think about it, my “Gap Year” didn’t leave me with any gaps at all. Instead, it was more like a launchpad for the rest of my life.More On