When Ella Hartley graduated from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 2007, she embarked on a year of self-discovery. She went first to Florence to study Italian, then to South Africa “to even out my karma.”
In South Africa, she took a four-hour bus ride from Port Elizabeth to the township of Kurland, where she was dropped off on the side of a road. She walked to a nearby gas station, and from there was driven to Kurland, where she would teach 3- to 5-year-olds for the next three months as part of the Willing Workers in South Africa (WWISA) program.
“South Africa is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen: sagebrush, rolling hills, white beaches, huge, vine-covered trees,” Hartley says. But “it was also a very demanding experience.” She found herself running an entire class at age 19. For a girl from upscale Bethesda, the experience was a revelation. “It is so important to step out of a place like Bethesda,” she says. “It really gives you a whole different perspective.”
Today, Hartley is a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. But back then she was among a growing number of students seeking that whole different perspective through a gap year, a bridge between the academic rat race of high school and the demands of college.
“By the first semester of senior year, I was very stressed,” says Hartley, who was enrolled in Walter Johnson’s rigorous APEX Scholars program for the academically gifted. “I knew I couldn’t continue at that pace for another four years without a break.”
Lia Simon felt the same when she graduated in 2004 from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “Burnout was definitely a factor in my decision to take a gap year,” says Simon, who spent her time interning at The Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C., and studying art history in Venice, Italy, before going on to Barnard College in New York City.
“It wasn’t that I couldn’t do more,” she says. “It was that I didn’t want to.”
Common in Europe, where students have traditionally taken time off to travel before beginning college, the gap year is far from mainstream in the United States. However, anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in the trend, according to The Center for Interim Programs, an organization located in Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton, N.J., that provides guidance to students planning a gap year.
“Most colleges are saying they value a gap year,” says center President Holly Bull, “because kids arrive more mature and focused and can take greater advantage of what a college has to offer.” Her company provides ongoing guidance and access to information on numerous gap-year programs for a $2,000 flat fee. Similar services are offered by PrepMatters in Bethesda and Weinfeld Education Group in Silver Spring, which offers a “Transition for Success” program for students with special needs.
The value of a gap year isn’t news to Elin Quigley, a Kensington mother of six, five of whom have taken gap years. A decade ago, Quigley’s son Steve Andrews, an International Baccalaureate graduate at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, was accepted to Princeton University, but asked to have his admission deferred for a year. He received a letter from then-Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon, who wrote: “If I had my way, nearly every student would take a gap year before coming to Princeton.” Last fall, Princeton became the first school in the country to formalize a gap-year program that enables students to go abroad for a year of community service.
Although gap years were uncommon at the time, Andrews knew he needed clarity about what he wanted to accomplish in college. During his gap year, he explored an astonishingly wide range of interests: interning for Sen. Ted Kennedy, volunteering in a New Mexico forest, working to save sea turtles in Mexico, teaching English in China and traveling extensively throughout Southeast Asia. “Just getting from place to place taught me to think outside the box, to ask the right questions, because things don’t always work out the first time around,” says Andrews, who is now in his second year of law school at UCLA.
Lori Potts-Dupre, an independent college adviser in Silver Spring, thinks many kids could benefit from a gap year. Those who haven’t hit their stride academically could accomplish things during that time that might make them more attractive to upper-echelon schools. The problem, she says, is that “college is perceived to be a wonderfully freeing experience. Most kids are afraid they will miss it if their freshman year happens a year later.”
Rachel Adler of Northwest D.C., a 2009 graduate of Georgetown Day School, remembers worrying about being “out of sync with my peers” when she first contemplated a gap year. “I didn’t want to get behind,” she says. “But as time passed, I realized that fear and apprehension were not good reasons to make a decision.”
From the vantage point of middle age, her mother, Martha Adler, thinks nothing of delaying the day when her daughter must fall into lockstep with the rest of the world. “What is the hurry?” she asks. Now on a gap year in Guatemala, Rachel Adler will attend Oberlin College in Ohio next fall.
“The students I’ve seen who have been most enthusiastic about taking a gap year are what my colleagues and I refer to as ‘outliers’—students who are eager to embrace adventure, to go far away to college,” Potts-Dupre says. “It is almost like a personality type.”
Patrick Deem, a 2009 Walt Whitman graduate, is a good example. “I have wanted to live abroad all my life,” he says. “I began taking French in seventh grade, and then took Arabic at Whitman during my senior year. The more different the language and the culture, the more interesting they are to me.”
Last September, Deem headed to Egypt through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, a U.S. State Department scholarship program designed to foster goodwill abroad while Americans learn languages such as Farsi, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. Although he deferred his admission to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Deem doesn’t consider his time in Egypt a year off. “The idea did occur to me that if I learn Arabic I would never be unemployed,” he says.
Jody Bleiberg, a Bethesda-based psychologist, routinely sees students who have followed the conventional path in going to college right after high school, then find themselves struggling after a first semester or year. Many don’t want to go back.
“The parents have done everything just the way the recipe says,” Bleiberg says. “Their kids have been in good schools, they have had tutors and SAT prep. But in the first year of college they become anxious or depressed. Many times it is clear to me that although the student knows how to take a test, he or she doesn’t understand yet how to make a life. A gap year would have helped.”
Bleiberg thinks growing up in an excessively competitive environment such as Montgomery County’s can take its toll. When kids are constantly comparing themselves to others, identifying their own interests can be difficult. “Taking a well-designed gap year is one approach to fortifying a child’s inner resources,” Bleiberg says.