That was true for Rockville’s Rebecca Benzion when she went to Turkey. “Going to another country without knowing the language made me more courageous, even about everyday things like meeting new people,” says Benzion, a 2006 graduate of Col. Zadok Magruder High School who is now majoring in women’s studies with a focus on the Middle East at Boston University.
“During my gap year, I gained a real sense of myself,” says Lia Simon, the 2004 Whitman and 2009 Barnard graduate. “I learned how to function on my own in a foreign country and associate with a group of peers from completely different backgrounds. I walked into college feeling more sure of myself and my ability to do what needed to get done.”
There is, of course, a cost involved in the decision to take a gap year. And for many parents, that’s a concern. As Rachel Adler’s mother, Martha, puts it: “A gap year should be more than a paid vacation.”
Bull, of The Center for Interim Programs, says a gap year actually may be a good investment. “The statistics show that often when high school graduates go straight to college, they switch majors and take more than four years to finish,” she says.
Furthermore, a gap year doesn’t have to cost a lot. “There are programs that offer room and board, internships, apprenticeships, and programs like the community-based AmeriCorps [which employs adults to provide educational, health and housing assistance in communities throughout the United States],” Bull says.
Soren Scott, a 2009 graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda and now participating in a Teach to Travel program in China, says, “Finance wasn’t much of an issue since the teacher wages add up to a bit more than the program cost.”
Benzion found a local Rotary Club to sponsor her gap year in Turkey. And “I lived with a family, so it was really inexpensive,” she says. “Basically I only had to pay for my plane ticket and some spending money. I was given housing and meals and a small stipend.”
Hartley, the Walter Johnson grad who went to South Africa, “blew through my life savings: all of my little birthday checks and money I earned at jobs during high school.” But, she says, “I have no regrets.”
Aside from the financial expense, though, some parents fear a hidden cost: that their kids won’t want to go on to college after getting their first taste of real freedom. “My initial reaction was that if she didn’t go to college [right away], she never would,” says Robert Glowinski of Potomac, whose daughter, Kathryn, announced in the middle of her senior year at Whitman that she wanted to take a gap year. “It was just unfathomable to me that my daughter would not be going directly to college. It’s what the kids of Type A parents just did!”
But, Glowinski adds, “once I got over the initial shock and my ‘how-will-I-explain-it-to-my-neighbors’ embarrassment, I came to agree with my wife, Devra, that it was probably the best thing for her. Kathryn was just burned out on education and the competition that she associated with it.”
After graduating in 2008, Kathryn Glowinski decided to spend a year working at a computer store in Rockville. “That job was fabulous for her,” Devra Glowinski says. “It allowed her to take herself out of the world of Whitman High School and take on a very different kind of responsibility. She thrived there, and her customers, her co-workers and her supervisors loved her. She built confidence. She learned to talk with strangers—a talent that she had not developed at all. She learned to appreciate how much she had, and to think about forming goals for the future.”
And ultimately, those goals included college: Kathryn Glowinski is now a sophomore at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
Gretchen Walker of Chevy Chase, a 2009 Sidwell Friends graduate now on a gap year in Ecuador, Argentina and France, says she never considered skipping college. “I appreciate the opportunity [to go to school],” she says. “I have been to places in the world where education is not an option that everyone has.” Walker will attend Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., this fall.
Hartley’s younger brother, Charlie, a 2009 Walter Johnson graduate who deferred admission to the University of Wisconsin, began his gap year in the Rocky Mountains last fall through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). But he’s still looking forward to college. “My gap year will help me to refine my interests and discover what I am most interested in pursuing,” he says.
Certainly that was true for Steve Andrews, who graduated from Princeton in 2005. His gap year experiences working on environmental causes, as well as his time teaching and traveling in China, led to a junior year abroad in China, a degree in geosciences with certificates in Chinese and environmental studies, and enough expertise on air quality in China to be consulted by news organizations on the subject during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
His road there wasn’t always smooth, however. He remembers traveling on his own through Cambodia at 18 and having his motorcycle break down. He was able to get help and continue on, “but,” he says, “it really hit me that this is what they mean by ‘real world experience.’ I was completely responsible for myself.”
Which is the whole point, says Bull, the gap year adviser. “Whether a student chooses to do or not do a gap year,” she says, “the crux of the decision is owning the process. Stepping into your own life is the core.”
Pamela Toutant is a freelance writer living in Chevy Chase.