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Taking the Gap Year Gift
Michelle Deatrick, 4/8/2010

Michelle Deatrick has homeschooled her children for fourteen years; her daughter Elizabeth took several AP Online courses through PA Homeschoolers, and her son Alexander will take his first PA Homeschoolers’ AP class next fall.  Michelle is a part-time technical consultant and an award-winning writer whose work has been published in several literary magazines and the anthology Best New American Voices 2006.  She is currently at work on a novel.  Michelle and her family live on an 80-acre farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Frangipani Flowers.jpg

I’d never heard the term “gap year” until, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, I met a new teacher in a nearby village, a young British woman who had deferred entrance to Cambridge in order to teach at a Kenyan elementary school.  Taking a gap year—deferring college, usually for a single year in order to pursue volunteer, internship, travel, or learning opportunities--has been  popular in England for decades.  Even Prince William spent a year volunteering in Chile--and mucking out stalls on a British dairy farm!  As a National Public Radio piece recognizes, the idea has taken root in the U.S. and is rapidly growing in popularity  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92528052  .

My homeschooled 18-year-old, Elizabeth, calls the choice to defer college “one of the best decisions of my life.”  The list of things she’s learned and accomplished in this year is a bit daunting, including skills that will enrich her entire life—learning to knit, gaining her SCUBA certification, and studying Swahili.  She’s learned about editing and publishing as Editorial Assistant for the Houghton-Mifflin anthology, The Best New American Nonrequired Reading.  She’s read deeply in authors she learned to love in high school (such as Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work she learned of thanks to Mrs. Ruth Green’s AP English Literature class!)  And as an intern at the Toledo Zoo’s Veterinary Hospital and Aviary, she’s learned medical procedures, held responsibility for two aviary exhibits and a medical isolation unit, and assisted in surgeries and procedures on animals ranging from the endangered Virgin Island Tree Boa to a snow leopard.  She’s also gained much of the 300-500 hours of volunteer time required to apply to veterinary schools after her undergrad work is over.

A gap year can be a truly terrific choice for many reasons.  But I think that career exploration can be invaluable, even—or perhaps especially—for the teen who thinks she knows exactly what she wants to do with her life.  At the beginning of the year, Elizabeth was “about 99% certain” that she wanted to be a veterinarian.  After a year of assisting and observing veterinarians, she’s not as sure.  She’s now looking into the possibility of a career in veterinary medical research, or in science writing.  In the remainder of her gap year, she’s taking a course through Stanford Continuing Studies called “Science Writing with the New York Times,” and is looking for summer research opportunities.   As she says, “Much better to think carefully about whether I want be a veterinarian now than later!”

Everyone we’ve told about Elizabeth’s wonderful year—absolutely everyone, from friends to family to the waitress at our favorite local café—has responded with enormous enthusiasm and interest.  For most people, the idea of receiving a year is deeply engaging, even thrilling.  But perhaps the most telling response came from a friend of my own, who regrets her early, inadequately considered choice of major and career. “I so wish I’d done that,” she said.  “Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in a job I hate.” 

So how do you go about arranging a gap year?  It’s beautifully simple, which was quite a relief to us after the rigors of the college application process!  Before applying to colleges, Elizabeth contacted the admissions offices of the colleges she was interested in; she was happily surprised to learn that the colleges not only permitted gap years, but responded with enthusiasm to the idea.    On the advice of the admissions offices, she then applied in the usual way during her senior year, without mentioning the gap year idea.  While waiting for application decisions, she went forward with gap year plans:  applying for internships, finding continuing studies classes, and so on.  Then, after choosing to attend Wesleyan, she fulfilled Wesleyan’s procedure for a gap year request, which was typical of the other colleges:    a one-page letter to the Admissions Committee, describing her plan for the gap year.  In less than a week, her gap year was approved.  Wesleyan’s Dean of Admissions even wrote a warm personal note to Elizabeth:  “Enjoy your year of writing and caring for animals!” 

I’d advise planning the year thoroughly.  if Elizabeth could do anything differently, she’d have spent even more time investigating her options.  There are many companies and books that help with gap year plans (do Google and Amazon searches for “gap year”).  But being do-it-yourself types, we did the planning on our own, and it’s worked out quite well.   Starting a year ahead is good idea, since some volunteer and internship programs for gap year students require applications.  One thing that all the colleges advised against was using the gap year to work.  It’s not the reason they grant the year’s deferral.  And if the student is eligible for financial aid, the amount earned will be deducted from the aid. 

One last thought:  Elizabeth is very glad that she’s kept a detailed journal of day-by day activities.  I’m no longer maintaining written records of what she does, as I did during high school, and it’s nice for her to look back on journal entries about what she’s done and learned.  The journal is also a potentially helpful reminder for writing applications in the future, for internships and summer programs.  Last night, my daughter skimmed through her journal, and we talked about her year.  “I’m so grateful, Mom,” she said.  “It may sound cheesy and sentimental, but it’s true that this year has been a wonderful gift.” 


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