Malia Obama’s recent announcement about taking a year off before college this fall made big waves in the gap year industry. I happened to be at the American Gap Association’s annual conference the day of her big announcement. The room full of gap year program providers, university-sponsored gap programs, and gap year advisors cheered and high-fived. We took bets on whom among us Malia would (hopefully) choose for her gap year.
Taking time off before college is a relatively small, but growing trend in the United States compared to other parts of the world. Whether students are working, volunteering, or traveling independently, as student affairs professionals we can see the value in students taking time away from the classroom to learn a little bit more about themselves and the world before starting their college journey. But for folks who spend our days helping students have transformative experiences on campus, how do we best support these students who have had these life-changing educational experiences before they even walk in the door?
When working with the gap students on campus, here are a few things to keep in mind…
Many gap year programs offer students the option to take college courses, whether formally or informally, that can then transfer to their college of choice. In fact, many colleges and universities even offer their own internal gap year or gap semester programs, offering students the opportunity to start at their college of choice, just in a non-traditional way.
A gap experience can provide clarity for students who are strongly undecided on their course of study. Gap students that initially deferred their acceptance to college may find themselves reapplying to schools that more closely align with their newly developed academic interests, realizing that a different institution may prove to be a better fit than the one they committed to only a few months before.
As a result of their hands on experience with the subject matter, oftentimes these students arrive incredibly dedicated to their chosen course of study. They’re excited to engage with the material in class and eager to share their experiences with their classmates and professors. Unlike some of their peers, they’re not afraid to speak up in class, to offer their opinion, and to ask thoughtful questions. Help the gap students in your life channel that excitement and continue to make meaning of their experience through their academic coursework: recommend supplemental books or documentaries and invite them to community events that continue to bring the subject matter to life.
Helping gap students plug into the appropriate networks on your campus can be crucial. Similar to students who just returned from studying abroad, gap students may feel incredibly isolated. They just had this amazing experience and left behind all of the friends they met during their gap year. Now may feel somewhat stuck on a college campus where nobody ‘gets’ them. Compared to what they experienced during their gap year, daily life on a college campus can seem dull. They may feel they’re wasting time by ‘just sitting in a classroom’ when they could be out experiencing the world. Inform them about all of the ways they can ‘experience the world’ as a student on your campus including study abroad, internships, and service opportunities. This will help them connect the dots between their gap and higher education experiences.
Many gap students also have a profound shift in their worldview. They seriously reevaluate what’s important to them during their time away. If they’re from the US and spent time abroad during their gap year, they might come home with a different perspective on being American. Let them know that they’re not alone in their interests, be it environmental conservation, affordable housing, or international affairs. Help them connect to the environmental science club or office of service-learning to meet like-minded folks. Connect them to the international students’ association or the student group for the part of the world that they lived. This can also help them establish connections with students who might also be feeling isolated, just in reverse.
Those of us that work with first-year students are familiar with the many transitional challenges that these students face. For example, developing problem solving skills, fostering healthy habits, and creating positive social connections with their peers. You may find that the gap students on your campus are having the opposite problem. After a gap experience, students may find the goings on of their first-year peers immature.
While their classmates may be concerned about partying, many gap students have spent the last few months in a country where they could legally drink. They’ve learned how to savor a nice glass of wine with dinner, making beer pong pale in comparison. They’re disappointed, of course, that the United States does not afford them this same opportunity until they’re 21. They may struggle with the fact that their peers’ relationship with alcohol differs so drastically.
The interest in gap year programs continues to grow (Thanks again, Malia!). I look forward to the ways that we can continue to support this flourishing and phenomenal group of first-year students.
This is a re-post from ACPA’s Commission for Admissions, Orientation, and First-Year Experience blog. See the full post here.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Alison Scheide on Study Abroad Programs