Published on December 20th, 2011 | by Amancai Biraben0
The road less traveled
In August, the average high school graduate will begin to pack duffel bags full of college sweatshirts and sweatpants, a new laptop and a fresh mind set for a new stage of life. They set up their belongings in a cramped dorm, discover their post-class café for necessary stress-reliving Vanilla lattes, and pass many sleepless nights studying, and partying. Living this grueling but independent and ultimately rewarding college lifestyle is the goal for most high schoolers. However, while some may be struggling with a month-load of backed up laundry, one of their high school alumni, once a fellow math desk partner, flute section leader, or go-to pencil supplier from English class, is going on a global adventure that goes beyond Spanish or Asian culture learned in the classroom. Instead of trekking the halls of Stanford, they are off scrambling across the mountains of Nepal, taking what is known as a gap year. This year-long college alternative has been said to change the traveler’s life and shape his or her identity.
Most schools have trained students with the idea that after four years of high school, they should go straight on to four years of college. Most of us think that only college leads to later success in life. However, a select few of Samo students have chosen a different path, and they say that they have been rewarded not with A’s, but with life experiences. These students say that deffering their college experience has not in any way deferred them from acheiving their goals. Instead, this gap year was the perfect choice. Last year, after placing a deposit at the University of Texas at Austin, Samo graduate Taylor Weary received a call from Harvard College admissions, saying that if she took a gap year, she would be guaranteed a spot in their Class of 2016. This caused a slight hiccup in her post-high school plans.
“My life’s trajectory since diapers was supposed to land me in college this year,” Weary said. “If I took Harvard’s offer, my largest concern was finding a way to occupy myself productively for an entire school year.”
Only a few months later, she found herself working in Cape Town, South Africa, at a daycare where she taught children art projects, music and games. She also spent time in the infant ward of a children’s hospital with babies, where she made use of silly face painting and an exorbitant amount of tickling. Taking a gap year, which is soon coming to a close, gave Weary an incomparable experience.
“If I had said, ‘No thanks,’ six months ago, I would have never have danced the Macarena with 3-year-olds who live in shipping containers. I would never have had porridge affectionately regurgitated on me by a baby with HIV who may not see her parents again. I would never have marshaled a march protesting domestic abuse. I would never have taken a drumming lesson from a woman who learned djembe [drumming] in Mali, or fully understood the resilient dignity and vivacity of life I came in trying to ‘fix,’” Weary said. “College, when I get there, will now mean so much more,”
Weary’s choice to take a gap year was made last-minute, whereas Samo 2011 graduate Leilah Franklin had known it was her destiny to take a gap year since middle school.
“My father and my step-mother were big travelers. Growing up, success in my mind wasn’t measured by how much money people had or the cars that people drove. As much as I love those things, it’s never been my upmost goal to gain wealth.”
Franklin’s adventure consists of three stages, two of which she has nearly completed. She started her experience with two months in Southern Thailand, where she was involved in reef conservation, mangrove planting, and beach cleanups. Now in stage two, she is living in San Francisco, interning for an environmental activist group dedicated to rainforest relief and inspiring youth to take action. For the third leg of her gap year, she will be moving to Israel for five months in February, to live and work on a Kibbutz (Hebrew agricultural community). There she will be participating in a program called “Ulpan,” which is essentially a language intensive for those who wish to become fluent in Hebrew. Having the chance to see and help the world around her is giving Franklin a chance to discover things about herself.
“I hope to gain perspective during my gap year. If my four years at Samo taught me anything about life, it taught me that everyone comes from their own perspective, which in turn affects their perception (not negative or positive). I hope to find my own perspective on life by moving around to different countries and seeing how others live their life,” Franklin said.
Because a gap year has the ability to broaden the traveler’s horizon’s, some colleges encourage high school grads to take a year off. The Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, wrote an article on the subject.
“Students taking a year off prior to Harvard…. speak of their year away as a life-altering experience or a turning point, and most feel that its full value can never be measured and will pay dividends the rest of their lives. Many come to college with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the career possibilities they observed in their year away.”
Samo college counselor Frank Gatell believes that while taking a gap year is an amazing experience, he recognizes that very few students choose to delay college. According to Gatell, only five students at Samo chose to delay college last year, including Weary. The University of California and California State Universities don’t allow it, which is a reason why so few Samo students take one. Most private schools, such as Harvard, however, do accept it.
“Private schools will work with you, because they have their own rules. They don’t always allow it, though. This is why a lot of kids who really want to take a gap year don’t apply to college straight after high school. Once they complete a gap year, then they’ll apply,” Gatell said.
One condition of taking a gap year, according to Gatell, that worries students is the necessity of having a concrete plan. Colleges will not be impressed if they hear that you spent a year surfing in Puerto Rico. Colleges want to see applicants who spent the year finding out who they were and helping a community.
Despite the many perks of a gap year, there are still concerns. The great cost, and the desire to go to college straight away discourage many from taking a gap year. But mainly, some students just aren’t ready.
2011 Samo graduate Max Tamahori, who now studies at The University of Chicago, and was “on the fence about it.” The idea of seeing the world appealed to him, but he decided on college.
“Ultimately, I found that I’m not ready for the world unassisted, which is what I was going for. I knew I did not want to enroll in some sort of program or community service initiative; I wanted to go off and see things afresh, unmediated through my own senses. And unfortunately I didn’t have enough faith in myself,” Tamahori said.
Many current Samo students are considering taking a gap year.
Senior Charlotte Biren hasn’t yet figured out whether or not she officially is going to take a year off, but she certainly thinks there are many benefits. Having completed three stressful years and now working through her fourth, having a year to discover the world and herself seems enticing.
“They say that when you take a gap year, you lose all the momentum you have built up for college, but I think that you actually get inspired and motivated,” Biren said.
Because a gap year is such a big decision, students who are interested in it need to read between the lines that come with the glamorous cover story of “exploring the world.”
Samo Junior Yuri Kawashima is looking at every angle: the price, the responsibility, and the experience.
“The great thing about a gap year is that you get to explore the world for yourself at such a young age. But education obviously comes first. I wouldn’t take a gap year if I got into one of my top choice schools,” Kawashima said.
While it is a big decision to make, many believe that it’s an ideal time to figure out who you are as a person.
“During high school, so many kids volunteer to do things just for a glowing college application. But once they take a gap year, students get the opportunity to experience something that will shape them as a person in doing something great for a community,” Gatell said.
The big question about life after high school is what makes an education? Is knowledge measured in hours spent in a lecture hall working towards a degree, or exploring the planet and forming relationships with antipodal people and cultures? Maybe swimming through an Indonesian grotto will bring more enlightenment than writing a term paper on the lakes and seas of the Mediterranean. Or possibly vise vera. The decision ultimately comes down to the type of person you are, how you learn best and what kind of future you invision for yourself.
“When I was little all I wanted to have was an interesting life, and how I measure that is by the adventures I encounter, the people I choose to surround me, and the travels that I partake in,” Franklin said.