Gap Years Expand Students’ Horizons


Helen Britto and Lauren Dahlberg-Seeth, Staff Writers

Mirador: What made you decide to take a gap year?

Loeper: I have always known that I wanted to give back more than just a couple hours here and there, so taking a year off between high school and college was the perfect time to devote to giving back. Both of my parents also took time off between high school and college so it is highly encouraged in my family.
Riggins: My original motivation to take a year off from school was basically that I had lost my motivation to perform in an academic setting and wanted to give myself some time away from school before I threw myself back into it again. In addition I wasn’t sure what my focus in college was going to be. I wanted to have a more defined path entering school again than your typical college freshman who changes majors at the same rate they change their underwear, which could potentially vary…

M: What are you doing during your gap year?

L: Currently I am serving 10 months with AmeriCorps NCCC. The program consists of four projects around the U.S., of which I have already completed two. For my first project, I was deployed to St. Louis, Missouri to build a multi-use trail with the St. Louis County Parks system. Then I traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to assist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Next, I will be backpacking through Big Bend National Park, helping maintain backcountry trails and wildlife. My final project is yet to be determined (we only find out about two weeks before getting deployed!).
R: During my gap year I received a list of requirements from my parents that I had to achieve during my time away in order to be allowed to take my gap year. The list included: learn a different language, perform some type of humanitarian work, and obtain a job in my field of interest. As a result, for the first two weeks of my year I visited Costa Rica and spent two weeks surfing and learning basic Spanish. After that period of time had passed I traveled to Mendoza, Argentina where I stayed a month and focused the majority of my time expanding my knowledge of Spanish at a small language school in the heart of the city. While I was there I also spent my nights staying and living with a host family which encouraged me even more to dial in my Spanish and helped me become exposed to the local culture.

M: What do you think you’ve gotten out of your gap year?

L: Well, the course of my life would have been completely different had I not taken a year off. First, I have gained a higher appreciation for the life I live and the privileges I was born with, that one cannot understand until they have lived without them and seen the pain and suffering that much of our nation lives with everyday. Traveling across the U.S. has also revealed the countless paths my life can take and how limited I thought my options were while confined to the “Orinda Standard” as I call it. The biggest benefit I have gotten from AmeriCorps NCCC is the work experience in fields I would have never tried on my own. As someone who only got good grades in their high school art classes, I thought my career options were limited to the use of my creativity. After working at a children’s hospital for two months however, I have officially decided to pursue a career in pediatric physical therapy. I would have never even considered a career in the medical field if it were not for AmeriCorps NCCC!
R: It would be a much shorter list to give you examples of what I didn’t get from my year off. I learned how to adapt to and respect different cultures all over the world and avoid the “ugly American” stereotype by really making an effort to learn the culture rather than visit and disappear. In addition I developed independent living skills, that from my experience in my first year at college, you absolutely don’t learn at school. But the original goal, and one of the most important pieces of knowledge I gained, was insight into what I wanted to end up doing with time at college. When I did arrive at school I was motivated and aware of what I wanted to major in.

M: Did you apply for college before taking a gap year?

L: I knew from the begininng of senior year that it was either gap year or community college, so I put in my application for AmeriCorps NCCC and enrolled in DVC as my backup plan.

R: I did not apply for any colleges before I graduated from high school. In fact I didn’t apply for any schools until approximately half way through my year abroad. From my experience I would highly suggest applying for schools before you graduate high school for a variety of reasons and then request to defer a year. The main reason being that when I did take the time to apply for schools, time was of the essence. I had a small block of time from when I arrived back in the States from South America and when I was planning on departing for New Zealand and it was a mad rush to get my applications in. I ended up being accepted to my number one and still love it, although others may not be as lucky.

M: Do you feel more prepared for college?

L: Definitely! AmeriCorps is very similar to college except that you go to work everyday instead of class. Because we live and work in teams of eight to 12, I have become very used to living in close conditions with lots of people. We also have to buy food each week for a team under a budget, so we are taught how to manage and keep track of our team’s finances. We also live out of one large army-issued backpack so I have learned to live comfortably without much.

R: Every day I think about how my year off has helped improve my life as a student. When I graduated high school I didn’t do it with honors to put it simply. After my year off I discovered a new motivation to perform in school. College is a different game and my gap year greatly improved my outlook on education and made me appreciate it much more when I returned than in comparison to when I left to take my year. I also got a chance to see what life without an education could potentially bring and this in addition inspired me to receive a degree.

M: Are you happy with your decision?

L: I can’t remember a time in my life I was happier! I am thankful everyday that I was given the chance to do this and I honestly cannot imagine how different my life would have been without it.

R:R: Exceptionally! When I originally began playing with the idea of taking a gap year I was hesitating because I felt I didn’t want to hold myself back a year from my peers going to college. I eventually realized that was an extremely silly factor to be concerned about because college will always be there and in no way, shape or form is it going to change in this decade. The opportunity to take a year and travel and explore the world while at the same time bettering yourself on multiple levels and generating a depth of knowledge uncharacteristic of a newly graduated high school student is not an opportunity that knocks on the door very often.

M: Any interesting stories/unique experiences?

L: Oh man, everyday is a new unique experience with its own interesting story, so it’s hard to pick just one! I think the best stories come from our travel days though. When you have to drive cross country in one van with 10 other kids, you get pretty creative in ways to entertain yourself.

R: OH YOU HAVE NO IDEA!!!! Although to figure those experiences out you have to take a gap year of your own.

Interested in reading more of Mirador‘s gap year coverage? Check out Lauren and Helen’s interviews with students planning to take gap years and with the director of a gap year program: