[Online Exclusive] Mirador Interviews Gap Year Program Director

Lauren Dahlberg-Seeth and Helen Britto, Staff Writers

Mirador: What exactly is a gap year?

Rosie Perera: It’s a phrase you can use for taking time off from any experience, but most commonly it refers to the year between high school and college. And that’s a year where students can pursue other interests or do something outside of the traditional academic field. Some students use it as a way to explore possible career options and to gain different skill sets, as well as just take a break from the pressure of academics to recharge before moving on to another four years.

M: Why is the gap year a good idea for students?

P: There are a number of reasons. Taking a break from the academic world and the stresses of that is a huge benefit. I work with amazing students; smart, talented, hardworking, and I think it can really just become a grind. To go into a whole other four years—where you’re paying a significant amount of money—kind of feeling burnt out, is a shame and can be a waste of money. So there’s that aspect to it, coming into the college experience excited and rejuvenated, more ready to really engage. It’s also an incredible opportunity to pursue interests. Particularly with the economy, some people think doing a gap year can be an additional expense—and it can be—but at the same time, to use a gap year in an exploratory manner can really hone you in to make the most of college. For example, when I did a gap year, my interests were environmental science and medicine—two totally different tracks. So I designed a gap year where I did an internship in both fields, to kind of get a sense of what the day to reality is, and I was able to say medicine is not for me. To rule that that out going into college was really beneficial; I just hit the ground running because I had a better sense of what I wanted my major to be. That’s what you traditionally see with gap year students: more clarity.

M: What kind of student usually takes a gap year?

P: There’s a huge range of people who take gap years. It can be somebody who feels they struggle in the school environment to those who are very academically oriented. There really are options for every kind of student.

M: What questions should you ask yourself when considering a gap year?

P: I recommend starting with the broadest imagination, in terms of how to craft the best gap year possible. By that I mean literally sitting there and saying, “what interests me?” And then making that giant list—whether it includes cooking, traveling, animals, learning Spanish, whatever. Then start thinking about the pieces that really draw you, as well as your financial picture. There are so many options it can be overwhelming—for example, you can go to Italy and do cooking classes—so start doing research online around your particular pieces. There are also gap year advisors, who are basically like college counselors whom you sign on with, and they help you craft your gap year experience. I would really recommend just talking to a bunch of organizations, and even more importantly, talk to alumnus of those organizations to understand the full experience.

M: Is it expensive?

P: That depends; it can be. Certainly some organizations are more expensive than others. You don’t have to do a formal program, but that helps provide some structure. But there are a lot of ways to do it without spending a lot of money. Again, you’d probably have to take that list and say, “ok, cooking classes in Italy combined with learning to scuba dive off the coast of Brazil is a little much,” and maybe pick one of those. Many organizations offer financial aid, so that’s always something to ask about. In general that there are two main kinds of programs; the set programs, with a leader and a group and a bunch of different pieces, and then an internship-based opportunities that have less of the support structure and are often less expensive.

M: Is there an application process?

P: Yes, with most all experiences you do have to apply.  The deadlines vary, but most group-organized programs run on a semester basis. So usually you want to be applying about a month in advance for either fall or spring semester, especially for international experiences. So this is the perfect time for seniors this year to be researching options and doing that legwork.

M: How do colleges view students who take a year off?

P: In general, they are considered very favorably. They know that when the students do matriculate, they’re in a very different position in terms of maturity, life experience, and contributing to the college community. Several of schools have actually started their own gap year programs. Princeton, for instance, now has their own program called “The Bridge Year,” where the university actually tells students they want them to mature and gain experience for a year before coming. So from the college standpoint, they are very happy to have gap year students because in general they’re fresher.

M: Should they still apply to colleges their senior year?

P: I think it really depends. It can be a lot easier to apply and then defer because you don’t have to think about that during your gap year. It’s quite a process getting letters of recommendation and putting all those pieces in place, so I think that can be the easiest route. But if you apply to schools and you aren’t pleased where you are accepted, and essentially want to try again, you have the opportunity to reapply. I’d say the majority of gap year students defer so they have that in place.

M: What are your organization [Global Routes]’s most popular programs?

P: It’s interesting because we just switched up our program offerings, so I’m curious to see what’s going to be the most popular. Last year I would say our East Africa program was the most popular, and that’s a combination of teaching internship placement and a construction-based service project, as well as a significant amount of travel in and around East Africa. Last year was our first year running it and it was the first to fill, and where we have seen the most interest for the upcoming year.

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