Last semester, at the NASPA Region I HESA grad school fair, I was asked to stand at our table and answer questions posed by potential candidates. “What’s something you love about the program? How did you pick UVM? Where else did you apply?” So many questions. And with each one, I wanted to warn them to run away and don’t look back. At least not for a year or more that is.
You see, in the fall of 2011, when I was a shiny new undergraduate about to embark on the hunt for grad schools, I was given the single most significant piece of advice to date: take a year off. Outside of summer breaks, I hadn’t lived my life without homework since nap time was a mandatory part of my daily routine. I felt so prepared to continue plugging along with my education that I was actually offended at the suggestion that I should stop now. Of course, my angst might have also been because the supervisor that told me this was notorious for teasing. Yet the more I talked with other mentors the more it became apparent just how many of the ones I connected with most, the ones I went to for their deep wisdom and guidance, had all followed that same path of taking one (or three or ten) years off at some point during college.
Certainly, “off” is a relative term. Off from school, but on to the many adventures that can come from the freedom of not having daily structure including homework. The liberation of having one single job instead of work-study position, off-campus job, five professors, a lab instructor, and a volunteer coordinator to answer to. Undergrads spend so much time answering to the competing priorities of those around them that they hardly have a chance to just be themselves or set their own priorities. Particularly for me, I always dreamed of exploring big cities or backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. But as a low-income student, I didn’t have much time or resources to devote to traveling outside of the hundred mile radius of Denver and Fort Collins where I grew up and went to undergrad.
With this profound advice to take a year off and my desire to travel while, admittedly, still, on a budget, I signed up for service with AmeriCorps NCCC. This year of traipsing around the country doing national community service with my 10 new best friends was the single most influential year of my life. I never imagined living in small town Iowa, Washington D.C., Brooklyn, or Chicago and yet I found a home in all of these places, building community with people from all walks of life and doing work I wouldn’t have ever considered otherwise.
The importance of this kind of experience isn’t lost on many proponents of higher education. The American Gap Association is a non-profit that connects high school students with a plan to get into college, defer entry, and then build a year of enriching experiences. Their data suggests that the 90% of students who take a gap year and then follow through with their enrollment in college felt that their maturity had increased, they gained significant professional skills, and were more invested in being a global citizen. Harvard, Yale, Penn, and many other universities actively encourage students to defer enrollment for a gap year or to take one sometime during their undergraduate experience. Tufts University in Boston has even created their own 1+4 Bridge Program, a highly structured and credit-bearing service year prior to enrolling full time.
It’s no secret to SA professionals that students develop as people outside of the classroom. Luckily for the next generation of college students, it seems like some corners of Higher Ed might be coming to terms with the idea that a great way for some students to develop is not just outside of the classroom, but beyond the walls of the ivory tower altogether.
Colorado State University, 2011
AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps Class XIX
UVM HESA Class of ’18