Good for Malia Obama.
The president’s oldest daughter has been accepted into Harvard, which is itself reason for congratulation. But she has also chosen a road somewhat less traveled. Malia will be taking a “gap year” before heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts – a one-year break in her formal education to pursue her own path to growth.
I took a gap year myself, a long, long time ago, when no one called it that. My gap year wasn’t as intentional or as well thought-out as experts recommend, but it turned out to be one of the most important years of my life.
It started when I took a wrong turn in the college selection process. There were just a few schools I thought were good enough for me, and they were the only ones I applied to. Turned out I wasn’t good enough for them, and when the thin envelopes arrived I was traumatized. I decided to forego college for a year to learn something about what I then referred to as “the real world.”
I moved to the city an hour from home, sharing an apartment in the seedy side of town with my older brother. I got a job — nothing fancy, well-paid or all that interesting, but it paid the bills. I learned the discipline that full-time work required, and saw the limitations of a high school diploma. I shopped for groceries, cooked the meals and cleaned up after myself — some of the time, at least. Pretty basic stuff, I guess, but new territory for a lot of well-raised 18-year-olds.
In my gap year, I got to meet people who weren’t at all like the folks back in my suburban home. I got involved in the politics of my time, joining in demonstrations and earnest debates about war, rights and morality. It was an exciting, scary time for my country, and I felt more a part of it than ever before.
I also lit off on my own to see something of the world. I hitchhiked to Nashville, Tennessee — an accepted, and affordable, means of transport back then. I vividly remember one night finding myself stranded in a downpour outside Covington, Kentucky, and realizing that no one I knew had the slightest idea where I was. I had never felt so free, so independent, so grown up.
Gap years today tend to be more structured than when I wandered out into the world to find myself. Schools like Harvard have begun encouraging students to defer admission for a year. Long popular in Europe, where gap years are often associated with backpacking around the world, the movement is growing here in the U.S.
There’s now a gap year industry, offering a wide range of programs: internships, volunteer opportunities, group travel abroad that can cost thousands of dollars. Such programs are marketed to teens hungry for adventure and parents who were never comfortable with unsupervised play. One company offers travel “designed to safely challenge every student.”
Such programs no doubt have their value. Gap year advocates argue that the year should be transformative, and that the experience of those who spend their year off living at home and earning money for college doesn’t translate into success at college.
Maybe so. But after my self-guided gap year, I entered college more eager to learn, more serious about my studies and far more mature than my classmates. I had developed a confidence and an appetite for adventure that has served me well.
In a few weeks, high school seniors clad in caps and gowns will sit through speeches delivered by their elders urging them to expand their horizons, follow their dreams and explore their passions. Many of them may find themselves thinking, as I did at their age, “but I don’t know what my passion is, or how to find my way to the horizon.” All they can see ahead of them is freshman year, which is a lot like high school, only with more beer.
As I’ve told my own kids, if all you really want to do is party, you don’t have to pay a university for the privilege. Better to take a gap year, where you can chart your own course, discover your passion and find yourself in the real world. There’s beer in the real world too, and a lot that’s even more fun.
You don’t have to be the president’s daughter or have a seat waiting for you at Harvard. You don’t have to have parents rich enough to purchase a resume-ready volunteer experience or a guided tour of foreign destinations. All it takes is the courage to step off the educational conveyer belt you’ve been riding since preschool, to escape the comfy cocoon in which you were raised. There are experiences in the gap between high school and college that are yours and yours alone. Go find them.
— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Rick on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.