For several decades now, schools and parents throughout Europe have been encouraging students to take a so-called "gap year" before embarking on their journey to university. A popular notion abroad, the gap year serves as a "breathing point" for students wishing to explore the cultural, financial and employment opportunities of the "real world."
America, on the other hand, has been slower to embrace the concept, preferring, instead, the more traditional route of students' heading straight to college immediately after completing high school. Slowly but surely, however, the idea of the gap year has been making inroads in the U.S. -- much to the chagrin of some very unhappy parents.
The gap year is a commonplace event for high school graduates in Europe, and it works like this
Having completed the International Baccalaureate and received their International Award, many European students are ready to immerse themselves in the less familiar, adult world. The gap year allows for these students to take a step back, see the bigger picture and continue their studies after that year with a much more mature and open-minded point of view -- and a renewed enthusiasm.
All very well said and done in practice. So why are some American parents so quick to judge?
The American education system, for as long as it has been around, has been based on hard work and a dedication to pushing children as far as their ambitions take them. "Reaching for the stars" is the standard goal in most American high schools today. From day one, you are molded into the ideal college candidate as your mother frantically puts together your extracurricular calendar and becomes involved as a concerned parent of the PTA. (It is no surprise that most American parents are much more involved in school activities and events than their European counterparts.)
The American education system leads both parents and the Board of Education to advocate for good grades and statistics rather than sane teenagers who are ready -- and mature enough -- for college. We aren't teaching for education's sake anymore, but rather for the sake of statistics and data. That, on one hand, gives American students significant leverage in the statistical college world. But, on the other, it takes away the ability to analyze and see the world from a more mature point of view. Taking this into consideration, is it surprising that the gap year concept is so widely feared by parents in the U.S.?
Many students, on the other hand, are all for the gap year. The idea of total freedom, the ability to travel for a year (and party), would not have to cross a teen's mind more than once to sound inviting. The problem is that many American parents are reluctant to offer their sons or daughters the freedom to venture out into such a world.
Unfortunately, that reluctance is often justified. Rather than take a gap year as a time of exploration and self-discovery, the stereotypical American teenager takes advantage of the opportunity. Too often, the gap year is about getting drunk, having fun and spending money.
Then there are those who do it right -- and that is what we should aspire to.
Locally, two Greenwich High School graduates (Class of 2010), who did it right are Justin Pepito, 18, and Oliver Plunkett, 18. Both say that their view of university and the choices they want to make for their future were indeed drastically altered once they entered the "real world" for a year after high school. Justin chose to take his gap year in order to further his international connections as well as to explore his financial self-sufficiency. As a result, he has become well-versed in the cultural dynamics of political science and has expanded his horizons far beyond American shores, venturing as far as Australia to continue his studies. Oliver, having just returned from a six-month stay in a Tibetan temple in India, has seen the world through a completely different looking glass and has not only expanded his cultural knowledge, but has developed a far more self-assured and mature nature that will lead him to a very successful path in his future studies.
Like Justin and Oliver, several seniors graduating in 2011 have chosen the gap year path -- not to party, but to travel, volunteer or work. Lily Asch, 17, for example, is excited about the opportunities her gap year will offer. She is certain that her travels with Greenpeace are going to be some of the best months of her life, that she will form connections, experience different cultures and be exposed to a variety of situations that she will cherish and use in her studies down the road.
It is important that parents allow their children to succeed not only through grades alone, but also through the ability to maturely tackle real world dilemmas -- as well as learning to take a step back to view the larger picture.
Natalya Skjelmose is a senior at Greenwich High School and is interning at the Greenwich Citizen. She was born in London, raised in Greece and has traveled throughout Europe. She is taking a gap year in Beijing and Shanghai to study to Mandarin before attending Beijing University in 2012.