Last year, one of my favorite high school teachers had my class read Walden, one of Thoreau's most famous books. Most of it was pretty hard to get through, but the following passage really resonated with me, enough so that here I am, citing it more than a year later:
The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful. "But," says one, "you do not mean that the students should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
Truly, how better could one spend the time than by living, instead of studying and/or waiting for "real" life to begin?
Although I didn't take a gap year, many of my friends did. I think that it is a very valuable experience, and one that lends itself to a certain maturity and sense of purpose that is generally left unknown to those who go straight from one school to the next.
I asked several of my friends why they took a gap year, what they did during their gap year, and what personal value it has had to them. Here is what they had to say:
I decided to take a gap year largely because an opportunity came up that I didn't want to turn down. This was the opportunity to travel in Europe for two months with a traditional world music chorus. We traveled from Corsica up through mainland Europe to England and Wales, staying with host families the entire way, and singing concerts most nights. It was truly an awesome way to travel and meet new people.
After the tour, I hadn't made any firm plans for the rest of the year (although I knew that I'd be going to Oberlin in the fall), and so had to buckle down when I got home and find a productive way to use my time. I started working part-time as a dishwasher in a restaurant and also as a substitute teacher in the public schools. These were both very different experiences, but in terms of life experience, two of the most important things I've ever done. From the former, I gained an appreciation of the value and importance of work for work's sake; not necessarily work that I needed an education for, but work that was hidden from any glory and yet vital at the most fundamental level. In other words, I learned to work my ass off for minimum wage for 8 straight hours and come back the next day and do it again. From the latter, I had to learn about being extremely open-minded and being flexible. Being in a new school every day, with a new set of students, in a different grade level, with a different subject was sort of like going to work everyday with a blindfold and taking it off once I got there and being told, figure it out.
Then in March I started working at a local farm, and worked there until I came to school. It was then that I finally found my stride. I loved working outside every day and feeling like my work was accomplishing something tangible (and often edible). This was maybe the time in my life that I have felt the most free. Although I have many conflicting ideas as to what "freedom" is, I believe that having the opportunity to rise with the sun, to get myself to work everyday (via a 12-mile bike ride), to be outside every day in the sun, rain, and wind, and use my mind along with my body was the closest that I have come to achieving freedom.
All in all, after high school, I'd been in school for at least 13 straight years. It was all I'd ever known and I'd become quite good at it. Life without school however was new and at that time had the potential to teach me more than another year of it. This year of alternate learning (a.k.a. life learning) has made my return to school much more informed. My appreciation and value for labor is especially important coming back to academia, which sometimes ignores the importance of the jobs that hold day to day life together.
I decided to take a gap year because I was not ready to go to college, for many reasons. Instead of pushing through the feelings of being torn away from my family, which I knew I would probably get over, and forcing myself to jump into another stressful four years of school, I decided to go with my gut feeling of "I'm not ready!" My family and I had been discussing my taking a year off since I was a freshman in high school, probably because both of my parents, as well as many of their peers, were never given a choice. College is often just seen as what you do after high school, but it isn't for everyone, at least right away.
I spent the summer before the gap year technically started at a summer study program in Colorado where I took a few classes (Psychology, Wellness, Writing) for no credit and had a blast. Then I went back to Colorado and lived with an Obie friend and her new baby for two months, spending half of the time in her studio doing ceramics, and the other half nannying for the baby. We travelled to Kansas City and installed a solo show at the Kemper Museum.
I spent the rest of my time at home in Philadelphia applying to college with this year's freshmen, learning to drive, cooking, doing circus arts, hanging out with my family and cats, and working with a nonprofit organization called Fresh Artists.
One of my big worries was that after the gap year I would still feel connected to "my class" of 2011, and be unable to integrate into "the grade below me." Unlike high school, all bets are off in college, and that has completely been a non-issue. Now, I feel like I have an emotional leg up on this year's freshmen. I have been mulling over this whole college thing for a year, whereas I can imagine it is jarring to only have a few months off then be thrown into the crazy world that is college. Taking a gap year was the best decision I have made so far in my life, and I truly feel that it changed me as a person for the better.
I took a gap year under the pretense of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, and while I did get some insight, it was really just an excuse to have fun for a year. To some extent it seems like the time in your life where you can take a year and do literally whatever you want. I'm not really sure where I got the idea, but certainly some of the influence on my decision came from my cousin taking a gap year two years before me. I spent four months in South Africa working with animals, mostly penguins, but also monkeys and other endangered species. I then came home and spent two months training for an outdoors program in Chile. It was a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) semester in Patagonia that included a month of sea kayaking and a month of mountaineering. I cannot even begin to describe my experiences, but it was probably the best decision I ever made, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself over the course of the year. It's hard to realize what impact it has had on my life since the things I was doing are so far removed from my life now. I do know that I am a much better person because of it, and I definitely wasn't ready for college. My gap year enabled me to actually want to go back to school and have the motivation to do well. Most importantly, though, it really put things into perspective and gave me invaluable experiences that I would be unable to gain in any other context.
I decided to take a gap year simply because I couldn't imagine myself in a classroom the next year. Visiting schools felt interesting but disembodied, because I knew that I wasn't yet in a place where I wanted to actually be there.
In September of my year off I moved to a small town on the Oregon coast where my best friend and her family live. I spent three months living with her family and working in a cheese shop and bakery in town. Eventually when I was laid off from that job I began working at a nearby goat farm and the night shift at a grocery store thirty miles up the coast. It was a crazy time -- I was living in a different place for each job, often travelling between the two of them each day. I saved up enough money, though, to travel to Romania for three months in the spring. There I worked odd jobs -- WWOOFing, hostel work, but I also spent a month and a half living in two Orthodox monasteries, which was an unexpected and very intense experience, not being Orthodox myself.
Waiting a year before coming to Oberlin was one of the best decisions I've made. It's helped me to be on better financial footing, it's helped me to have a better understanding and to think more productively about why I'm here. It's had more personal significance that is less related to Oberlin as well -- communities that I became a part of, people who I worked with, others who I met, the time I spent living by myself...
So there you have it. Reading all of these entries made me wish I had taken a year off of school too, although in truth, I did get to do a lot of traveling and partook in more R&R than I'd like to admit during my senior year of high school. If you're considering taking a gap year, I say GO FOR IT! The great institution of education will still be around when you're ready for it.
Props to my roommate Leal for deciding to take the year off next year and have some crazy adventures of her own!
Click here to be redirected to the official Oberlin gap year website!
(It's not exactly done at the moment, but there are a few useful tidbits to be gleaned from it).