The Great Gap Year Debate

Go to college… Go to grad school… Get a job… Travel the world…  

If these were all regarded as viable and respected options, which would you choose and in what order?


I often think about this. Reflecting on my path, specifically during my late teens and twenties, if I knew what I know now about the world, would I have done things differently? I think I would have re-arranged the order of a few things. I would have squeezed in more travel time. I would have taken a gap year.


I’m not unhappy about my accomplishments. I have done an extraordinary amount of things; I’ve seen a great deal of the world. You know that life well lived feeling you get when you do something exciting or reach a new milestone, I’ve felt that more than once. I just can’t shake the feeling that with a broader variety of acceptable options, I could have done so much more, found my place in the world much sooner.


Imagine an American society where young people are encouraged to exist within a different context, where the decision to take a year off to live, volunteer or work in a different country is widely supported and looked upon as a valuable right of passage.




Yesterday, I read a blog post written by Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad  calling for the establishment of an international gap year norm in the United States.


A fearless traveler, who chronicles her adventures through books and blogs, Gelman has been on the go for the last twenty-five years and talks candidly about her experiences connecting with people in the communities in which she travels in an authentic and compassionate way.


Gelman raised two points that resonated with me. The first, being the simple fact that if more Americans took the time to travel internationally and experience life in a different place, there would be much more compassion in this country towards the greater global community. I think this would also carry over to our own back-yards, not only would young Americans be more empathetic towards the plights of others around the world, but towards the plights of those in their own communities at home.


Second, Gelman argues that a gap year, would allow students to develop their own passions and ambitions so that when they do enter college, graduate school or the workplace, they possess the self-awareness to enthusiastically pursue a life course they are well suited for. I couldn’t agree more. Travel has a way of stimulating our senses in a way they have never been engaged before. You are exposed to so many things as a traveler; you are bound to awaken something inside of you, a new interest, a talent, a passion that was allowed to lay dormant during the course of your everyday life back at home. The more people who enter college securely grounded by and passionate about their course of study, the more college graduates. Consequently, more and more colleges are allowing for gap year breaks.


Could an international gap year be the answer to some of our societal problems?


I first became familiar with the term gap year in 2005 when I took some “time off” to volunteer at an orphanage in Cape Coast, Ghana. One of two Americans it seemed in the entire town (I’m sure this is a slight exaggeration), I was surrounded by Europeans (mostly British and German) and Australians on their gap year.  I was completely in awe of this cultural phenomenon, where people in their twenties were encouraged to take a year off to live, interact with and explore the world so that they could better understand and appreciate their place in it.


At home, when I declared at twenty-five, after having invested three years towards a teaching career in New York (that I wasn’t sure I wanted), that I was going to take time off to experience other people, places and perspectives through volunteerism, I was most often met with “why?” Why did I need to go to Ghana to help people when so much help was needed at home? Why did I want to go to Africa, surely it would be dangerous, and I’d get malaria or be mauled to death by a lion. Why did I want to put a career on hold, when there was money to be made and opportunities to seize? The answer- I was simply curious, I wanted to experience life from the perspective of those living in the developing world. I wanted to see Ghana, whatever it looked like, sounded like, smelled like. I wanted to take a moment to give in a way that I had never had the opportunity to give of myself before. I needed a break, from New York, from the East Coast, from North America. I didn’t know why or how, but it was time for me to go.


I have met others like me, who have acted on our unpopular desires to get out and experience the world. But why do so many young Americans repress their desire to travel. What is it about the culture of this country that perpetuates such extreme isolationism, xenophobia even?


The statistics speak volumes; only 37% of Americans hold a passport. Now granted, we are a large nation relatively isolated barring Canada and Mexico, and a large number of Caribbean nations, and hmm…. Central America and honestly, South America is right next-door too, so I guess we aren’t exactly isolated; we can’t use that excuse. Americans seem to be the great practitioners of isolationism. Used to having comforts, used to being comfortable, used to having others adapt to our cultural norms and language, for most Americans, being outside their comfort zone is terrifying. This terror is reflected in everything we do, and shapes our view of the world. Could it be, that the world outside the boundaries of the United States of America is just as beautiful, just as inspiring and safe? Could it be, that the people outside of the boundaries of the United States of America want in many ways, the same things that we want, laugh at some of the same jokes, fear many of the same fears.


Obviously not everybody will want to take a gap year, not everyone is suited for travel, but for those who are, who haven’t been presented with the option or the tools, a gap year would be profound and life shaping. Everyone who wants to experience a gap year should be able to without being made to feel guilty, reckless or aimless.


One of the biggest arguments I hear when embarking on volunteer projects abroad is that I am ignoring problems in America. I completely disagree. We need to shift our focus from the part to the whole. Volunteering abroad builds compassion and empathy. Seeing the poverty and riches of others puts one’s own place into perspective. I have always to this day been involved in some sort of volunteer work in the United States. The assumption that my back is being turned on my country when I expand my outreach to some of the most desperate areas of the world is ridiculous and usually comes from people who have never volunteered their time before in any context whatsoever.


I would love to take a gap year. I probably won’t see mine until I retire (I’m married with a child now); however that won’t stop me from taking mini gap year-like escapes every few years. It is important to me. I feel it’s my duty to ensure that my son is exposed to the world. And when he finishes high school and is faced with that challenging decision as to what to do next, if the answer is a gap year, I will be behind him 100%.



What do you think? Would an international gap year norm in the United States be beneficial or detrimental? Have you had an experience with a gap-year, or study abroad program that you’d like to share?


For more information on Gelman’s gap year organization, you can visit her website