Gap years gaining in popularity

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Grace Misera, 19, of Altoona is taking a “gap year” and working in a Hollidaysburg attorney’s office before heading off to Point Park University in the fall. Taking a year off between high school and college has been popular for students in Europe and Australia, and now the practice is gaining traction in the United States.

Grace Misera, 19, of Altoona graduated with honors from Bellwood-Antis High School in June, but she didn’t go to college immediately. Instead, she took a “gap year.”

“My teachers didn’t know how to react. They were like ‘Oh, I guess you can do that.’ My parents were so supportive, which was awesome,” she said. “I didn’t go to college right away because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

At the end of her junior year and all through her senior year she felt pressed by expectations to go to college.

“I freaked out in the middle of my senior year. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I have family in Pittsburgh so I applied to Point Park,” she said.

She received a scholarship to go to Point Park University in the fall, but she asked to defer for a year and maintain the scholarship. It was allowed.

Since she graduated from Bellwood-Antis, she’s been working part time at a law office and also nurturing her passion for art through a mentorship with a local artist.

“I never really had office experience. I was never really drawn to that type of work, but I think it is beneficial to character building and learning experience,” she said.

She is slated to attend Point Park in August. She is still trying to figure out what to pursue.

“The purpose of a gap year is to literally have experiences and to not waste money. It’s to find out what I truly want to major in instead of doing what everyone else is doing,” she said. “Not wanting to go right away doesn’t make you weird. It’s smarter.”

In the past year, while other students were getting used to college, she’s traveled to Paris and is planning a trip to Canada in the spring.

“I wanted to go places before I pile up debt,” she said.

The idea of a gap year has generated interest among popular media sources, academic scholars and prestigious institutions in the United States in recent years, according to the American Gap Association.

The association is an accreditation and standards-setting organization for gap years that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

According to the association, gap years can take place either domestically or internationally but must involve “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives and experimenting with future possible careers.”

Gap years are more common for students in Europe and Australia than in the U.S.; however, they are increasing in popularity in America.

There is a booming industry of gap year programs along with the inception of the American Gap Association.

But there is a cost to taking a gap year planned through those programs, said Heather Ricker-Gilbert, Ph.D, education consultant in State College.

“It costs a lot of money. All of it’s going to have a fee. Or you can create your own gap year. Some students may take a college-level course and decide to work or volunteer and travel.”

The cross-cultural education gap year organization “Where there be dragons” promotes many educational gap year programs including a three-month exploration of India: “Immerse yourself in the rich fabric of Indian life: trek through the Himalayas, meditate beneath the Bodhi tree, deconstruct the term ‘caste,’ and become part of another family,” the trip description states. The cost is about $15,000 between flight and land costs.

For some students, a planned gap year is a good idea, Ricker-Gilbert said.

“It gives kids a structure,” she said.

“I had a young man here in State College who decided he wasn’t ready to go to college. He worked in Poland and did volunteer work through a program set up for him and other students. He came back and applied to college and went the next fall.”

While that particular student applied to college after his gap year, Ricker-Gilbert said about 50 percent of students who take gap years apply to college and get accepted first, then put it on hold.

“I think sometimes students who work so hard in high school need a break so that they can enter college with new motivation, new skills and a new perspective,” she said.

She gave another example of a student she had who was accepted to Bates College and took a gap year. She did community service and traveled and the college held her spot. She went back the next year and attended Bates.

“Most colleges are very receptive to students who take gap years,” Ricker-Gilbert said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.