Time off: Is it something we’re entitled to or something we earn? For the gainfully employed, time off usually looks like two weeks of paid vacation per year. But what if time off looked more like 12 months and was something college-age kids could cash-in on?
In 17th century Britain, students of wealthy families traveled to nearby cultural centers, immersing themselves in the history, art, architecture and languages they had studied for years. It was known as the “grand tour,” but the tourists only hailed from the most financially privileged of folks.
After World War II, the National Service Act in Great Britain required that 18 to 20-year-old males either serve in the armed forces or become employed in an “essential job.” The Act inadvertently helped transform the grand tour from something aristocratically elite to something available to all socioeconomic groups. It also supported the idea that taking time off for service or personal development outside of academia resulted in more well-rounded, independent and mature individuals entering college.
Today we call it a “gap year”, and it’s a concept the U.S. has been slow to adopt. In the 1990s, after witnessing a trend of early academic burn-out, Harvard University started to encourage newly admitted freshman to take a year off between high school and higher education. And in December of 2000, the New York Times published an article entitled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.” It gave us the “OK” to step away that we had been waiting for.

Self-awareness and Critical Thinking Skills

The Gap Year Association, a non-profit organization that educates students on gap opportunities, defines the break as, “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional and personal awareness.” The one common denominator: It should be a break from academics, not a break from learning, but from hard hitting the books, so to speak.
For many, college is the first time we find ourselves in charge of our own educational path. This can be thrilling for some, intimidating for others. Ironically, it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and critical thinking skills to decide if a year off to gain more self-awareness and critical thinking skills is the right option for you.
Time away from studies will inevitably lead to a more refreshed and objective outlook when/if you do return to school. It’s a tough ask to expect 18-year-olds to declare with certainty what they want to be when they grow up, when they have barely been exposed to the options.
A 12-month blank canvas can end up being extremely informative, especially if the time is spent pushing comfort zone boundaries. Back to the mantra of “experiential learning,” pursuing immersive experiences that will challenge your existing perspective, like living and working or volunteering in a different country, will yield productive results.
Potential employers will no doubt be interested to hear about your year as a ski instructor in New Zealand before you started your travel and tourism degree. Or the time you spent building bridges in India before you took your first civil engineering class. Volunteering on an organic farm in South America is sure to boost your career prospects in agriculture.

Money and Getting Credit

But gappers beware, it still has to be about the money.
Since your future alma mater still expects tuition, don’t let all your funds fall into the gap. Make sure you stay focused on the end game and choose experiences that will make money, break even or cost very little. What you gain by taking a year off can be quickly negated if you begin the next step in debt.
Also, don’t spend the year playing video games or couch surfing. If you’re prone to procrastination, then months of freedom is not for you. Your gap year needs goals, a plan and accountability, else your momentum to move onward and upward might stall beyond the ability to reboot.
Many colleges and universities offer accredited gap year programs. Princeton University, for example, provides the option for incoming undergrads to enroll in a 9-month, tuition-free service program. Higher education institutions are wising up on how to creatively capitalize on the trend they helped discover. For colleges to enroll adept and adaptable individuals and assure retention, it’s imperative they not only encourage time off, but also provide the bridge over said gap.
So, is time off something we’re entitled to or something we earn? It would seem to be a little of both. The first 18 years of mandated education has earned graduating seniors a bevy of options. Surviving years of traveling a set path has rightfully led to a multitude of diverged roads from which to choose. And, really, what better a privilege than choice?

Text by Nancy S. Moseley

Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer who would have happily worked as a liftie in New Zealand or a barista in Croatia if gap years were a “thing” back in her day (poor Generation X). Maybe it’s not too late to teach English in Prague?!?