Kenny Kasper, senior

In an economy in which an undergraduate degree is no guarantee for a job offer, students are trying something their parents’ generation may not have considered: not going to college, or at least not immediately.  Long recognized as a rite of passage in Europe, the gap year is gaining popularity in admissions offices, recognized for its ability to endow students with fresh perspectives as well as a new sense of purpose.  Parents remain uneasy about this unorthodox approach to education, but emerging studies are revealing more about what students should do, and not do, with a gap year. 

            Just 1.2 percent of incoming college freshmen have taken a gap year, according to an article by Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal.  However, the gap year option is exercised most frequently by students coming from strong socioeconomic backgrounds and highly competitive academic high schools, where academic “burnout” most often occurs.  Given that Maria Carrillo High School fits both of these criteria, it is not surprising that seniors are making gap year plans, including MCHS senior Chris Stasse.  After four years of rigorous honors and Advanced Placement courses, Stasse plans to spend his next school year in China working as an English tutor and immersing himself in the culture.  Stasse’s decision to take a gap year was influenced by his desire to maximize the benefits of a college experience.

            “You really have to know why you’re going, and you have to be mature enough for it.  Or else it’s just going to be like high school all over again,” Stasse said.  A study by the Journal of Education Psychology found that the gap year is a viable strategy for energizing students, as it has been linked to increased motivation in college.

            In addition to helping students establish a focused academic pathway, the gap year presents a rare chance for young people to learn or master a new language.  The opportunity to learn Mandarin was unavailable to Stasse in his high school curriculum, but he plans to pursue it at length during his time abroad.  Another MCHS senior, Taylor Ramos, has found language learning to be a key factor in his interest in a gap year in Santander, Spain, where Ramos spent the fall semester of this year.  Ramos would “never have imagined” spending several months abroad just a year ago, but now, he is enthused by the idea of spending a year there to polish the linguistic skills he established during his first stay.  Additionally, Ramos testifies that the time away restored his resolve for taking on academic challenges.

            “I had such a revived zeal for school,” said Ramos.  “For me at least, it just builds more of a desire to learn.”

            Gap years can be expensive endeavors, but these costs can be offset by a variety of strategies.  Some students work the summer following high school to pay for their gap year journeys.  Both Stasse and Ramos have taken advantage of connections overseas in order to make their plans financially feasible.  Stasse’s father spent several months in China and noticed an accessible venue for American students to tutor.  Through this type of program, Stasse hopes to pay for at least a portion of his room and board with his tutoring services.  Part Spaniard by blood, Ramos stayed with family friends in northern Spain, at an inexpensive rate, where he plans to return in the coming year. 

            “I think we saved money by sending him away,” said Taylor’s father Alan Ramos with a laugh.

            While college admissions counselor Sharon Baer believes the gap year is right for some students, she cautions students to be wary of myths regarding gap years.  For instance, students cannot use the gap year to improve test scores; the tests must be taken while the student is still in high school.  Also, Baer has encountered students who have planned to take a class or two at the Santa Rosa Junior College during their time, but Baer reminds students that by doing so they forfeit the ability to apply as a freshman.  Once a student takes any courses during that gap year, he becomes a transfer student.

            Other issues of taking a gap year are less visible in the planning, including applying to universities from Internet cafés in third world countries where power outages can last for days at a time.  For this reason, Baer advises that students finish as many of their applications as possible before embarking on their journeys and have parents prepared to help submit applications.  Another option for students is do an internship in a foreign country for the fall and return home for the holidays, in time for the college application process at year’s end. 

            The consensus established by students who have taken gap years seems to be that risk-taking and commitment to being open-minded are the key components to a “transformative” experience, as MCHS alumnus Jay Scherf described it.  Scherf spent his junior year of high school in Argentina as part of a student exchange program that achieved many of the inherent goals of a gap year for him.  Referring to experiences abroad as “life on speed” due to the rapid rate at which participants absorb new ideas, Scherf emphasizes the importance of students confronting real life situations before venturing to college.

            “It basically gave my life purpose,” Scherf said.  “That drive is never going to go away.”