Stepping Off the Ladder

Stepping Off the Ladder

East Bay students claim a year before college to work, travel, and gain a fresh perspective.

A month after my high school graduation in 1971, I boarded an Italian ocean liner in Manhattan. Wiping tears from my eyes, I waved to my boyfriend, who was standing in the crowd on the dock. As tugboats dragged the Christophorus Columbus toward the open sea, I knew one thing: Nothing would be the same after my year abroad.

Two years ago, I cried again as I watched my daughter wave farewell from the platform of the Paris Metro station Chatelet. I was bound for the airport; she was on her own. Would she be okay? My own experience reassured me that she would thrive. Months later, she returned, speaking French fluently, and emanating a sense of savoir vivre.

For East Bay high school seniors anxiously awaiting a yea or nay from colleges, this is a good time to consider an entirely different option: taking a year off to strike out on a personal adventure. The gap year is considered a rite of passage in many European countries as well as Australia and Israel (where it is customarily taken after completing three years of compulsory military service). It is a period when students get a break from formal education to travel, volunteer in community service projects, study independently, intern, work, or combine any of these activities.

Living with a Peruvian family while teaching English? Harvesting blueberries in Maine? Playing music in a public plaza somewhere? Getting fired from your illegal waitressing job in Lausanne? Losing your passport? A gap year is a time for making mistakes and learning from them. It is not, advocates say, procrastination. And it is not necessarily easy. But that 12 months of a young person’s life—whether it consists of a structured program or more open-ended exploration—is definitely a learning experience.

While the term “gap year” originated in England, taking a year off is a venerable tradition in Europe. Until World War I, a university education—almost always the privilege of men from well-to-do families—customarily included the grand European tour, a leisurely sojourn to experience other cultures and practice foreign language skills. In addition, journeymen traveled around the country to hone their craft in different settings before settling down in their own shops. In Germany, these were appropriately called the Wanderjahre, the youthful wandering years of learning by roaming.

Yet until Prince Harry grabbed headlines in 2004 with his community service year in South Africa, the gap year was virtually unheard of in the United States. Americans tend to define success as climbing a ladder, one rung at a time. Up or down, those are the options—it is impossible to take a detour without falling off. The gap year is all about what happens when you step off that ladder. Shaped by a culture that is suspicious of leisure and enamored of achievement, American parents expect their college-bound kids to follow the straight and narrow path of formal education.

But some parents in the East Bay today—perhaps sobered by recent stories of student burnout and stress-induced breakdowns (as vividly portrayed in Lafayette resident Vicki Abeles’s just-released documentary, Race to Nowhere)—are giving their teenagers time to get to know the world before going off to wrestle with lectures and problem sets.


In 2000, Harvard College Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons and other Harvard admissions officers questioned the American approach in their passionately written New York Times article, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.” Too many incoming freshmen, the co-authors argued, suffer from “burnout” syndrome as a result of spending 13 years in the highly competitive atmosphere of primary and secondary education. According to Fitzsimmons and his colleagues, the Harvard students who took a pre-college break were “effusive in their praise,” calling the year “a ‘life-altering’ experience . . . [that] will pay dividends the rest of their lives.” During that time, they pursued drama, figure skating, archaeological exploration, kibbutz life, political campaigning, community service, or language study—to name just a few of their choices. Recently, Princeton and Yale have followed Harvard in encouraging students to take time off, and the National Parent Teacher Association likewise endorses a break to relieve “education fatigue.”

Such official stamps of approval have sparked students’ and parents’ curiosity. They have also spawned an entire gap year industry that offers structured programs, such as the worldwide National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) or Projects Abroad. Many gap years, however, involve both structured and non-structured segments: One young man’s recent time off the grid, for example, included a monthlong NOLS class at Yosemite, travel in Europe and Canada, a few months of work on a banana farm, and a stint as a summer camp counselor in Maine. Another high school grad packed a language program in Spain, a trip with her mother to South America, a two-month job in the Philippines photographing sharks for a research scientist, and a kayaking trip into her year.

Kate Augus, director of college counseling at Oakland’s highly academic Head Royce School, has seen a growing interest in the gap year. Two graduating seniors out of 86 from the class of 2009 took a year off, and more students and parents than ever before are making inquiries about this option. “Personally,” Augus says, “I feel that a year off should be mandated for all high school seniors. A year devoted to college search and to national service with minimal pay would benefit not only the students, but also the high schools, the colleges, and the world.”

At Berkeley High School, however, not many college-bound students choose a gap year. “We had maybe two or three out of more than a thousand who did it [last year] and most students who come here do not even ask about it,” says Angela Price, one of the counselors at the school’s College/Career Center. Most students don’t feel confident enough to choose this option while all their friends apply to college, Price guesses. Also, she points out, many universities prefer not to defer admission and in these uncertain economic times, many believe the best place to be is college because of the difficult job market. Last but not least, a gap year costs money. “In the end,” says Price, “most middle-class and upper-middle-class parents insist that their kids go to college, and the kids are with their parents.”

Terry MacClure, a college admissions counselor in Berkeley, has also observed parents’ reluctance. “They fear that without an academic structure to hold them, kids will drift into some version of a video-gaming and pot-smoking nightmare and never find their way back to college,” he explains. But anecdotal evidence from college admissions officers across the country shows that actually very few students drop off the college radar, according to a 2008 Today show episode.

In fact, those who take a year off return to school revitalized, observes Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and founder of the Palo Alto–based organization Challenge Success, which champions broadening the definition of success for kids beyond high academic achievement.


My daughter, Maxine, divided her gap year into working in retail, completing her college applications, and improving her French in Paris. Her favorite moment during those formative months was actually quite humble. Sitting on the tip of the Île de la Cité at dusk, she watched night descend on the glittering city with three friends from different parts of the world. “We sipped red wine and talked about life,” she told me, “and I felt completely happy.” When Maxine returned to the States, she was eager to start at U.C.L.A. because she had missed “the structure, the formal learning, the inspiration.” She dove in with great enthusiasm, earning stellar grades while participating in community service projects.

In fact, gap year students may be better prepared to complete their college education than those who enter straight out of high school. Three out of five students who enter a public four-year college don’t get their degree within five years, according to the College Board. Nearly 30 percent of entering freshmen do not return for their sophomore year. “We see a lot of burnout among first-year college students, medical and emotional breakdowns that force them to leave school,” says Pope. “A kid who is not emotionally, socially, or academically ready for college will not succeed.”

MacClure often finds the parents’ attachment to conventional success leads them to insist on the straight and narrow path. When a child starts at a respected college, it’s a reflection of their good parenting, they believe. Oona Wally, a third-year student at U.C. Santa Barbara who attended Berkeley High School, agrees. “My mother had a huge part in requiring me to attend college after high school,” she explains. “There simply wasn’t another acceptable option.”

Not surprisingly, says MacClure, many parents also worry about their children’s safety and well-being during a gap year. College seems like a more secure path, and parents who encourage their kids to take time off are the ones who did it themselves, according to MacClure. That is certainly true for me. My maturity got a boost the moment I stepped on that no-frills ocean liner that took me to Trieste. For two weeks, I lived in a small cabin below deck with three Italian matrons who disapproved of my summer attire. That was only the beginning of a year of working, making art, and traveling. I have been a strong proponent of the gap year ever since. There’s something about feeling out of place in a strange city, about falling in love in a foreign language and breaking up, about sitting in a train station with no idea where to go next—it makes you see yourself in a larger context.

Structured gap year programs may placate parents’ fears about a child’s safety. But not all such programs offer a true gap year experience, in which students take initiative and step out of their comfort zone. For that reason, Dianne Ruyffelaere, a private Berkeley counselor who works closely with the Berkeley High School College/Career Center, cautions families to look at programs to make sure they offer more than just adult-generated and -supervised activities. That’s not to dismiss organized programs, which provide an amazing range of activities including travel, community service, international home stays, internships, and independent learning. “A structured program,” says Ruyffelaere, “may be a good stepping stone to more independent explorations.”

Structured programs can, in some cases, cost as much as a year of college, but there are also reasonable—and much cheaper—service/work options, like Transitions Abroad or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. For many students, earning a paycheck is an important part of the experience. And in the long run, financing the year may be even a better investment than paying tuition.

“You can avoid the asleep-at-the-wheel syndrome which is typical for many first-year students,” explains MacClure, who notes that students who stay on the school treadmill without a break can end up extending their college years because they lack motivation and direction. He also reminds clients that “a perfectly engaging gap year can happen within 20 minutes of home.”

Taking time off before college is not just for the moneyed classes, adds Pera Gorson, a graduating honors student in sociology, who is doing research at Oakland’s Mills College on first-generation college students. For low-income students, it can be a necessity rather than a choice. Such students, who usually work part-time, tend to be overwhelmed by school requirements and often take time out either to earn more money or clarify their goals, Gorson says. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “they usually consider this to be a personal failure rather than a legitimate part of their educational path. If we accepted a college education that included taking breaks when necessary, they might feel proud of what they are accomplishing rather than feeling inadequate.”


For most students, going to college is a hard transition: They are away from home for the first time in their lives. They may wander aimlessly, enrolling for required classes without real interest or enthusiasm. Many have a hard time resisting the partying scene, and drinking binges are not uncommon for those celebrating the freedom from parental supervision. Considering the cost of higher education (an average of $26,273 annually for tuition and fees at a four-year private college in 2009-2010, according to the College Board), experimenting or partying while at college is an extremely expensive proposition.

It took Mikel Parargo-Wills, a 21-year-old from Berkeley, a year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to realize that the pressure there to socialize wasn’t right for him. “It felt too much like high school,” he says. So he took a break and traveled to Perugia to do what he loves best: play soccer. He also took some classes, met other students “from all over,” and learned Italian. “I gained discipline,” he explains. “And most of all, I figured out that I really wanted to succeed academically. School [at San Francisco State] is my main focus now.”

A student who didn’t get into the college of his or her choice might also benefit from a gap year. Harry Hebeler, 19, graduated from Berkeley High with bad grades. “There was no reason to assume that my motivation would change in community college,” he reflects, “so I decided to take a year off.” First he worked at The Cheeseboard bakery in Berkeley, then spent several months in Orvieto, Italy. “Just walking around this completely unfamiliar place was an adventure,” he said. “And when I got back to Berkeley, I discovered that all of my friends, who had gone straight to college, were quite envious of my experience. I actually looked forward to starting at Chico.”


High-achieving students, who have been in the pressure cooker of competitive settings for 13 consecutive years, may thrive during a less structured gap year. “These kids are intellectually and physically tired and a summer off is not enough time to recuperate,” Ruyffelaere explains.

While a break can be worthwhile for students who have kept their nose to the grindstone, Bob Laird, undergraduate admissions director at U.C. Berkeley from 1993 to 1999, cautions that “these kids need a lot of support to step off the treadmill; their level of anxiety is high.”

Laura Cornwall, 20, an excellent student who struggled with anxiety and depression during her senior year at Berkeley High, decided to defer her admission to Oberlin College for a year to regain her emotional balance. While living at home to minimize stress, she worked part-time in an office and as a stage manager. “For the first time in years,” her mother says, “Laura lived without pressure. She had a chance to align her intelligence and achievements with her own desires.” Laura entered Oberlin in 2009 with a clearer sense of purpose—to work in the theater.

Laird is among those who consider deferred admission—accepting college admission but postponing actual enrollment—an excellent strategy. “Having the admissions letter in hand,” he explains, “tends to alleviate parents’ fears about their kid’s future and it gives the kids a greater sense of confidence when they strike out in a new direction.” Most private colleges automatically grant deferments, while public schools have a policy of not giving deferments. But, Laird says, “You can always write a letter to the director of undergraduate admissions to explain your decision to take a year off.” Since the decision will depend on “how skillfully you present your choice and what you expect to get out of it,” such a letter must be written as thoughtfully as a college essay. All top schools, explains Laird, look for complex human beings who have a range of experiences. Admissions committees know that taking a year to explore life in non-academic settings will most likely broaden a student’s horizon.

The benefits of the gap year are obvious to those who’ve done it. The young men and women I interviewed found they grew most when they had to fend for themselves. Even those who could not organize their experiences into a neat summary of accomplishment—community service in Turkey or cooking school in Paris—noted immense personal growth. Some commented that planning the year was a valuable process in itself.

Valuable—but not, it should be noted, a piece of cake. My younger daughter, Ella, who spent part of a gap year in Berlin after working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley for several months, found her time away from friends and family difficult. She had to navigate the city’s complex public transport system on her own, and budgeting her money was a challenge. Sometimes she felt lonely. “I meet guys all the time,” she complained, “but I miss my girlfriends.” Often, she simply sat by herself in a park, reading and observing. And yet in the end, the experience was profoundly positive. “Without all my familiar roles, I discovered a deeper part of myself,” she muses. “And as a result, I have a clearer sense of my passion.”

At the beginning of her freshman year at Boulder’s Naropa University in 2009, Ella recognized another benefit: “I wasn’t homesick like most of the other incoming students.”

“Gap year” is perhaps an unfortunate term because it feeds into parents’ and students’ fears that this time is an absence, a blank spot on the students’ vitae. In fact, the experience is often one of the most vivid periods in a young person’s life. “The only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed . . . on the terms that one oneself defines,” Fitzsimmons and his colleagues wrote in their New York Times piece.

And that, of course, is how we move from success to happiness: by having a sense of our place in the world, a feeling of connection and belonging. Even if the experiences of the gap year do nothing to advance students’ careers, they may be joyous encounters with life that settle as cherished memories, nourishing these young adults as they listen to lectures and study textbooks.

Christine Schoefer, a Berkeley writer, is an enthusiastic proponent of the gap year. Barely 18 years old, she found herself stranded at the port of Trieste with two suitcases and $20 (no cell phones, credit cards, or Internet). Life lesson? The universe does indeed provide.

Faces of the East Bay