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Gap year between high school and college becoming a trend

Saturday, June 11, 2011 | 6:00 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — While many of his former high school friends are taking their first college classes this fall, Brentwood's Alvin Lan will be retaking his senior year.

Only this time, it will be in Germany.

After winning a language scholarship this year, Lan decided to delay the start of his college career in exchange for an unusual opportunity. And he's part of a trend. Students across the nation are taking advantage of so-called "gap years" for travel, volunteer work and internships.

Just how many of this year's high school graduates will delay their entrance to college to pursue such opportunities is unclear. What's certain is that the concept of gap years has spawned a cottage industry, complete with consultants, advice books and information fairs. Top universities also have responded, adapting admission procedures to accommodate students who set aside their studies before enrolling.

Advocates of gap years say the timeouts offer a chance for students to recharge batteries after a dozen or so years of schooling followed by the challenges of finding the right college.

"It's a process that grinds people down," said Karl Haigler, co-author of the book "The Gap-Year Advantage."

For students like Lan, who will leave for Germany in July, a gap year can also offer a chance for growth. He will essentially be living as an exchange student, hosted by a local family. This means he's going to need to be more independent.

"When I get homesick, I can't just run home," Lan said. "It'll show me who I really am as a person."

And that, some education experts say, is one of the biggest advantages of a gap year. Done correctly, it can offer growth and maturing opportunities that will help a participating student succeed in college, said John Austin, a former college professor and owner of Kybernan College Guidance, an education consulting firm in Webster Groves.

Many students go to college simply because it's the next logical step.

"If it's just the next thing you're doing, there's no motivation to show up," Austin said. "Too many 18-year-olds are going to college, and it's not their steps. It's their parents' steps."

Not surprisingly, it's rare that parents are even willing to consider gap years as an option for their children. They worry their kids will lose focus or that a short break from school will turn into a permanent one.

"Parents aren't rational about it," Austin said. "They make decisions based on fear."

The popularity of gap years is difficult to track. In part, that's because the U.S. Department of Education doesn't draw a distinction between gap-year students and those who simply wait a year or two before enrolling in college. A true gap year is one that's done with planning and with a purpose. It's not as simple as deciding to sit at home for a year to play video games.

Still, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that gap years are growing in popularity — or at least acceptance.

They've become common enough that colleges across the nation are offering deferrals to students interested in taking that break. Schools such as Princeton and Harvard encourage students who have been admitted to consider taking a year to travel abroad or do some sort of service work.

Among St. Louis-area schools, Washington University offers deferrals to students who have been admitted but aren't ready to start their freshman year.

The school receives a couple of dozen such requests each year and is generally willing to grant them, provided the student has something worthwhile planned, said Julie Shimabukuro, director of admissions.

Shimabukuro says the experience — particularly for those who travel abroad — can do wonders for a student's sense of independence.

"Sometimes it prepares them to be a little more adventurous in college," Shimabukuro said.

There also appears to be an increase in the number of students interested in gap years. At least that's the perspective of Chris Stakich, one of the organizers of USA Gap Year Fairs, which runs nationwide events that bring gap-year organizations into contact with parents and students.

Three years ago, the group started with a handful of fairs, primarily on the East Coast. On a good day, 30 to 40 families would show up. Last year, the group ran 28 fairs across the country, attracting an average of 130 to 140 families.

"The first year, every conversation started off with: 'What is a gap year?'" Stakich said.

Now, the questions are more nuanced, with parents and students striving to find the differences between the programs.

Most are still oriented toward young adults from affluent families. That's particularly true when it comes to overseas travel, outdoor adventures and other endeavors requiring financial resources.

But increasingly there are options available to students from a range of economic backgrounds, with some programs offering scholarships and stipends.

"We're working very hard not to let gap years be just for the elite or wealthy people," said Stakich, who also is co-founder and executive director of Thinking Beyond Borders, a Connecticut-based gap-year program that sends students to locations around the world.

Among the programs offering gap-year opportunities to the less affluent is City Year, a youth service corps that works with at-risk children in 20 U.S. cities. Workers are paid a stipend to support their living expenses and receive a scholarship of $5,500 when they return to school.

About a third of its work force is drawn from the ranks of students who have either just graduated high school or are taking a break from college.

From its start, the organization has tried to gear programming toward supporting, rather than competing with, higher education. And while students may not get academic credit, they're often learning firsthand about issues — particularly education topics — they would only be reading about in a classroom, said Melanie Brennand Mueller, national recruitment director.

"It's a completely different experience working around that for 10 months," Mueller said. "It's so different than just taking a few classes and attending lectures."

That opportunity was one of the things that drew Chelsea Pretz to City Year in 2009 when she decided she wasn't ready for college after graduating from Ritenour High School: "I was kind of overwhelmed by all the choices and options."

So when a mentor suggested a gap year, she found herself first in San Antonio and then Milwaukee as her break grew from one to two years. And though her family has spent that time worrying she would never begin college, Pretz hasn't given it much thought.

She is not quite sure what path she will need to follow, but she plans one day to be a horticultural therapist, introducing people to the healing effects of garden environments. In the fall, she'll start classes at Harris-Stowe State University.

"I knew when the time was right, I would go," Pretz said.


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