A “Gap Year” Rounds Out Education

by Radha Marcum

“I want to live in China someday,” my daughter told me when she was just six years old. Always curious about foreign cultures, she had become close friends with a Chinese student in her class whose mother was a visiting scholar at the university here in Boulder. In the four years since, my daughter has not stopped talking about it. Although we can’t uproot and move to China now, I wholeheartedly believe in her dream. So does Joseph O’Shea, author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

O’Shea, a philosophy professor and the director of Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement, has spent years studying the “gap year” (also called a “bridge year”)—a year abroad between high school and college. Gap-year benefits are big, according to O’Shea. Students don’t just get a bunch of exotic photos to post on Facebook. They gain personal insights and skills that make them more successful students, more empathetic and creative in their careers, and more confident leaders over the long term, he says.

“Growing up in the US, many kids don’t even know their neighbors. They sleep 100 yards from people they don’t really know. A gap year changes that perspective.”

This rings true for my family; my daughter knows just one of our neighbor families well. I’m grateful for that, but I know that there is more. What if she could experience a tight-knit community that truly sacrifices for each other? Where the benefits of cooperation—what social scientists call “social capital”—are clear?

The gap year has been common in Europe for decades. Now it is gaining traction in the US, where universities such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tufts and Yale offer official gap-year programs. “Students become more interested in the problems societies and humans are facing,” points out O’Shea. They become empathetic world citizens, and “empathy is the foundation for solving so many problems we’re facing in the world,” he says. Students often go on to pursue related research or job advocacy work in community or human rights issues.

New Perspectives on Food Systems

My daughter’s second dream is to own a small-scale organic farm and restaurant. For students like her who are interested in organic agriculture and food preparation, as well as food justice, local food systems and water issues, a gap year can be pivotal. “It’s a myth that in order to learn about American agriculture and food systems you should stay here,” O’Shea offers. Students who go abroad see food and its role in social life more clearly. “They see how vital food is to the function of communities; they come back wanting to engage in and support ag-related initiatives in the US.”

For example, O’Shea has worked with a number of gap-year students who have gone on to study and participate in urban agriculture and gardening programs, food justice and water issues. “In developing countries, agriculture, animals and food systems all use the same water, yet all are vital to the health and sustainability of the community.” Students ask important questions about how to better this system: Education? Engineering? “It spurs curiosity and critical thinking,” says O’Shea.

One student worked with a community in the Himalayan region of India to record botanical knowledge—knowledge that had only been passed down orally in the past. “This community used many local plants for medicinal purposes, so she worked in partnership to catalog all of the plants and their uses.”

Another student who lived in Namibia discovered how “food was an integral part of every aspect of life for this community. It wasn’t so much about eating food to survive. Food was the nexus of community life. Food was a form of generosity and giving. It completely changed her ideas about food, so that she saw communal and social value.

“It’s critical to have exposure to different types of food sourcing,” notes O’Shea, to offer perspective on food systems in the US. “For most developing communities, organic is strange. Everything in their community is organic.” Plus, “when you eat fresh and local it tastes really good. Processed food dulls or artificially enhances, and students notice that difference,” he says. As a result, when they return “they want fresh and local foods that haven’t gone through this global manufacturing process.”

In fact, he adds, so many of the students recall their first meals vividly. “They’ll say, ‘Wow, this produce is so fresh and flavorful and vibrant. Why don’t I get this kind of food at home?’” For a lot of them, it’s the first time that they’ve eaten foods grown locally. “The foods are so fresh and available. Students develop a desire for that freshness.”

Some students may take on the hard labor of producing foods, such as working in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia. “It’s hard work. They begin to appreciate the hard work that goes into growing food.” They also often take on tasks in the kitchen, learning new cooking skills from their host family. “That they learn how to cook and manage the process is an important life skill,” indicates O’Shea. “Students appreciate the shared effort that it takes a community to thrive.”

Harder Than Finals

“Gap years can be really hard,” admits O’Shea. “To go to a place and become acclimated for an extended period of time and work with challenging issues in challenging conditions forces you to develop a greater sense of efficacy, confidence, awareness, understanding. . . . It helps you understand yourself.” It also shows students how to build meaningful relationships and view those relationships as important. After such an experience, “typically you’ll see less emphasis on material gains, which results in greater well-being,” he says.

In the West, explains O’Shea, it’s easy to grow up with a small, limited view of the world and your place in it. A gap year “forces students to engage with a different culture, history and way of living with depth and frequency that allows the student to see the world from another person’s perspective.”

The long-term impacts are huge. Not only do gap-year students typically perform better in higher education, but gap years often inform the entire trajectory of their future careers. “They may apply for fellowships to work on critical issues, start organizations, or pursue work in charities or philanthropy. Some even take a path of social entrepreneurship,” O’Shea concludes. “They become more others oriented. They develop an active and intimate understanding of community.”

I know I’ll be encouraging my kids to take a year off college and hit the road. . . .

To learn more about gap-year programs, read O’Shea’s book (in the Calmful Living Bookstore) and visit the following organizations:

American Gap Associationwww.americangap.org

Global Citizen Yearwww.globalcitizenyear.org

Omprakash, www.omprakash.org