Solidarity with a gap year student

I have a close friend who graduated from high school last spring.  After a lot of thought and negotiation with her parents and the university where she’d been accepted and funded, she decided to take a gap year, that tradition of time off after high school that is common in Europe but often maligned in the US.  I was one of the people who got her thinking about it.

It’s fair to point out that we’ve known each other for a long time and I’ve been there to selectively pass ideas across the table to her:  an introduction to Linux, tours of subversive little urban spaces, genres of music.  So I was in a good position to suggest a gap year to her, and to substantiate the benefits to her parents.

She’s in the middle of it now, and her version of taking it easy is working 2 jobs plus a paid internship.  She is being offered a second paid internship and called me to hash out the pros and cons of taking it.  I could tell right away that she was really hesitant about it.  Some gentle prodding revealed that she’s getting guilted left and right for both living in the city instead of her parents’ “safe” exurban refuge, and for “only” working her butt off for 3 days a week.  (Plus the one internship.)  She was afraid that if she took this second internship it would corrode her free time to do the things that the gap year was intended for.  She needs time to take walks, do art, experiment with professional and leisure time activities so that when she starts her college career she’s more centered and focused.

Let’s pull this apart.  I’ll be frank that I think it’s bullshit to lay a guilt trip on a young person for taking a gap year when they work plenty of hours to cover costs but not a standard 40-hour week.  To me it belies ageism and a hazing attitude–ageism as in “These kids have it too easy.  What do you need time off for?  It’s just grade school and high school”, and hazing as in “Well, I went right from high school to college and I just had to buck up and do it.”

I’ll bet there are a lot of people would have loved to take a gap year but couldn’t because of parental pressures, admissions policies, financial realities or something else.  If that’s the case, shouldn’t we support young people who do have the opportunity? Let’s be honest, the first 12 years of education, if you make it that far, can be a battering experience.  I remember leaving high school dazed, baffled, lacking a good handle on what work and a career really entailed, and utterly, down-to-the-bone, exhausted.  I went through undergrad anyway and came out similarly confused and exhausted.  Burnout is as real at 17 as it is at 35.

Gap years are often cast as a carefree time to explore and get “it” — whatever “it” is — out of your system.  But what if we thought of them as a first sabbatical, a time to get “it” into your system?  I think that’s much more honest, honorable, and accurate.  For students who don’t have a crystal clear vision for their career when they finish high school, a year out in the world can be grounding in a way that is really hard to achieve in an educational setting.  And why not provide that, rather than putting students through the ringer for another four or more years, then dumping them out in the world with mounds of debt, to discover by themselves if the career they trained for actually translates to the job they want to do all day for the next 10-50 years of their lives?  Tangentially, I think we do students a great disservice by focusing so heavily on the philosophical significance of a given career to the detriment of helping them discover what the day-to-day reality is like.

But don’t take my word for it.  Big names in .edu are starting to agree. Like Harvard College, which “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way – provided they do not enroll in a degree-granting program at another college. Each year, between 50 and 70 students defer their matriculation to the College.”  This snip from the essay “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” might have a familiar ring:

“Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work.”

My auspicious ending happened well into my computer career when I used my employer’s educational benefit to go back for a master’s degree in environmental studies.  I was way more focused and responsible for all the reasons you’d expect.  I was there completely by choice, I had a goal in mind (though admittedly still not as clear as I’d like), and I valued the opportunity.  But I wish I had had that experience much earlier, and I still struggle to clarify my goals and develop strategies to realize them.

Let me make it clear that my friend didn’t just passively take the opportunity.  She carved it out with research, paperwork, phone calls, and effective negotiation.  She single-handedly got her college acceptance and scholarships deferred for a year, and in a hurry at that.  It took a lot of conviction and honest work to arrange her gap year, and she knows in her gut what she needs from this time.

So my advice to her was to go into the interview prepared to state gently but firmly her needs and best-case wants.  I told her that if she didn’t feel comfortable taking on the hours that they were asking for because they would eat into her personal time, she should just say she has a prior commitment for X hours/week.

It’s for her to determine how she needs to use that time, not the customers at her service jobs or the managers at an internship.  It’s probable that lots of those people would have appreciated and benefited from a gap year.  But until it is viewed for what it is, a first sabbatical for gaining focus, setting goals, and preventing or healing from burnout, I stand in solidarity with young people who guard their prior commitment to explore and mend.

Maybe when I grow up I’ll have the conviction and organization to take a proper sabbatical myself!

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