The term “gap year” is thrown around a lot these days, but it’s important to understand exactly what it is people are referring to.
Unfortunately, when a lot of people hear “gap year,” they think of sitting on your parents couch and binge watching Netflix in lieu of freshman year–and while some people might choose to go this route post high school graduation, this is hardly a gap year. Some gappers travel all over the world, others stay local; some spend their year studying, others spend it working or volunteering. No matter which way they go about it, students come away from the year more mature and ready to tackle their next phases of life. For a little context, EF Gap Year would like to offer a brief history of the gap experience:
A gap in history
Although the gap year is a fairly new concept in the United States, it has been an important milestone in European culture for years now. According to the Gap Year Association, gap years date back to a seventeenth century belief that traveling to the cultural hubs of Europe was a vital part of the education of any sophisticated young person. Since then they have evolved substantially, but the essence of the gap year remains the same; a gap year is a time to develop new skills, practice independence, and learn about yourself.
Since gaps have been commonplace in the United Kingdom for so much longer, it’s no surprise that the UK continues to see more students take the gap year plunge than the United States. Even so, the century old concept of the gap year needed a slight facelift in order to remain popular today. It got that rejuvenation in the form of some favorite royal faces who chose to go the gap year route: Prince William took a gap in 2000 during which he volunteered in Belize and Chile, traveled to Africa, and worked on a dairy farm back in England. His brother, Prince Harry, later followed in his footsteps, traveling to Australia and the Kingdom of Lesotho in Africa on his own year off. Gap years were already customary in the UK, but seeing respected members of the royal family take gaps normalized them even more.
In 2016, the United States saw a public figure of its own set off on a gap year: former first daughter Malia Obama took a gap year before beginning her college education at Harvard University last September. To begin her year, Obama spent her summer as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Spain; in the fall, she jetted off to South America on an extended trip led by a gap year organization. She continued working on her Spanish as she travelled around Bolivia and Perú. When she arrived back state-side, Malia went to work again as an intern, this time in the entertainment industry at the Weinstein Company in New York. Through the variety of adventures she had on her year, Obama got valuable experience that left her more ready for college and the real world.
Malia Obama isn’t the only famous face from the US to get behind the gap movement, but her decision to do so ignited a national conversation about gap years. Malia proved that gap years aren’t just for slackers who want to mess around for a year, or students who didn’t get their ducks in a row in high school. The best way to make people understand the gap year is to embark on your own and come back ready to spread the word far and wide about what you did, what you saw, and what you accomplished. There is still work to be done to ensure people in the US understand that gappers aren’t spending a year twiddling their thumbs, and there is no one better suited for the job than you.
Helen, seasoned traveler and EF Gap Year alum, offers her advice on how to live in the moment while traveling abroad—advice that she practiced personally…