Students say gap year helps shape ‘broader goals’

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When most of Olivia Wouters’ friends are preparing to go to college in August, she’ll be heading to Albania, then to the Philippines and South Africa.

Senior Olivia Wouters, center, plans to take a year off after graduation to do missionary work. “A lot of my friends were surprised when I decided to take a gap year,” she said.

Wouters, a Grosse Pointe South senior, will be on a nine-month trip through a program offered by Adventures in Missions, an interdenominational organization based in Atlanta, where she will do community outreach, orphan care and other mission work.

“I really have no idea of what I want to do or go or study in college,” said Wouters, 17, of Grosse Pointe Park. “I figure this period of growth and world experience would help me decide.”

Wouters is among an estimated 30,000 young people across the nation taking a “gap year” this year between high school and college, like President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia is doing before she enrolls at Harvard University in fall 2017.

M. Obama

Prospective students who opt for a gap year delay college to do volunteer work, explore careers, travel and gain other experiences. The gap year concept originated in the United Kingdom but grew 23 percent in the United States between 2014 and 2015, according to the American Gap Association, an Oregon-based nonprofit that promotes the benefits of a year off before college.

Many universities across the country even offer deferral policies for gap years, including several in Michigan. Among them: Alma College, Cornerstone University, Hillsdale College, Kalamazoo College, Michigan Technological University and Oakland University.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone graduating from high school and planning to go to college,” said Jeff Abernathy, president of Alma College. “It give them an opportunity to engage in service, travel the world and grow, and think about their ambitions for the next year. That’s why we want to encourage students who want to take a gap year to do so.”

Students who take a gap year often arrive in their first class with a clear sense of what they hope to accomplish with their education, Abernathy added.

“It’s not for every student,” he said. “But for those who take the opportunity, it helps them to focus their four years of college and clarify their broader goals.”

That’s why Wouters decided to take a year off after she graduates next month. A euchre card tournament, private donations and other projects helped Wouters raise the $13,805 for her gap year, which is about the same cost for a year’s tuition at institutions such as the University of Michigan ($13,486) and Michigan State University ($13,580). But unlike those schools, food and lodging are included in Wouters’ costs.

“A lot of my friends were surprised when I decided to take a gap year,” Wouters said. “It’s not typical. But they are supportive and excited.”

Graduating from high school and going off to college has been a rite of passage for young people for decades, especially for the children of baby boomers who didn’t attend college themselves, said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

“That’s been the expectation and the norm, and some of it is generational,” Cook said.

But the gap year is growing among younger generations and has been getting a lot of buzz since the White House announced this month that Malia Obama would take a year off. While some members of older generations say they wish they had done the same thing, others have criticized the older first daughter, saying a gap year is an opportunity only the wealthy can afford.

A recent survey by the American Gap Association showed that the largest group of students taking a gap year comes from families who earn at least $200,000 a year; in that group, 71 percent of parents contributed toward gap-year costs.

Ethan Knight, the association’s executive director, said it’s true many students hail from upper-income families but that gap year students are spread across all income levels.

“There is a diversity of options, and costs,” Knight said.

There are traditional as well as self-designed programs. Among the 1 percent of all college-bound students who take gap years, Knight said the reasons they cite most often are the competitive pressures of getting into college and the desire to get to know one’s self.

“This is the first time they’ve asked themselves, ‘Who am I?’ ” Knight said.

For Peter Staab, it helped him define himself and his aspirations when he took a gap year to help run the U.S. Senate campaign of Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who was elected two years ago. For nine months, Staab traveled around the state, meeting politicians and engaging with citizens.

“It was a chance for me to take a step away and see what the working world was like,” said Staab, who is now in his junior year at Hillsdale College, studying economics. “It helped shape what I wanted out of education, and allowed me to step back and decide what’s important.”

Soren Geiger, with wife Virginia, spent months on a church mission in Germany eight years ago before he felt ready to go to Hillsdale College.

When Soren Geiger graduated from high school eight years ago, he spent months on a mission in a nondenominational international church in the small town of Neuenburg, Germany. There, he ran Bible study classes and took care of church administrative tasks. He also played baseball for a local team. When he returned to the U.S., he felt ready to go to Hillsdale College a year later.

“I wanted to take time to grow as a man and in my faith and let my eyes be opened to the world and to people who think dramatically different things than I think,” said Geiger, who graduated with a history degree in 2013 and now works for the private liberal arts college. “I wanted to be challenged.”

Not a lot of students take gap years at Hope College, but the number has grown in recent years, said Dale Austin, director of the school’s Career Development Center.

“The college decision, and investment, takes time,” Austin said. “Students want to make sure those decisions are well-grounded.”

When Peter Rak graduated from high school in 2013, he landed an internship at the Heroic Leadership Institute in Duluth, Minnesota, a Christian organization that gives young people “practical training for a lifetime of ministry.”

Then he went to Hope College in Holland, where he is preparing for a career in communications.

Being around adults all the time, instead of people his age, shaped him and prepared him better for college, Rak said.

“Taking care of myself and not being surrounded by people my age helped development of my work ethic, and my worldview changed,” he said. “My work ethic improved tremendously over that year, which contributed immensely in college. (And) during that year, I started thinking of myself as a man.”