With the news breaking of Malia Obama’s decision to take a gap year between leaving the prestigious Sidwell Friends School and attending Harvard University, I found my inner Obama-fanboy and student affairs professional worlds colliding. Like many folks out there, my immediate reaction was a mix of curiosity and surprise to find out that she would delay the start of her collegiate experience with a gap year. As the media cycle slowly churned and this story started losing real estate above the fold, I started to reflect on why I initially found myself surprised about her decision and how my own experience working in higher education proved that gap years can be a transformative experience.
According to the American Gap Association, one of the biggest reasons that students are choosing to take gap years is, not surprisingly, because of academic burnout from high school. With pressure to be successful developing for students earlier in life and not letting up, who could blame someone for wanting to take a year off to decompress a little?
And, a recent national survey of college students conducted by The JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The Jordan Porco Foundation, found that, “50% of students reported feeling stressed most or all of the time and 36% did not feel as if they were in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life."
After spending on average 13 years in the classroom, a year of volunteering, sightseeing, or working could help a student focus more on the power of experiences and knowledge and less on grades.
I first became personally intrigued by the gap year experience while working in the Office of Student Involvement at Wellesley College. Sorting through the many applications that came across my desk for a student worker position, I found one first-year student’s résumé that stood out amongst the rest. Despite starting at the college only a few months prior, she had interned at a well-known non-profit and offered to share a portfolio of work. Throughout the year of working together, I was extremely impressed with her work ethic, professionalism, and maturity.
While my experience of working with one student who took a gap year before attending college is a very small sample size, my findings have been echoed by a former colleague of mine who conducted a qualitative study of the effects a gap year can have on first-year college students for her dissertation. Dr. Lori Tenser’s (2015) research found that, “More than their first-year peers, they know who they are and what they believe because of their encounters during the gap year – intrapersonal, interpersonal, physical, intellectual, cultural, and emotional – that challenge and stretch their notions of themselves and the world around them.” Beyond simply building up their résumé, students can truly have a transformative experience if we shift the presumed cultural narrative regarding what students should do after graduating high school.
With 24/7 online and television news cycles alive and well, I’m sure we will all learn more about how Malia decides to spend her gap year before attending Harvard in August 2017. In the meantime, I think it is important for student affairs professionals to reflect on the values that can be gained from a student who chooses to take a gap year, and begin to explore the impact of this ever-growing subculture within the American higher education system.
Tenser, L. (2015). Stepping Off The Conveyor Belt: Gap Year Effects on the First Year College Experience
About the author:* Prior to joining the team at Campus Labs, Eric worked at Wellesley College as the Assistant Director of Student Involvement. While at Wellesley, Eric oversaw the campus pub, college radio station (91.5FM WZLY), Legenda Yearbook, and assisted in advising clubs and organizations with leadership development and event planning. In addition to these, he served on the new student orientation and student leader training planning committees. Before heading to New England, Eric worked for his alma mater, Drake University in Des Moines, IA, as the Interim Coordinator of Student Activities. Eric earned his master’s degree in Student Affairs in Higher Education from Miami University and holds bachelor degrees in both Public Relations and Sociology from Drake University.