When an aspiring startup founder decides to take a quarter off to write code and solicit venture funding for his idea, no one is shocked. This happens all the time at Stanford. Taking a leave of absence is easy and common. Whether to pursue personal projects, spend time with a sick family member, or simply to recover from the sometimes unbearable pace of Stanford, most of us recognize the value of taking time off.
But we often don’t realize this before we come to school. And Stanford does little to encourage it. Compared to other elite schools, Stanford provides no formal support to students considering time off, and barely mentions the possibility in admissions materials. This, despite the fact that students who take a gap year tend to be more successful in college than those who do not. Studies from the Middlebury College’s February-start initiative and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s program reveal that undergraduates who enjoyed a gap year earned a GPA 0.1 to 0.4 points higher than non gap-year students. Gappers at Middlebury hold a “disproportionate number of leadership positions on campus.” And according to the American Gap Association, students who took a year off tend to finish university more quickly than their peers.
Attending a private, college-preparatory high school, the thought of taking a gap year never crossed my mind. I was consumed by my goal to attend the most prestigious university I could, as soon as possible. When I was accepted to Stanford, I watched every YouTube video that had some, if even tangential, relation to the Stanford experience and anxiously awaited Approaching Stanford’s weekly emails.
My life took a different direction, however. During the summer of 2015, I found myself volunteering in a children’s home in Israel. With a cohort of twenty Americans, I helped run a summer camp for children from at-risk backgrounds. Our philosophy was that “it is much easier to believe in yourself when others believe in you.” Every day, we ran different activities for the children, including a World Cup soccer tournament, color war, and swimming in the pool. Quickly, I became enamored with the project and the children we worked with, and decided to take two years off to help develop the non-profit and empower the children to establish successful lives and happy families. During that time, I also drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, which gave me deeper insights into the culture and daily realities of Israeli citizens.
When I first mentioned a gap year to my friends, most were skeptical. They thought a gap year would leave me struggling to catch up to my peers’ educations and careers.
But this attitude is unique to the US -- only about two percent take gap years here -- and probably misguided. Outside of the U.S., it is common to take a gap year before university. In Australia and the UK, up to a quarter of students take a gap year before university.. American students, however, becoming gradually more aware of the gap year opportunities through celebrity endorsements and media coverage. Malia Obama took a gap year before enrolling at Harvard, Benedict Cumberbatch spent his year teaching English at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and Prince Harry helped build a clinic in Lesotho, Africa.
I surveyed thirty Stanford students who took gap years to participate in activities ranging from missionary work to figure skating to military service. They unanimously agreed that their gap years were beneficial for their personal growth and maturity, finding them “so valuable that they would advise all Stanford students to consider it.”
For example, Jiyoung Jeong ‘21 spent her gap year working for a non-profit in China developing education curriculums, learning about pottery in Korea, living on a farm in Spain, and traveling around Europe. “My gap year definitely helped me develop into a more outgoing and confident person. It also helped me realize how much of a world exists outside the world of academics,” she said. Manuel Iribarren ‘21, who worked in finance during the year, shared that “my gap year was a maturing experience. It allowed me to get some real world experience in a field I was interested in.”
Many of the gap year students wished that Stanford could have done more to help them discover gap year opportunities. Manuel wishes that “Stanford provided more opportunities for gap year students. It would have been nice to connect with professors or alumni, who could have been a resource during the year.” Katie Holmes ‘20, who spent her year working in a variety of jobs and traveling, similarly noted that “she had a hard time finding opportunities.” Jiyoung even created a website which would compile the different programs and paths people took during their gap year, in order to make it easier for prospective gap year students to have a defined plan for their year.
Stanford admissions officer Mike Devlin maintains that “Stanford believes a gap year can be a beneficial experience — particularly for students who have an objective or mission.” But while Stanford admissions may be supportive of gap years, they should undertake a more concerted effort to encourage and promote them. Students and families often perceive gap years as expensive undertakings reserved for people from middle or upper class families.
In reality, however, there are plenty of opportunities for students to be paid to pursue projects in different fields, all across the world. Through networks like Workaway, for instance, individuals are able to connect with thousands of different hosts in over 170 countries who will provide accommodation, food, and cultural exchange in return for help on projects like teaching English in Thailand, working on an organic farm in India, or volunteering for an NGO in Tanzania. Stanford should help students, especially those from lower income backgrounds, discover these opportunities. Other universities have even instituted their own gap year programs, such as Middlebury College’s February start, Colorado College’s Winter Start program, Princeton University’s tuition-free Bridge Year Program that allows selected students to do nine months of service in one of five international locations, and Tufts University’s 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program.
At convocation, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne emphasized the need for Stanford students to be of “service to the world.” Gap years are an opportunity to do just that. Stanford ought to make gap years more accessible to incoming classes, whether through a gap year program organized by the university, a public list of financially feasible opportunities supported by the university, or resources which could be of service to students on gap years.
With more support from the university, many more students could begin to engage with the world outside of school. The result would be a more interesting, experienced and curious Stanford community.