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Bringing Up Mommy: The wisdom of a gap year

When I was 19, I dropped out of college and took to the highway in a pickup truck with a guy named Barry and his German shepherd named Blood.

The adults in my life didn’t know what to think. My mother wouldn’t speak to me for six months and was relieved when I “came to my senses” – eventually returning home, re-enrolling in college and becoming a contributing member of society.

Meanwhile, unencumbered by teachers and parents, freed from talk of degree majors, core curricula and future earnings, I went where the wind took me – living in a grape vineyard in California, a commune in New Mexico and a tent in the Florida Keys, stopping to work as needed.

All told, I avoided formal education for two years while gaining a different kind of knowledge. Despite the fears of the adults that I had become a hippie flower child lost forever, I did indeed return. And when I did, I was ready.

Today, an increasing number of young adults are either taking a similar break midway through college, or, more commonly, deferring the start of their freshman year. Only they are no longer necessarily considered wayward flower children. They are supported, even rewarded, for what educators now see is a singular opportunity.

A concept that originated in England in the 1960s, the gap experience provided structured opportunities to fill the several months between final exams and university, says the advocacy group, the American Gap Association (AGA).

Today’s gap year can be formal or informal – from internships and volunteering abroad with scholarships attached, to taking a local job or simply a break after years of formal education. Educators in many countries, seeing the benefits, offer deferred college admission options to gap-year students. In some countries, such as Yemen, the gap year is mandatory.

The United States has been slow to follow. But popularity has increased in recent years, as some high schools employ gap-year counselors, and companies have sprouted up to help students sift through options. The AGA says about 40,000 Americans took gap years in 2013, citing two primary reasons: time off from formal education and knowing oneself better. Educators say gap-year students return to college – and they do return, at a rate of 90 percent – more focused, more mature, more certain about plans.

“My best students are the ones who took time off before college,” my college-professor husband is fond of saying.

Clearly the gap experience isn’t for everybody. My children never considered the concept, despite their dad’s opinion and their mom taking Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” to heart.

Meanwhile, I know a handful of students – children of my friends – who used gap-year companies to help plan meaningful volunteer experiences abroad while reflecting on what’s next.

But the experience that echoes a distant drumbeat involves my youngest child’s 18-year-old friend Christian, who made his own gap-year plan – to go with the wind on the Appalachian Trail this fall instead of starting college with his peers.

A few weeks ago, curious to know what prompted him to enter the woods instead of the freshman classroom, I sent Christian a message, asking for his thoughts.

“I fully understand the importance of education,” he responded. “But there is also an importance in understanding how to push yourself physically and mentally in a more hands-on experience. I always knew I wanted to get on the trail. And I knew it would be harder to get here later when I have a career.”

Christian’s words came back to me with a deep resonance, with unwritten affirmation for my own road less traveled – with a reminder that wisdom is often born of personal experience.

“One thing that seems to be consistent when talking to people older than me is they agree this is the time to travel and experience the world,” he wrote to me. “They tell me they would do it all over again if they had the chance.”

Not all classrooms have walls.

I must have known that then, too.