In the fall of 2011, as The Park School graduate Jamie DeMarco’s classmates packed their duffel bags for colleges across the country, a freshly immunized DeMarco (rabies, Yellow Fever, Typhoid) filled his R.E.I. backpack with six bottles of insect repellant, a hand-filter pump, and some mosquito netting and boarded a Miami flight bound for Quito, Ecuador.
“I had been going to class my entire life,” says DeMarco, sitting in the living room of his family’s Lake Montebello home, fresh from his travels. “I was not looking forward to classes. I was burnt out from having to follow such a narrow path for so long, and I wanted to go out and live rather than waiting four more years to begin my life.”
To get off the academic fast track and heed to his wanderlust, DeMarco, like many other high-school students in Baltimore and beyond, took a “gap year”—a self-exploratory sabbatical in which students defer college for community service, world travel, internships, and other activities away from the structure of school.
For DeMarco, his gap year began on Wisdom Forest, a farm east of the Andes, which he found on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website.
“I e-mailed the contact person at Wisdom Forest that I wanted to work there from this date to that date,” says DeMarco. “It was that simple.”
While at Wisdom Forest ($10 a day for room and board), the high-school graduate did everything from weed to harvest to compost. Mornings began with a regimen of Bhakti yoga.
DeMarco’s adventures did not end there. Before his sabbatical ended, he had worked as a cave tour guide and lived in a rainforest for three weeks subsisting on yucca, bananas, and leaves from local plants.
“I would spend days fantasizing about pizza,” says DeMarco, “but by the end of the three weeks, I had learned to control those cravings. It was important to cut off those fantasies at the very beginning.”
The experience, he says, changed his life.
“I worked with people of all ages from all over the world,” says DeMarco. “Some mornings I’d wake up and think, ‘Wow, I could be in a college classroom right now,’ but I’m here.”
DeMarco is not alone. While gap years have long been popular in Great Britain, the concept is just gaining steam in the United States.
“Many very successful students don’t always enjoy school per se,” says Carl Ahlgren, director of college counseling at Gilman School. “Instead, they enjoy success and the satisfaction of being recognized as successful. These students can grow weary of treating school life as a competition and begin to wonder why they have worked so hard. That gap year provides an opportunity to discover this meaning and perhaps a chance for the student to discover the joys of school life, but only during an interruption from school life.”
DeMarco would agree. “Back in August, if someone told me, ‘I’ll give you the diploma and you don’t have to go to college for four years,’ I would have taken it,” he says. “Now, I’m going to put a lot more intention into the classes I pick, and I am excited about learning.”
Harvard University sophomore Caroline Trusty, who worked at Bryn Mawr’s Little School after graduation from the Bryn Mawr School and used her earnings to travel to Ghana where she taught English to elementary schoolchildren, says her gap year has made her a better student—and person.
“In high school, I spent a lot of time doing things that were resume builders to get into college,” explains Trusty. “Leaving that kind of community behind, I got a whole new perspective. I spent a lot of time having to be uncertain about things and learning a whole new system. It gave me such confidence in myself which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
The same is true for Mt. Holyoke freshman Hannah Leighton. She’d been drawn to Africa ever since her mother, Betsy, and brother, Ben, hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. After doing an extensive search on the Internet, Leighton found The Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education (C.A.R.E.), situated in Phalaborwa, South Africa. While her twin brother, Sam, headed to Dickinson College last fall, Leighton traveled to the African bush where she spent a month rescuing and rehabilitating orphans and injured baby baboons.
“In high school, it’s so easy to think the world is a small place,” says Leighton. “But when you travel, you realize, there’s so much you haven’t seen. South Africa is one tiny little sliver of the planet, and it left me wanting to see so much more. It opened the door to possibility.”
For Leighton’s parents, the prospect of a gap year was daunting at first. “This was new to us,” says Betsy. “It was a leap of faith, but we took our cues from Hannah, which increased her self confidence. Now, she is so comfortable navigating novel situations and using what she learned to make connections in a way I’m not sure she would have before.”
As the number of students who take gap years has grown, so too has awareness of the benefits of taking what some view as a year “on” as opposed to a year off.
“Colleges are beginning to track their freshman [once they have matriculated],” says Holly Bull, who runs The Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, NJ. “Gap-year students fare better overall when they hit college. They are way ahead of their peers.”
Colleges, such as Middlebury, in fact, have actually studied the academic impact of a gap year once the students are in college. A recent study showed that the average GPA for Middlebury students who had taken a break—35 in 2011—was higher than those who had not. Robert Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury, told the The New York Times that the study was conducted to “disabuse the parents out there of the idea that taking a year off is somehow going to mean a disaster for their kids—the opposite is true.”
Patti Whalen, director of college counseling at Bryn Mawr School, agrees. “It can change a student’s world view and set them on a path that’s more directed when they get to college,” she says. “For the right kid, it can really laser focus them toward what they want do to do in college, so that college is so much more meaningful.”
In some cases, prestigious colleges are not only encouraging a gap year, but funding it. Both Princeton University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aid students in setting up a gap year prior to coming to campus. “We are seeing that the drive for a gap year is coming from the universities themselves,” says Tom Pastorius, vice president of Projects Abroad, an organization that helps kids set up gap years.
But not everyone is a proponent of taking a breather. “It is an interesting notion,” concedes Jeremy Goldman, school-counseling chair of Pikesville High School. “However, as an educator, I have the opinion that young people should stay engaged in their studies, so that they don’t lose sight of their goals, and lose the skills that we so ardently teach in their years of high school.”
While University of Maryland director of undergraduate admissions Shannon Gundy is a fan of the gap year when it’s done for the “right” reasons, she emphasizes that students shouldn’t take a gap year simply because they need a break and were overextended in high school.
“I try to pull people back,” says Gundy. “They should be enjoying high school. They need to be active and involved—they don’t need to be perfect people to position themselves to colleges. [Students] need to learn how to manage the four years of high school in a much more balanced fashion.”
Baltimore School for the Arts guidance counselor Abby McKelvey believes that gap-year success is closely tied to a student’s motivation for taking the break. “When I first hear a kid say that’s what they are interested in doing, my first response is to cringe a little because it makes me very nervous if a student doesn’t have a structured plan. Some students are just fearful of growing up, and there’s anxiety about adulthood which is just on the other end of college. Those are the ones I worry about. I have seen mixed results.”
The structured plan seems to be the key: The gap year shouldn’t be confused with a vacation; it’s not Spring Break. It needs a clear agenda and focus.
Darryl Tiggle, director of college guidance for the Friends School of Baltimore explains. “Maybe a student has a community-service project they started in high school that they want to continue. Maybe they learned something about urban blight that they wanted to address, and they write a grant to see if it can be supported by this kind of work. Colleges are even more impressed when a student who has taken a year off has designed their own program.”
Again and again, the students we talked to insisted that a gap year better prepared them for their collegiate studies.
Gilman grad Edwin Whitman—whose gap year adventures included travel to Southeast Asia along the Mekong River, an internship for a New Zealand newspaper, and living with a Chinese family in the Yunnan Province for four months—believes that his year off was an essential ingredient in his transition to college.
“I honestly can’t see myself at college not having taken the time to see the world, reflect, and refocus my outlook,” says Whitman, now a freshman at Harvard. “It was by far and away the most formative year yet. Gilman prepared me wonderfully for the academic challenges at Harvard, but my gap year was essential in dealing with the rest.”
For Jamie DeMarco, “the rest” includes a new understanding of the phrase “think globally, act locally.”
“In Parra, where I lived for three weeks, I learned that there was oil underneath the town and that oil companies wanted to drill there,” says DeMarco. “They are offering these communities a lot of money to cut down their forests. If we keep demanding oil, eventually these communities will [be destroyed].”
As a result of his travels abroad, DeMarco has all but renounced riding in a car (out-of-state family occasions excepted). “When I came home, I decided I would ride my bike everywhere,” says DeMarco who gazes across the room wistfully and adds, “I am not the same me that I was before.”