Minding the Gap

September 15, 2010

Sometimes it’s a desire to do good in the world or to satisfy a simmering wanderlust. Other times it’s a way to save money for college or to take care of a sick parent. Or it may simply be an effort to avoid some kind of scholarly burnout.

Whatever the reason, growing numbers of students of all backgrounds who have been admitted to Amherst are choosing to defer their schooling and spend several months working, volunteering and traveling, among other activities. And the consensus among these undergraduates and the college’s admission staff is that “gap years” are time well-spent.

“All too often, the students accepted here have applied themselves so seriously in high school that a ‘break’ from formal learning is a welcome opportunity,” said Katharine Fretwell, Amherst’s director of admission and financial aid. “We’ve found that when students opt to interrupt their traditional schooling, for whatever reason—be it to travel, conduct research, pursue an internship, live on a kibbutz, work at Disney World, do military service, tend to an ill family member, the list goes on and on—they bring a broad perspective on the world that the typical enrolling Amherst student does not have.”

Gap years, of course, are nothing new. In the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, for example, taking a year off for professional and personal exploration has long been commonplace for undergraduates. And while there do not appear to be any organizations that track gap year data in the United States, a recent Boston Globe article reported that more admissions deans say they are seeing an increase this year, “following more publicity about the benefits of delaying enrollment.”

Amherst reflects the recent trend: 20 students admitted to the Class of 2014 have decided to take a gap year, a 67 percent increase from last year. The Class of 2006, by contrast, had just six “gappers.” 

What follows are the photos and experiences of some other former Amherst gappers who have returned to campus.

William Biche

Will Biche ’13

Annapolis, Md. For the first six months of his gap year, Biche worked for  a Congressional campaign and part-time as an assistant to doctors in the emergency room at his county hospital. He then worked full-time—“overtime, really,” he said—at the hospital and earned enough money to pay for a trip to India for 10 weeks in late spring. There he took a five-week National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course backpacking in the Himalayas, spent a week mountain biking and rappelling in Kathmandu and finally volunteered in a tuberculosis clinic in Northern India for four weeks. Said Biche of the experience: “Now I feel much more confident in my abilities to interact with adults on a professional basis, about what I can handle as a student and about my choice of profession.”

Meaghan Crisman

Meaghan Crisman ’14

Edinburg, Va. Crisman served as a Visitors Services intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for eight months at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. During her time there, she planned and conducted environmental education programs, acted as audiovisual technician, created multimedia publications and worked with the biology staff on several research projects. She also became certified as an EMT-B, taking five months of classes. “I had time to relax and recover from the stress of high school, while becoming more independent, responsible and focused on my work,” she noted of her experiences. “What’s great is that I will always have the skills I learned while at the Refuge.”

Matt Fernald

Matt Fernald ’13

Sharon, N.H. Fernald worked full-time in the summer of 2008; volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; served on the staff of a daycare provider and played tennis, both in Ecuador; and then enrolled in one of Walt Disney World’s six-month college programs. “Taking a gap year was the best decision of my life,” said Fernald. “Besides leaving me with some truly unforgettable memories and friends, the experiences gave me the sense of self-worth I had long sought in my adolescence but had never quite found. It’s a sense that is absolutely invaluable everywhere else, including college.” Watch Matt’s video, “Why Take a Gap Year?”

Erik Hansen

Erik Hansen ’14

Minnetonka, Minn. Hansen spent his gap year playing junior hockey for the Quesnel Millionaires in Quesnel, British Columbia, Canada. “The year was an incredible experience, as it helped prepare me to live on my own as well as improve my hockey skills to be at a college level when arriving at Amherst,” he explained. “I would recommend a gap year to any high school seniors who are unsure of what they would like to do the next year, instead of heading into a situation that may not provide them with the greatest chance of success.”

Ian Hatch

Ian Hatch ’14

Wenham, Mass. During his gap year, Hatch worked in a garage, servicing BMWs, Mercedes and Volvos; lived in Argentina for five months, working at the human rights group CELS (Center for Legal and Social Studies); and participated in a classic car rally through Spain. “Though some stages of my year could not be called ‘edifying’ by any means—Alfa Romeo cruising—holistically, my year-off experience benefited from all its constituent parts,” noted Hatch. “Greasy work under German cars taught me a skill, human rights work in the labyrinthine streets of Buenos Aires produced the missing puzzle pieces of my heritage and a salutary jaunt through Spain enjoined me to relax for once and live in the moment.”

Nicholas Koh

Nicholas Koh ’14

Singapore. A 2008 high school graduate, Koh spent the past two years fulfilling national service obligations to his native country, Singapore. He served in the Ministry of Home Affairs—equivalent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he said—doing emergency planning and strategic affairs. He also worked for the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which provides firefighting, rescue and emergency ambulance services. “I think the experience has really made me appreciate the difficulties governments face in trying to protect citizens and address gaps to improve the coverage of emergency responders.”

Will Mateo

Will Mateo ’11

Truth or Consequences, N.M. Mateo spent his year traveling and volunteering at various organizations in India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the U.K. “I had spent so much of my life in school that I began to feel like I was only there by default—having never been anything but a student, I felt it was necessary to get to know myself in a radically new, unstructured setting,” he said. “As a result of being cut off from academics for a year, I began to really miss it, and I realized that going to school wasn’t just my default setting, something I had fallen into and would stick with because of inertia, but that learning in an academic setting was something truly fulfilling and worthwhile for me.”

Zohar Perla

Zohar Perla ’12

Oregon House, Ca. Perla took time off from her schooling to volunteer for Akshara, a supplementary education program in the Mulshi Valley near Pune, India. She taught English to eighth-  and 10th-graders and helped with promotion, marketing and grant-proposal-writing. In addition, she prepared and tutored two students from the program who had been accepted to the United World College for the culture shock and academic changes they would be facing. She then spent her final month and a half traveling in India, “which is an experience all of its own,” she said. “During my gap year I had met several truly inspiring people who had incredible stories to share and had dedicated their lives to helping others. … On the academic front, [I gained] a wonderful perspective to bring to my classes and a much deeper understanding of both women’s rights debates and issues in developing countries.”

David Sze

David Sze ’13

Singapore. After completing his service obligations, Sze cycled from Singapore to Beijing over four and a half months. “I learned to talk to anyone, anywhere—a necessary skill when you are traveling alone in unfamiliar countrysides,” said the succinct sophomore. “I also learned how to change bicycle tires.”

David Vitale

David Vitale ’13  

Scarsdale, N.Y.  Like Biche, Vitale signed up for NOLS and spent several weeks hiking, climbing, canyoneering and winter camping in Wyoming, South Dakota and Utah. “I am convinced I learned more in those months than I did through four years of high school,” he said. “It was an unbelievably incredible experience, and within the first few weeks I could see how it prepared me for college by teaching me tolerance for adversity, teamwork, determination and a long list of other valuable assets.”

HouPu Wen

HouPu Wen ’14

Astoria, N.Y. Wen spent a good deal of his time before coming to Amherst teaching for the Princeton Review as an SAT Instructor and for the TEAK Fellowship enrichment program’s summer camp as a math teacher. In addition, he worked at a McDonald’s restaurant and participated in an internship at a local law firm. “My time working at McDonald’s was very eye-opening and gave me much perspective—I saw firsthand how important education is to success,” he noted. “I also discovered through the course of teaching that I really enjoy doing so, especially when compared to a desk job.… I feel really grateful to be attending Amherst.”