More students are taking a year off between high school and college.
Text by Caroline J. Hanna
Photos by Samuel Masinter ’04
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 scholarly burnout.
Whatever the reason, growing numbers of students who’ve been admitted to Amherst are choosing to defer their freshman year to spend several months working, volunteering and traveling, among other activities.
These so-called “gap years” 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. In the book Taking Time Off, a New York Times bestseller whose second edition was published in 2003, Colin Hall ’95 and Ron Lieber ’93 write that it was the best decision of Hall’s life to work and travel the world before college. While there appear to be no 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.
That is certainly the case at Amherst, where 20 students admitted this year have decided to take a gap year before enrolling—a 67 percent increase over last year. The Class of 2006, by contrast, had just six “gappers.”
Among the 53 current students who’ve taken a year off before college is Ian Hatch ’14 (far left, third from top), who serviced BMWs, went to Argentina and participated in a classic car rally through Spain. “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,” he says.
Katharine Fretwell ’81, Amherst’s director of admission, views gap years as 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,” she says. “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.”
We asked current students who’ve taken a gap year about their experiences. What follows are portraits of seven of them.
Also: see gap-year photos from the seven students.
“Taking a gap year was the best decision of my life,” says Matt Fernald ’13, who craved real-world experience. The Sharon, N.H., native worked full-time at a deli in the summer of 2008. Then he volunteered for the Obama presidential campaign in Washington, D.C., before traveling to Ecuador, where he played tennis and volunteered at a daycare center. Next he worked in food service at Walt Disney World for six months. “The experiences gave me the sense of self-worth I had long sought in my adolescence but had never quite found,” he says.
Watch Fernald's video, Why Take a Gap Year.
“Senior year was really stressful for me,” says Maggie Crisman ’14 of Edinburg, Va. After her mother raised the idea of a gap year, Crisman landed an eight-month internship at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island in Virginia, where she lived on her own, planned and conducted environmental education programs and did biology research. On the side, she became certified as an EMT.
HouPu Wen ’14 spent the year before college at home in Astoria, N.Y., working as a cashier at McDonald’s, interning at a law firm and teaching SAT prep courses for the Princeton Review. He also taught math to incoming ninth-graders through the Teak Fellowship enrichment program’s summer camp—an experience that led to an insight: he loves teaching. “I had never really felt that way about anything before,” says Wen, who is now considering a career in education.
When Nicole Bishop ’12 opened her acceptance letter from Amherst, “It was really bittersweet,” says the transfer student from Spokane Falls (Wash.) Community College. Because her mother was in poor health, “I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to Amherst with a clear conscience,” says Bishop, a political science major from Spokane. She took time off from her schooling to help care for her mother, whose health has since improved.
As a way to step “off the treadmill,” Ian Hatch ’14 of Wenham, Mass., worked in a garage, selling and servicing BMWs, Mercedes and Volvos. Next he worked for the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights group in his mother’s native Argentina. While putting together a newspaper archive for the center, he found articles by his father, a reporter in Argentina during the 1980s. Hatch also participated in a classic car rally through Spain. “It’s as if I was able to slow down time,” he says of his gap year.
After nearly two years in the Singapore military, David Sze ’13 spent four and a half months cycling from Singapore to Beijing. “I learned to talk to anyone, anywhere—a necessary skill when you are traveling alone in unfamiliar countrysides,” says Sze, a psychology major from Singapore. “I also learned how to change bicycle tires.” What’s more, he survived a run-in with a pothole that cracked the steel frame of his bike.
When Zohar Perla ’12 heard about an opportunity to teach English in the Mulshi Valley near Pune, India, she realized she wanted to “take a breath” between high school and college. In India, she worked for the education program Akshara, sharing an apartment with a fellow teacher. “Coming back to the dorms was a little restrictive,” says the psychology major from Oregon House, Calif., but the gap year gave her a “wonderful perspective to bring” to class. It also gave her clarity: “It helps you process so much more of your education.”