An opportunity awaits
After boarding a plane in Kansas City, Missouri, destined for New York, Madeleine Riley, University of Kansas student, started to have doubts about the decision she was making.
“What the hell am I doing?” Riley said. “What did I sign up for? Why am I doing this?”
Once she landed, though, her worries subsided and that familiar excitement returned. She was going to Belgium to study abroad for 11 months.
A 2012 graduate from Manhattan High School, Madeleine took a different route than her peers and opted to defer her enrollment at the University of Kansas in Lawrence for a year. Rather, she enrolled in a fifth year of high school in Belgium through American Field Service USA‘s intercultural programs.
Although the trend for recent high school graduates taking a year off before starting college was beginning to rise in the United States, according to Time Magazine’s Sept. 21, 2010 article “Time Out: Gauging the Value of a Gap Year Before College,” Madeleine had been thinking about doing this for a long time.
Madeleine’s maternal grandparents lived in a small Belgian town before immigrating to the U.S. Their daughter and Madeleine’s mother, Cheryl Riley, wanted to visit this place that she had heard so much about. She received that opportunity in 1981 during her junior year in high school through the American Field Service exchange program.
Cheryl maintained ties with AFS, and eventually the Rileys decided to host students from other countries.
Madeleine said when she was 3 years old her family hosted a student for the first time. When she was a sophomore in high school they decided to do it again. In total, they hosted five students: two girls from Thailand and Japan and three boys from Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
“That was why I wanted to do it,” Madeleine said. “Here are 16- (and) 17-year-olds coming to the U.S., (so) why can’t I go over there?”
During her sophomore year of high school, Madeleine made her decision after hosting the boy from Italy.
“That was the first time we had hosted since I was a little girl,” Madeleine said. “I just thought my Italian brother was so cool, and I just wanted to do the same thing.”
Through AFS, Madeleine said she was able to experience a different environment and culture many of her peers have not.
The trend to take a gap year is steadily growing in the U.S., Australia and European countries. According to research by the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, 24 percent of high school graduates took a gap year in Australia in the 2009-10 scholastic year, a 14 percent increase from 2000.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a gap year as “a year that you spend traveling, working, etc., before continuing your studies.” Programs, from volunteer work to studying abroad, joining the army or going to work full time, have clouded the market for American graduates, making the term ambiguous when researching it online.
At Manhattan High School, most students choose a more common option and enroll in their first year of college directly after high school. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis, 64.7 percent of the 33,808 Kansas high school graduates in 2010 went directly to college.
“We generally have 68 percent of our population go on (to a four-year college),” Tony Wichmann, Manhattan High School academic counselor, said. “Another 20 percent would go on to other programs. It could be community college, a technical school, some sort of training beyond here.”
Madeleine said taking a year off to study abroad opened her eyes to new experiences and helped her recognize the struggle facing a lot of students her age.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Madeleine said. “I didn’t want to just go to college and have to change my major halfway through and then take more time there. I might as well take a gap year now.”
By taking a gap year, Madeleine said she hoped to have a clearer idea of a career path.
While in Belgium, Madeleine focused on speaking French and exploring the possibility of becoming an interpreter, which her host sister did. For two days she shadowed an interpreter at the European Union in Brussels.
“That was really cool just to see what they do,” Madeleine said. “Its a good job, but I don’t think I’ll do it now.”
Madeleine said her gap year opened her eyes to experiences outside the U.S., but her high school classmate, Cole Anneberg, said his gap year experience shed light on a different side of his home country.
Anneberg applied and was accepted into the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program with the Cooperation for National Community Service after graduating from high school in 2012.
Like Madeleine, Anneberg said he was able to postpone his enrollment to the University of Kansas to take time off.
“The gap year program was always planned,” Anneberg said. “I moved to Denver in October, which was kind of sad because I had to watch all my of friends go off and have their freshman year experience.”
While with AmeriCorps, Anneberg said he was based out of Denver but traveled to four separate programs within the U.S. over one year of service.
According to Anneberg, his experiences helped him gain perspective but what drove his decision was the financial benefits.
“If I had to weigh it, I would say it was 60 percent benefits and then 30 percent interest, then just being in the Southwest and Denver (for 10 percent),” Anneberg said.
Think about it
How a student experiences their gap year is dependent on what they plan to get out of their time spent, Annaberg said.
An assessment by Temple University, the Institute for Survey Research and the American Gap Association of almost 700 respondents ranging from age 18 to 70, showed 92 percent listed their top influence to take a gap year was to, “gain life experiences/grow personally.”
A gap year is not complete until you return to school, Madeleine said. Madeleine and Anneberg, now juniors at KU, were able to defer their admittance into college to take their gap year.
KU accepts deferred enrollment from high school, granted the paperwork is filed and requirements met by the Kansas Board of Regents, which is not an option at every college in the country.
When making the decision to embark on a gap year, resources are available in a variety of forms. Chapters of AFS-USA are all over the country and websites from organizations specializing in gap-year programs offer assistance.
Local schools offer documents pertaining to options after graduation. Manhattan High School lists taking a gap year as an alternative opportunity in its school information packet.
It’s your life
Now back in her home country and enrolled for her last semester as a junior, Madeleine said she has reflected on her experience in Belgium.
“It’s funny because I really didn’t figure out what I wanted to do,” Madeleine said. “Because that’s what I wanted, like you know, I’ll go to college and I’ll be sure about what I want to do because of this year I’m taking off, and I can reflect. But that wasn’t true at all. It doesn’t work like that.”
According to Madeleine, her gap year wasn’t a loss, though, and through it she gained new ideas about a possible path to follow. She said she is considering teaching English as a second language or becoming a social worker.
“I always want to do something where I’m helping people,” Madeleine said.