Let me catch my breath: the benefits of taking time off October 16, 2014 1 Comment Share tweet Mark Bessen Desk Editor By: Mark Bessen | Desk Editor By the end of high school, I was a wreck. I was depressed, overwhelmed, overcommitted and lost. The idea of hopping back on the academic treadmill and turning the speed up to Stanford was too much, so I decided to take time off. The choice between “time off” and “a gap year” is intentional. The popular perception of a gap year, reinforced by the infamous YouTube video “Gap Yah,” is one of luxury, of privilege. The gap year I had heard of consisted of travel to foreign places, of the “spiritual, cultural, political exchange” that the video parodies, but which is a common (mis)conception. Already riddled with guilt about the tuition money my parents would be shelling out for college, I had no intention of spending their money on a formal gap year, which, if organized by programs like Youth International, can cost around $30,000. But formal programs, though they can often quell a parent’s fears about their child travelling abroad, are not the only option when taking time off. Instead, time off provides a chance for personal reflection, emotional well-being, academic exploration and employment experience. The American Gap Association reports a growing interest in gap years between high school and college over the last decade. This increased popularity parallels the blossoming awareness that traditional educational trajectories — going straight from twelve years of school immediately to college and beyond — can cause early burnout. A thoughtful essay by Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons proposes that students who have taken time off are better able to cope with the pressures of college, both academically and socially, and even reports that gap year students tend to have slightly higher GPAs than the rest of the student body. But that’s certainly not justification for taking a gap year, because the relationship between improved academic performance and gap years may not be causal. Taking time off does not guarantee that a student will be better adjusted to college life. But, time off can be an opportunity for a student to catch his or her breath and experience the world outside the Academy. Let’s look at some of the opportunities available to students who choose to take time off from school. The first is, perhaps paradoxically, academic: taking classes at a local community college. For students like myself who tumbled out of the whirlwind of high school without a sense of academic direction, taking one or two classes out of interest can be fantastically rewarding. In high school, I went through all the motions, took the AP classes I felt I had to take and never gave much thought to my intellectual interests or passions. Time off can let you explore courses you wouldn’t spend time on at Stanford, without the same financial burden of our elite private education. During my time off, I took two classes at Long Beach City College: one in physics, one in metaphysics. At just $31 per unit, as opposed to the $900 or more we pay for each Stanford credit, California community colleges can be both affordable and engaging. Plus, the classmates at many community colleges are diverse and motivated — working parents, artists, professionals returning to school to finish up a degree. The socioeconomic diversity of community colleges is something we largely miss out on at Stanford. With Stanford’s generous transfer credit policy, community college courses can be applied towards a degree, allowing for greater flexibility in classes on campus. Another major perk of time off is the opportunity to work, which can be done concurrently (or not) with taking some classes out of interest. A year off can be a chance to not only make money, but also to gain job experience. Though I worked a number of part-time jobs in high school, the full time job I held at a tutoring agency over my year off was a whole new experience. Working a non-academic job (or even a semi-academic one like tutoring) can allow us to contextualize the education we are privileged with at Stanford. In my case, it also helped to wean down the number of possible career paths I was considering — I can now say with near certainty that teaching middle and high schoolers would drive me bonkers. For those interested in more “glamorous” (yet affordable) gap year experiences, there are also a number of fully funded volunteer programs targeted at gappers. World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF-USA) offers food and accommodation in exchange for daily work, allowing volunteers to explore parts of the US they may never have otherwise. Similarly, AmeriCorps and City Year both pay full room and board for volunteers. While these options focus on time off between high school and college, there can also be tremendous value in taking time off during college, or “leaves of absence.” Though it may be unpopular since it skews a student’s “social class” from his or her “graduating class” years, taking a leave of absence for anywhere between a quarter and a few years allows students to either prevent burnout or engage more deeply with an extracurricular passion. So, if these are all the benefits of time off, why don’t more people do it? Perhaps the simplest answer is social stigma. Deviating from the “traditional” educational trajectory can put a student in unfamiliar terrain, which can be good and bad, but which prompts a lot of seemingly targeted questions from outsiders. Gappers generally graduate college after the rest of their high school class, which can seem daunting in our hypercompetitive job market. There’s also a fear that if someone takes time off, they’ll never return to school — though this has been repeatedly invalidated, according to the American Gap Association and US News. And one particularly important variety of social stigma is parental or familial pressure. The idea behind a gap year is quite unusual for our parents’ generation, who may think that time off is time wasted lazing around home. But with changing academic pressures on students and increasingly competitive college applications, discussions of the benefits of time off are finding a receptive audience in mainstream media and culture. We need to begin to accept that not all students follow the same academic trajectories, even at a rigorous institution like Stanford. While time off is not for everyone — and to those who can endure sixteen or more years of school back-to-back, I tip my hat — the gap year is a heavily underutilized construct for Americans. And, if we’re going to try to position ourselves to improve mental health on campus, we need to acknowledge that part of the solution will be time off campus as well. Contact Mark Bessen at mbessen ‘at’ stanford.edu. CAPS gap year leaves of absence mark bessen mental health 2014-10-16 Mark Bessen October 16, 2014 1 Comment Share tweet Subscribe Click here to subscribe to our daily newsletter of top headlines.