Learning beyond the ‘bubble’: students fill gap year with meaning

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Galarce (second from right) became very close with his AmeriCorps team members during him time in City Year Chicago.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” These are words to live by for students who are taking a year off from their education to rest, explore and gain skills to aide them in their future endeavors.

Traditionally, the term “gap year” was reserved for graduating high school seniors who needed a break to refresh and prepare for the rigorous demands of college. Though the practice became popular in United Kingdom in the 1960s, the gap year has now become popular for American students who are at various points in their in the college education.

The 2010-2011 New College of Florida Gap Year Guide cites that every year, about 230,000 students age 18 to 24 from all around the world take a gap year. Career Services Director Cathy Cuthbertson has advised many students about their gap year options, which range from the Peace Corps to the JET program (Japan Exchange Teaching program) to teaching assistantships in France and Spain.

“I think [taking a gap year] is just a very positive thing to do because by the time you finish a senior thesis, most people are really tired and really ready for a break and it’s good to rejuvenate,” Cuthbertson said. She is adamant that a student should participate in something that they can become “fully engaged and immersed” and supports their future career goals.

Third-year Jonathan Niles is planning to take next Fall semester off in order to do research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for his senior thesis in Applied Mathematics and Biology. He will be designing an Open Source Hospital Information System (HIS) with a non-governmental agency named SANRU (Sante Rurale, or Rual Health) whose goal is to strengthen the country’s healthcare system. Niles hopes that this system will not only improve hospital management but also the quality of life for the patients.

Though the completion of most of his thesis research is Niles’ main objective, he also plans to hone his French language skills and train a team of Congolese JavaScript programmers to maintain the longevity of his project.

Niles is fortunate to have friends and family who support his decision to take a semester off from New College.

“I grew up with a belief that learning isn’t confined to school and if I could do better, help more people [or] learn more elsewhere, then that’s the place I should be,” Niles said in an e-mail interview. “I think that to really understand a problem, one must go to where it is being tackled. Theoretical answers to distant challenges usually do little on the ground floor.”

Although Niles has purely academic reasons to take a semester off from school, other students are spending their gap period completely separated from academia in order to recharge and grow as an individual.

“I associate a gap year with some meaningful activity and, if it’s not academic, it hopefully will [lead to] personal growth,” Cuthbertson said. “If somebody wanted to go explore or become immersed in the culture of Thailand or India or Iowa that’s well and good – all the better if you can find something in that experience to keep you anchored in your forward goal.”

Thesis student and former Catalyst staff writer Puneet Sandhu intends to do just that. She plans on taking a month-long trip to India with her mother after she graduates to improve her mental and physical health.

“I went [to India] a few years ago and it was a really good experience,” Sandhu said. “The mentality there is pretty different – people aren’t so caught up in work.” In addition to the trip, Sandhu is going to use the gap year to quit smoking and become physically healthy.

“These last couple years have been pretty draining,” Sandhu added. “I am just going to take some time to really take care of myself because if you are not mentally okay then everything else tends to fail.”


Sandhu standing inbetween two Sadhus in Rishikesh


Aside from travelling abroad, Sandhu expects to get a job, completely separate from journalism and academics, to save up money for traveling expenses and possibly for graduate school. Like Niles, Sandhu’s family has backed her decision to take a year off, though she has heard concerns from other people that transitioning from a gap year back to school can be difficult.

“I think the benefit is that you are only really maybe wasting a year, if you want to call it that,” she said. “If nothing happens then you just took a year to take a break and maybe something really good happened and you come out of it more clear on what direction you want to go in.”

As the Career Services Director, Cuthbertson has also heard the myth that gap years can lead to laziness and apathy about returning back to one’s education.

“One of the things I have heard … [is] sometimes students’ parents think that colleges or universities think negatively upon a gap year and that’s just not true. I [have] heard more and more from graduate schools – medical schools in particular, that they value students who come back from a gap year, who have spent meaningful years [becoming] more immersed in health care or policy analysis or French language, depending on a person’s goals.”

Thesis student and Biology AOC Salome Grasland has been accepted into the Peace Corps after graduation to work abroad in Mozambique for two years and three months. She will be teaching Biology to middle and high school students in a classroom equipped with nothing but a chalkboard. The 33-hour plane ride from Sarasota to Africa will be the farthest she has ever been from her family, not only by physical distance but, due to the lack of phone and Internet access in the mud house she will be living in, by technological distance as well.

Grasland decided to join the Peace Corps in order to apply her education from New College in the “real world” instead of diving right into graduate school.

“I don’t really see the Peace Corps as a break from academics,” Grasland said. “Academia is supposed to force you to grow and … constantly challenge your world views and beliefs. Every class I took [at New College] I tried to put [into the] perspective of ‘how is this changing the way I see the world?’ [and] ‘how is this changing the way I interact with the world?’ and I think while I am in Mozambique I may not be reading textbooks and writing essays but my brain will be going through that same sort of rigor.”

When Grasland returns from the Peace Corps, she plans on looking into Peace Corps-affiliated graduate school programs. Presently, she is not sure which field of Biology she wants to go in for her future studies though she believes that her time in Mozambique will change that.

“I know for a fact that when I come back I am going to be a different person and I’m definitely going to have a whole new world view,” she said.

Alexander Galarce is a first-year transfer student who decided to take a gap year after his first year of college at the University of Illinois before he transferred to New College. He felt that a year off would help prepare him as a student and help him become more engaged when he returned to his studies.

Galarce spent the year in the AmeriCorps where he took part in City Year Chicago, a program that provides tutoring and mentorships to youths in need. AmeriCorps was created in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as a domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps. Galarce worked at Manley Career Academy High School, a school that is listed as “On Probation” by the Chicago Public School’s (CPS) website due to its low score of 34.9 percent on last year’s CPS Performance Policy.

“I learned a lot,” Galarced commented. “It was great to work in a school. I learned a lot about having to work with people because we had to work in teams. We probably worked about 50 to 60 hours a week [together] so I got to know my teammates very well. You forge really strong friendships … I am really close friends with the people who [I worked with] and I’m just very grateful.”

Galarce worked in an 9th grade Algebra I classroom with a team of his AmeriCorps co-workers and was responsible for tutoring students who were struggling, speaking with them if they misbehaved and putting on events for students with good behaviour. Listing time management, budgeting and organizational skills as just some of the rewards he obtain from participating in the program, Galarce believes that he is more prepared as a student and as a person.

“I definitely would encourage my class mates who are considering a gap year or people who are graduating [to look into the program],” Galarce said. “It’s a lot to deal with and it’s tough but you come out of it a lot stronger as a person and you learn a lot. I’m a big fan of [AmeriCorps] and I feel like I am a lot better off because I did it.”

Information from this article was taken from: http://www.cps.edu/, The 2011 Gap-Year Guidebook, and The 2010-2011 New College of Florida Gap Year Guide.


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