Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Students are discovering that a planned year away from the classroom enriches their studies — and their lives.

Once upon a time, high school graduates who wanted to further their education went on to college. The only options for anyone who needed a break from the classroom seemed to be spending a year living as a ski bum or waiting tables — or both. But today’s students, many of whom have worked hard in school and participated in multiple extracurriculars to gain admission to competitive colleges, are finding that a planned gap year just might be the most fulfilling part of their education.

“It’s not, ‘I’m taking a year off to play video games and work at Dairy Queen,’ ” says ­American Gap Association (AGA) executive director Ethan Knight, explaining that the critical element to a successful gap year is intention. “It’s taking a year off to enrich myself, to do a little career exploration, to develop some personal goals and to define a degree of success.” That can translate to a volunteer stint at a wildlife-­rehabilitation center in Ecuador, caring for children at orphanages in Ghana, teaching novice Buddhist monks a middle school curriculum in Thailand, working with scientists investigating global warming on vessels off the coast of Antarctica or helping disabled children learn to ski in Colorado. For Lucy Crane

Gap-Year Consultants and Programs

Interested in learning more about the benefits of a gap year? The following companies can help.

American Gap Association
The Center for Interim Programs
EnRoute Consulting
National Outdoor Leadership School
Pacific Discovery
Princeton University Bridge Year Program (for incoming Princeton students only)
Thinking Beyond Borders
Where There Be Dragons

of Portland, Maine, a freshman at the University of ­Vermont, it meant traveling around Southeast Asia with 14 other young people and spending time in a wooden boat on the Mekong River before helping build a one-room house for a ­Cambodian family. India Spears, a San Francisco native and a sophomore at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., spent her year in Cape Town, South Africa, where she worked in the neurosurgery unit of a public hospital doing rounds, attending clinics and watching surgeries — along with going on a safari, trying bungee jumping and taking a visit to an ostrich farm on her days off. Although Spears planned her gap year after an unhappy freshman year at a college that turned out to be a bad fit, most “gappers” fit it in right after graduating from high school.

“It gives you a chance to love school again and become curious again,” says Ananda Day, a University of North Carolina at ­Chapel Hill senior who grew up in Raleigh, N.C. Day spent part of her gap year in Senegal, where she lived near its capital, Dakar, and studied international development, post-colonialism­ and Islam, as well as participated in an ­internship that allowed her to complete an ecotourism-impact analysis. She also became fluent in French, the official language of Senegal.

“Being in a place where language and your history don’t define you gives you the chance to test out the ideal person you want to be,” says Day, who is also an AGA advisory-board member. She took part in a polio-vaccination campaign that inspired her to study public policy, development and health when she started at UNC. Once on campus, Day found she was more engaged in learning.

“Sitting in French class, I would remember a word because I heard it in Senegal, sitting on a bench talking to a 99-year-old man,” she says. Likewise, textbook politics became clearer to her because she’d dealt with similar issues in working for a Senegalese organization that was partly government run. That kind of ­real-world learning is measurable, according to Knight, who says that once in college, gap-year students earn higher GPAs than their similarly ranked classmates who didn’t take time off. And there are long-term effects as well, he says, citing a study that showed some 75 percent of former gap-year students are satisfied with their postgraduate careers, a fact he attributes to the service-learning component common to gap plans, the accompanying sense of global citizenship and less focus on earnings.