At 18, Matt Redman took a gap year to focus on one of his largest passions: alpine skiing. While living on the mountain, he formed memories and learned lessons that still stick with him today.
Now, he looks to recreate those feelings and learnings as Global High School and Teach Abroad Director with CIEE (The Nonprofit Council on International Education Exchange). We sat down with Matt to hear more about CIEE's mission, which students are a good fit for the program, and what gap time memories are clearest for Matt.
What’s CIEE’s mission, as it relates to gap year students?
The Nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) is the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization. CIEE was founded over 65 years ago after World War II to promote better understanding among cultures.
The first step to understanding others is to understand yourself. A gap year allows time for an exploration of self. Many young students haven’t had time prior to a gap year for self-introspection because their focus has been on academic achievement. During a gap year, students learn who they are as a person, explore the world and become more independent before continuing on to college.
By living with host families in the country, the students immerse themselves in another culture and language. For example, a student studying in Shanghai, China, might practice Mandarin with her host family, teach English to migrant children at an elementary school, learn to play the erhu (the Chinese violin), visit local historical sites as well as have formal language instruction.
The intercultural learning interacts with the perception of self to develop a sense of empathy. CIEE builds space and framework into its GAP curriculum. We complement independent exploration and novel, eye-opening experiences with time to reflect. Space, exploration, and intentional instruction allow students to reflect and internalize their experiences so the learnings last a lifetime.
Our mission statement is to live better in an interconnected world. That’s why we believe in gap year abroad. It’s not a year off, but a year on. The purpose is to grow independently and learn about yourself. The best way to do that is to take yourself out of a familiar setting and venture into other cultures.
What type of student excels best in a CIEE gap year?
Students will do well if they have a good understanding of what they want to achieve and the environment they are comfortable being in. I believe the student should first have a defined goal for the gap year. Many people think of a gap year as a vacation or a time of pure travel. It’s more of a step toward self-development. Students who want to learn about the world as well as themselves will absolutely excel in a CIEE gap year.
The second aspect is the level of independence the student is comfortable assuming. The student should have some comfort with managing the unexpected – travel delays, cultural misunderstandings and the like. CIEE can help students set and attain goals as well as provide academic and safety support. Every study abroad gap year program has in-country support, but the best experience comes with full immersion. By living with a host family and speaking the language of the country, students develop independence and responsibility. It’s important to give the typical student the support necessary to allow them to succeed yet preserve their independence.
The student who benefits from a CIEE gap year is someone who is interested in cultures, languages and exploration. The time abroad, whether it’s a semester or a year, is fast-paced and filled with activities to help the student navigate the culture and build language proficiency. Time abroad gives a student time to mature and acquire global competencies.
What is something that most people don’t realize about CIEE?
A fundamental component of a CIEE gap year in countries where other languages are spoken is the immersive language course. When you travel abroad, it’s important to go beyond the superficial food and festivities that often come to mind.
For global travel, you really want a deeper and more meaningful experience. Being able to speak the language of the country opens the door to those types of experiences. Living with a host family, as students do in the CIEE gap year program, offers the student the best potential for developing both language skills and independence.
CIEE also hosts proprietary intercultural activities that help bring students together with people in the host country. The insights are much deeper and more fulfilling with this approach. The experiences are carried by the student into college and career.
What advice would you give to someone considering a gap year?
The first step is to determine what you want to get out of the gap year. It goes back to establishing goals. Work with your parents, teachers and school counselors to review what you’ve enjoyed in the past and what you want to achieve in a gap year. What experiences are most important to you? What skills do you want to learn?
The best resources are often others who’ve taken a gap year or traveled abroad. What were their best learning experiences? What did they learn from unexpected experiences? Then, identify a program that meets those goals and create a structure to keep things on track.
Look for high-quality programs. Do they offer the desired cultural and learning experiences? Search out perspectives and comments of others who’ve attended the program. During their gap year, CIEE students blog about their study abroad experiences. The American Gap Association also offers great resources.
The other point is to understand how colleges perceive a gap year. Schools are very familiar with gap years. Most colleges today allow a one-year deferral after admission to pursue a gap year. Studies show a gap year helps open the door to highly selective colleges. And students who study abroad are also more likely to finish college and are more attractive to potential employers.
Tell me about your own gap year, and the impact it’s had on your career trajectory.
My gap year was slightly different from CIEE gap years. I grew up alpine ski racing. My dreams were about skiing when I slept at night, and my goal was to pursue the sport to the highest level possible. With help from my Mom and hard work during the summers working road construction, I was fortunate to have spent a year pursuing higher-level ski racing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
During the year, I lived with three other 18- to 20-year-olds and was master of my own schedule. I had to provide myself with the nutrition to succeed with my training and had to control my own budget. I had to make mistakes and do some pretty stupid things. I had to stick to my goals and put hard work to action in high-pressure races. I had to keep in touch with my family over 2000 miles away. In short, I had the good fortune to have to live a real life for a year before continuing on to college.
My gap year taught me to focus, to be independent, to manage myself, and to strive for goals. Especially important: my gap year taught me that life is full of mistakes and that is okay. It’s important to push yourself for goals and learn from mistakes!
When you look back at your gap year, what memories are most clear?
My clearest memories are waking up on cold, clear days. I would cook a massive breakfast of four (or more) eggs with toast and OJ. I and whichever of my roommates were training that day would pack up to go to the mountain. The first few runs of training were always the sweetest. Fresh snow, that course is clear in the mind…if only races could be so clear!
There were many other adventures, travelling to races with coaches and friends, exploring creek beds on snowshoes after several feet of snow had fallen. What is most striking is just how clear 20-year-old memories still are. That shows how impactful the year was for me. I still carry friendships from that year even with thousands of miles separating all of us.