When you’re thinking about taking a gap year, there are two different routes to consider. The first is to join a program, and the second is to plan activities on your own during a self-directed (also called independent) year. Let’s talk programs first:
Programs run the gamut in terms of what they offer, from service-based assignments to adventure-fueled excursions. A good way to start exploring options is by checking out the American Gap Association’s accredited programs, and working your way out from there. As we talked about last week, you can also Google “gap year programs + [your interests]” and see what pops up to find programs. Attending a fair or working with an independent educational consultant will also put you face to face with providers who can help you figure out which program might be a good fit.
Range of Available Gap Year Programs
When we’re talking about programs, there’s also a large range of support from one to another. On one end, there are fully facilitated experiences where students join a community of peers with group leaders, mentors, and teachers who are essentially with the group twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Though this may sound overbearing, most gap programs are looking to foster independence, so group leaders are trained to back off a bit when you've shown the skills necessary to thrive in the new environment.
“Leaders ensure that students are given the chance to practice those skills, make mistakes, and learn. As the program progresses, leaders will ultimately start giving students much greater levels of independence, and a say in designing their experience,” says Jason Sarouhan, Interim’s Vice President.
At the other extreme, support can be virtually non-existent in a gap year, if that’s what a family decides they’re comfortable with. Sarouhan says he worked with one young woman who went on assignment in Buenos Aires with a small non-profit organization: “She was met at the airport by a Spanish-speaking driver, and driven out to a remote community the same day. Her family knew where she was, but it wasn’t really locatable on a map. She was introduced to her homestay mother right then and there on the spot,” he says.
“The driver told her, ‘If you have an emergency, or if you need anything, here's my number. Otherwise, I'll be back to pick you up in three months.’ And this young woman stayed, kind of Peace Corps-style without the training, in this rural village with her homestay mother for three months while working at the local school. Her supervisor was the principal of the school, her main point of contact was her homestay mom, and she did not see other volunteers for the whole time.”
Obviously, this is an example of an extremely low level of infrastructure. If you’re thinking this sounds like something you’re cut out for, it’s important to have honest and open conversations with your parents about what you’re looking to achieve.
Programs are relatively easy to find, but for independent gap years, it’s slightly harder to narrow down the options. You could spend time hiking the Appalachian Trail, working at a neighborhood café, or volunteering at a cousin’s school. It’s really all up to you—which can be exciting but also a little scary and overwhelming when you start thinking of the possibilities. Because of this, students often sign on for a program during the first part of the year to get comfortable, and then transition into more independent activities later on.
That’s what Sophie Abo did. For the first part of her gap year, Sophie joined up to follow the Mekong River through China, Laos, and Cambodia with the program Where There Be Dragons. She says along with educating her about the culture and ecology of the region, the structure set the tone and pace for the rest of her year. It also armed her with valuable skills that enabled her to travel independently later on: “I wouldn’t have been able to do the second part of the year if I hadn’t done the program first. It taught me things, like how to get from one city to the next over land, and how to keep track of my stuff so I wouldn’t lose my passport. I learned how to be a traveler, not a tourist.”
Another thing to think about with independent gap years is this: you’ll be solely responsible for making your own friends and building up a support network. That can be difficult if you’re shy or nervous about being out on your own for the first time. One benefit of a program is built in friends and a support team who’s there for you if you need them.
Finding Mentorship On A Gap Year
Regardless of what direction you choose to go in, Sarouhan has some advice: “Students and parents need to align with mentors that they trust. So even if a student is taking a more independent path, I would really want to be sure that there is an adult around who has the best interest of safety and overall experience in mind.” Perhaps this person would be a boss at a job placement, a homestay mother or father in the village, or a relative of yours who lives nearby.
There’s no right or wrong in choosing a program over an independent year. Both offer pros and cons, so spend some time really thinking about the options and your goals for the year.
We're on a six-week road trip in support of the gap year. Tomorrow's post: gap year costs and how to pay for a gap year. Tweet us questions @GapToGreat.