I was really pleased to hear Tufts University’s announcement that they will be offering a funded gap year program for students. As someone who deferred college for a year to attend a Youth For Understanding (YFU) program in Belgium and benefitted enormously from the experience, I’ve never understood why more U.S. students don’t take gap years.
While many students can’t afford it, which makes Tufts plan to pay students to go abroad all the more exciting, students whose families have the financial means also choose not to go. When I’ve talked to students who are interested in international politics, cultures outside of the U.S., and foreign languages—students who I would think would be very interested in learning more about another country by immersing themselves in the culture—they often say that they don’t want to be “behind.” I think this means they feel that as their peers go off to college and start on the next phase of their lives, they will somehow be left out of that very important experience.
Which brings me to my own experience. After arranging for a year abroad, I applied to my colleges of choice with the intent to defer. Some members of my family expressed the concern that this was the wrong thing to do and that colleges wouldn’t like it. So I asked every college admission counselor I encountered what they thought of a gap year. “Great idea!” they said. “If you take one now, we know you’ll be ready for college when you come to us next fall.” “We love what students who have studied abroad will bring to the campus!” In other words, they were all for it. When I received my acceptances, I chose my college, sent in my deposit and requested that my admission be deferred for one year. The answer was a prompt yes, and on July 10th, 1986 I got on a plane and flew from LAX to Brussels.
In Santa Monica, where I grew up, I enjoyed the life of a very large city. As a family with three children, we were larger than most of the families I knew. In Belgium, I lived in a very small town, connected to Namur, the closest city, by the country’s great train system. My host family had seven children, five of whom were still living at home, though all but two were over 18. The family was very traditional. The father worked outside the home. The mother, who had stayed home with her children, took care of other families’ small children now that her own were mostly grown. This was a more traditional way of life than I had ever seen outside of novels.
While in Belgium, I attended a small Catholic school. Because I did not need these credits to graduate, I could double up on history and literature classes while taking a geography class, all taught from the most European point of view possible. While I’d been excited to learn how to speak French fluently, and did so, I was commonly and pleasantly surprised by the Belgian view of the world. As a small country that could be conquered in three hours, their conception of themselves was dramatically different from the U.S. conception as a world power, and their resulting focus on the importance of compromise and cooperation was a very valuable education for me.
Hopefully my account explains the value of such an immersive experience in another culture, but the question for some might be what happened when I returned? Was it a problem going back to college a year behind my classmates?
Absolutely not! One of the best experiences of college is your ability to reinvent yourself there. In college, I wasn’t class of 1986 anymore, I was class of 1991. People were jealous that I had taken a year to explore a different part of the world. I never felt “behind.” In fact, I felt more confident than my fellow first year students. I was not concerned about making friends or existing in a new environment because I had already done so in Belgium. That allowed me to enjoy my first year of college even more than I could have imagined.
In summary, consider taking Tufts up on its generous offer. And if Tufts isn’t for you, know that many other colleges are open and even encouraging of gap years, just as much now as they were 30 years ago.