I want to take an amazing gap year.
January 17, 2010 5:16 PM   Subscribe

What do you suggest for a productive, amazing, life-changing gap year between high school and college?

I'm in the middle of my junior year in high school, but I'm quite sure I want to take a gap year in a year and a half. My parents are OK with it, but I don't think they want me to stay home and work or travel without a plan. They'd prefer I do something structured. They'd probably be okay with a summer of that, and maybe I could travel with the hope of finding /something/ to do for the next year?

I've seen a bunch of askMeFis on similar travelly topics and am combing through them but nothing is all that specific to my situation, since my parents don't really want me travelling out of a backpack (though I'm working on them for that. I am responsible, and spent 2.5 months at the beginning of my sophomore year in a (english friendly but not dominant, very safe) European country living in a very permissive homestay, going to school, figuring out busses and all kinds of stuff on my own).

It could turn into 2 years, or more. That's okay (with me at least). I'll do the normal college application process during senior year, but I will defer. I'm choosing schools with their deferral policies in mind. If I lose admission because I want to stay where I am, then fine.

I am a spanish beginner, but working hard at it and it's something I'd really like to improve. I'd love to spend some time in a central American country or something.

I've recently become passionate about both social justice-type issues and economics. My hope is that my future career will combine these in some way, though I'm also very inclined toward general entrepreneurship. Hopefully, I'd be able to do something fascinating there.

I'd like to start planning now, but clearly I've still got plenty of time. Where should I start? I'm a little lost. Should I look for structured programs? I'm looking for practice being part of the 'real world', living as an adult, stretching myself, going out on a limb, and really developing my perspective/figuring out who I am an what I believe. Ideally, this wouldn't be insanely costly, but I recognize it could get expensive. Suggestions?
posted by R a c h e l to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Americorps. It's a structured program, you can earn a bit of money, see different parts of the country, have fun etc etc.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

This won't take you to another country, but howabout Americorps? I had some friends (although this was in the late 90s) who did this, had great experiences and earned money for college.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:40 PM on January 17, 2010

Wow, I rule at previewing. What Brandon Blatcher said!
posted by pazazygeek at 5:41 PM on January 17, 2010

(Although gap year is fairly unusual for Americans, I am going to presume you are American since you referred to junior year and high school, which are both also American designations. Forgive me if I presume wrongly!)

What about moving away to a different city/state, and then participating in a structured program? (maybe one like City Year or Dynamy)

By picking a program that specializes in serving high school graduates, you can get some structure (which I think will likely be helpful). But by leaving home, you'll be getting out of your comfort zone and forcing yourself to go out on that limb.
posted by pineapple at 5:49 PM on January 17, 2010

I worked for a year at a regular job (in a warehouse). It's one of the best things that ever happened to me. It also allowed me to save up a lot of money for college.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also suggest looking into the VSO instead of the Peace Corps or Americorps, etc.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 5:53 PM on January 17, 2010

Perhaps you could find something through Service Civil International (SCI)? I mildly regret not taking a year out to do something like this before going to college (I would like to have volunteered somewhere, if they covered living costs). I studied civil engineering, and I feel that I could have had a better sense of what I could achieve, if I knew of some challenges that exist in the world, while studying.

I think it is great that you are thinking about this now, and wish you luck with your decision.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:01 PM on January 17, 2010

If you have any experience with children you could au pair in Europe or elsewhere. I (Australian) did that during my gap year. I had a year long agreement with the family all set up before I left.

Of course, it didn't work out that way, but the year was certainly wonderful and life changing and all that.
posted by twirlypen at 6:37 PM on January 17, 2010

How about youth exchange? I did one with Rotary and had an absolutely amazing year. If you enjoyed your homestay, you might love a year of exchange.

For info from students doing one now, Cultures Shocked is a forum of exchange students from several programs, although it seems to be mainly Rotary.
posted by wiskunde at 8:01 PM on January 17, 2010

Yep, I'm American, sorry I didn't mention that.

I'm fairly familiar with Americorps, City Year in particular, from doing a middle school program way back when (Young Heroes) run by them. I always asked them extensively about the program, and while I think it would be great for really stretching myself and everything, I'd really like to get outside the US. During my previous homestay, even though the country I went to (Norway) was not vastly different from here, I loved all the subtle cultural differences and really experiencing something different. I loved just going to stores and to school and the supermarket and completely absorbing everyday life. I'd really like to do that again, except maybe somewhere where I'd have to push myself a bit more (my regrets from that were mostly not going out on a limb too much, relying on English, spending too much time on the computer, etc. I loved it, it was fantastic, and led me to making another decision that really impacted my life a lot - I drastically switched schools here at home. I only wish I pushed myself more, though).

In short, I'm really set on doing something international. Thanks so much for your links - I'm looking into them now. I'm just gonna have to deal with the fact that no matter what I pick, I'll be giving up a billion other amazing opportunities, I guess.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:51 PM on January 17, 2010

If I had to design an eye-opening maturity-building year for you:

about 6 months backpacking in a different country on your own.
about 3 months back at home, unemployed and looking for work
about 3 months working in a crummy low-paying job

It's even better if you spend the unemployed/working bit away from home. doing this really opened my eyes to what most people do for most of their lives. I.e. don't have fun.

Makes you go into higher education with a ginormously better mindset - you'll be focused, you'll have a goal, you'll appreciate the opportunities and lifestyle much more.
posted by schmichael at 9:54 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with schmichael absolutely.

You sound like a very nice person who means well and thinks well of others, but you don't come across as having had experience with the stresses that adults have to do through.

If you do want to see how 66%+ (I suspect higher) of your countrymen live, or have lived, get a line of credit (you might have to get your parents to co-sign) for, say, $3000* and greyhound to the next major city (or town, but with a lower line of credit) with only what you can bring with you on the bus and try to get 1) a place to live, 2) a job, 3) a social life.

If next major city contains someone you know or someone related to you who can help you get acquainted with the city, that's great.

No credit card (well... it might end up being an object lesson if you did use one), and no gifts from parents. Since you're American... I feel irresponsible suggesting that you get off of your parent's health plan, just in case.

Try to make 6 - 12 months (set a time frame before you start) and see if you can get your credit line paid off in full, and see how much in the black you can be.

*will depend on 'next major city' - ie., Boston: this might be more challenging, Cleveland, this might be too generous
posted by porpoise at 10:21 PM on January 17, 2010

Well, either that or work for a half year at a farm - either organic, hobby, or experimental. It really is amazing how much work goes into a small/traditional farm and how rewarding that work can be.

If you want out of country, I'd really suggest farming over hanging out in a city doing au pair or bartending work if your goal is "amazing and life changing." Working with your hands, with the soil, with animals, with other people in order to live... yeah. That, and when the zombie/whatever apocalypse comes, you've got some useful skills, at least.

Most small liberal arts colleges throughout the midwest will have people who can hook you up. Baring that, you can memail me and I can ask some friends/acquaintances for leads in your area.
posted by porpoise at 10:27 PM on January 17, 2010

I hope I'm not reading your post wrong - apologies if this isn't helpful. There is really a lot online about gap years, a lot of programmes of varying costs - you should be able to combine search terms based on your interests and find stuff. A friend of mine said she participated in something that was 3 months teaching, 3 months building houses, 3 months doing something eco, and 3 months travel, somewhere in South America. STA travel has experience with this, you could see what they have to say. Year Out Group seems to have a fair number of projects and locations to look through (as a for instance). Also check out Workaway - they're like couchsurfing but for sort of work exchange, where you choose a project you like in a place you're travelling to, and agree to do so many hours work per day or week in exchange for room and board (ish - summarizing and haven't tried it yet myself, so I might be getting details wrong). There are all sorts of places listed here, with all sorts of work - some entrepreneurs, some artists, some eco projects... This looks promising for keeping costs down, and you could plan it out fairly well in advance and just sort a multiple-leg plane ticket.

Some books might help - these are all from Amazon.co.uk, but you could either order from them or see if they're in stock at amazon.com.

No matter what you choose for this, you really don't need to build in a specific 'learning to be an adult' aspect - planning and executing this (and dealing with all the issues that come up while you're travelling) will take care of this all on its own, most likely. Good luck and have fun.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 2:23 AM on January 18, 2010

I would recommend volunteering with some program. There are plenty of programs out of the country from non-profits, to religious missionary, to academic research. Even if you aren't particularly religious, I wouldn't discount those either. Pastors for Peace spends the summer collecting and delivering humanitarian aid to Cuba through a coalition of churches. This isn't your "Pat Robertson proselytizing missionary" organization. There are plenty of others like that, as well.
posted by JJ86 at 7:05 AM on January 18, 2010

I'm just gonna have to deal with the fact that no matter what I pick, I'll be giving up a billion other amazing opportunities, I guess.

Welcome to adulthood:)
posted by fso at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2010

Check out BUNAC. Several years ago, my friend went through them to work in Ireland for a summer. Their site mentions several more options: interning in the UK, working and traveling in New Zealand, etc.
posted by trillian at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2010

Seconding the au pair suggestion - I'm in France and I've met quite a few young expat au pairs here, though I'm not doing it myself. Free housing, usually part-time work hours, and nice if you end up with a good family. I'm not certain, but I believe French classes may be free for air pairs, as well (though it might simply be that they're mandatory).

And if organic farming in lovely locales floats your boat, you might check out the WWOOF network.
posted by nicoleincanada at 9:43 AM on January 18, 2010

I did Up with People and had the best time of my life.
posted by divabat at 9:58 AM on January 18, 2010

Ah, evertything sounds so amazing. Workaway looks fascinating, as does being an Au Pair. Well, everything looks amazing. Thanks so much for your suggestions! I'll start looking into everything, but it looks like I'm gonna have a really great year regardless.
posted by R a c h e l at 2:59 PM on January 18, 2010

Right off the bat, let me say that I am the Director of a gap year program, so I'm a big believer in the idea. This isn't a promo, though. A gap year can cost a lot or a little, but even a seemingly expensive semester program (7 -to-10 thousand bucks) is a bargain when compared to the cost of a year of college in the usa. If you grow up and mature during your gap year, you won't waste time and money in your freshman year--you'll be a lot more focused. I'm not so sure that wandering around the world with a backpack is necessarily the way to go, though it sounds romantic. If you're going to travel far from home, you'll want lots of contact with locals and who won't treat you like a tourist. You should also do something constructive, e.g. volunteer. Otherwise, you'll just be navel-gazing in the hippie-esque world you've concocted for yourself. If you want to get beyond the tourist thing and understand what really makes a culture or a people tick, you ought to: speak their language, live with them (i.e. a homestay) and dig deep into the history, culture and daily life of the place, preferably in one country, as opposed to roaming from country to country in search of the best weather.
posted by Elcasal at 8:12 AM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

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