This is Not a “Gap Year.”

JT Su


October 11, 2013

“I basically say, ‘Congratulations, you’re in. Now go away.'” — Robert S. Clagett, Former Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College

According to the American Gap Association, only 1% of high school graduates across the United States take a year off before attending college. We live in a culture that I believe is too often dominated by what “college” means. People try to fit themselves to a specific mold of what they want to study. People start preparing for standardized tests seemingly earlier and earlier on in life. People want to project their intelligence by going to “higher-ranked, “better” colleges. I, myself, was too easily influenced to live my life solely based on becoming a more competitive applicant during the college admissions process–on making myself “stand out” to the strangers who spent just minutes learning about me–“knowing” my life after reading a mere 500 words. Getting into college ruled my life, and when I was “in,” it felt like the end. So what if I had gotten into college? I had no motivation to actually go–in fact, I was already suffering from slacking off in every way at the end of high school. I had worked myself like a machine to get good grades for college, and now that I was “in,” I felt as if I didn’t have to work anymore. If I had spent my whole life trying to boost my resumé for college, what was I going to work for when I was actually there? I lived to get into college, not realizing that college is just a resource for me to better myself in my passions. I was unhappy, and I wanted to search for more meaning in my life. I wanted to break the “Cradle to College to Cubicle to Cemetery” cycle. (New York Times) I wanted to take time off.

People often categorize me as the “gap year” student, which metaphorically symbolizes what people commonly think of taking time off–that I am going to fall into a ditch I won’t be able to escape. It signifies that I’m not learning anything, and won’t feel any inclination to return back to formal schooling. I like to think of this as a “bridge year,” in which I will spend time discovering who I really am, gaining more insight about myself everyday before I reach the other side and continue my educational journey. This is a year to step back, assess my life, think about what my education is really about, and gain a deeper passion for learning. I believe anyone who takes time off their education is building and crossing their own bridge–creating a new chapter in their lives as they pursue their personal endeavors.

The 1% of bridge year students in the United States is rapidly increasing. In fact, many institutions now value and voice their support for taking time off. A study done by Middlebury College showed that students who take time off tend to have better academic performance and more purpose for how they want to pilot their lives. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently received a $1.5 million donation to start a global bridge year program. Every incoming freshman at NYU is given the opportunity to defer their enrollment. Princeton University offers its own bridge year program in Brazil, China, India, Peru, and Senegal. There’s no doubt that the bridge year movement is becoming more prevalent as an opportunity to receive higher education outside the classroom.

But I’m not going to lie. Sometimes, I get nightmares about going back to school. I wonder what my leap of faith will do for me. I wonder what this cultural immersion, Spanish speaking, and English teaching will do to help me return to the routine of essays, books, midterms, and finals. My decision to come to Ecuador seemed so clear when I was in high school, but I sometimes can’t help but to question myself while I’m here. Even though I learn something new in life everyday and am developing more meaning and purpose, I constantly wonder how much impact this year will make on my educational journey. I constantly wonder how spending time out of school will change myself as a student and as an academic. I have put my trust in the institutions and the people that support this movement. I have put my trust in what others have said–the stories they have shared, and now, only time will tell.

During training in Quito, Ecuador, we wrote individual vision statements for our bridge years. My personal vision statement is about taking the candle deep within my soul and using it to light my world–within my fellow Fellows, within my students, within my host community. My journey won’t always be easy, and I will face a lot of moments when my candle flickers, wanting to give up. No matter how hard life may seem, I won’t ever let it burn out. This is a physical manifestation of our visions in the Chimborazo region, a word cloud containing our names and significant words from the visions we set out for ourselves. This is what keeps me going when I doubt myself. These words from my team give me confidence. This is what drives my everyday life.

JT Su