Generation Gap: How Taking a Break From College Can Pay Off

By Erin K. Johnston
Cooking classes in Florence. Teaching children at a Chicago elementary school. Campaigning for a political candidate. Volunteer work on behalf of endangered species in South Africa. Backpacking the Appalachian Trail. Training with professional ballerinas.
Given the opportunity, good fortune, and time, who among us wouldn't savor the chance to engage in any number of these adventures for a semester or more? Today, NCS alumnae are choosing exactly that, electing to delay their college studies while they pursue a "gap year."
Since arriving in the NCS college guidance office 15 years ago, I have seen a steady increase in the number of NCS students taking a gap year. The conversations surrounding this option have changed, too. There are fewer misconceptions and more curiosity and interest in the possibilities and pitfalls, and word is spreading among students and families about the benefits of a time-out from the classroom.
A gap year, simply put, is extended time away from a degree-earning educational setting. Both nationally and among NCS alumnae, the most common time for a gap year has been immediately after high school graduation, before matriculating to college. But others have taken a gap (for a semester or more) after starting college, and a few have done so after completing their bachelor's degree, before entering the workforce or heading to graduate or professional school.
A well-planned and purposeful gap year provides an extended chance to recharge, refocus, and regain perspective after the frenetic pace of school. As a result, the gap-year student ends up better able to jump into the next phase of her life.
Gap years have long been common in other countries. In Great Britain, for example, students don't typically know at the conclusion of secondary school where they will go to university. Admission depends on test results that aren't available until the summer. So, rather than focus on an outcome that is largely out of their hands, many choose instead to take a year's break before entering higher education. NCS alumnae from the early 2000s who took a gap year were mostly the daughters of immigrants to the United States. For example, Tess Veuthy '03 acknowledges that it was her parents who encouraged her to take a gap year; she spent hers studying photography in Paris.
In interviewing NCS alumnae for this article, I found that recent interest among American students comes from a different and altogether inspiring point of view: They are defining success differently than previous generations have done.
They still believe that classroom learning is a crucial ingredient to a full, satisfying adult life, and they recognize the importance of a sound college choice in that life. But they are putting new emphasis on experiential learning—learning through doing—as a way to identify and achieve their goals. In this, NCS alumnae have a head start: NCS teachers and guidance counselors encourage students to focus on the journey of their lives and to prioritize the process over the result.
Mariah Joyce '12, who is in her senior year at the College of Wooster, said her gap year "has helped me to be a more brave, proactive, engaged, motivated, and self-directed student and person. I am a very involved member of my campus: I'm on my second year of being Editor in Chief of our school paper, I am a member of a sorority, an outdoors club, a service-oriented housing program, and I am a double major. I firmly believe that I was motivated to become so involved so quickly largely thanks to the feelings of autonomy and confidence that my gap year gave me."
Similarly, Stephanie Walsh '08 credited her gap-year experiences as giving her confidence and a new appreciation for flexibility, both of which she needed to tackle new subjects at Vanderbilt University. She also said that her gap-year accomplishments allow her now to stand out as a job candidate in a deeply qualified but homogeneous applicant pool, one who has not just studied well but also set out and achieved goals in the real world. "I've never been so free and unburdened as during my gap year," Stephanie said.
And Vanessa Moore '15, who is a student at Princeton University, remarked, "I notice the benefits of my gap year weekly, if not daily. ... Having that time to evaluate my life plan as well as work on self-improvement has been extremely valuable. I have developed a good sense of self and feel very comfortable in my own skin."
Reflections such as these help explain why the NCS college guidance office now actively encourages the gap-year option. After all, we college counselors focus on helping each individual find her best fit. This means asking a lot of questions, along the lines of "What do you enjoy?" "What do you wish you could do, but rarely have the time to do?" and, quite directly, "If you had a year to do anything at all, and if cost were not an issue, what might you pursue?"
A gap year is no vague, ill-planned vacation. Rather, it tends to be highly structured and personally designed to meet the individual's needs. Most students arrange their year into four separate, seasonal portions of time. Most of the NCS alumnae I interviewed for this article wisely spent at least one of these portions working so they could secure the funding they would need for the rest of the year.
The proliferation of gap-year fairs, akin to college fairs, makes it easy for NCS juniors and seniors to learn more. Companies such as Gap Year USA and the Center for Interim Programs highlight options and can design, with client input, a complete plan. That said, these programs tend to cost nearly as much as a year at a private college. For some students, however, the initial cost of attending a program is mitigated by its many rewards.
After devoting a year to working with Chicago schoolchildren through the organization City Year, Megan Fauci '07 says she has found her calling as an elementary teacher in New Orleans. Volunteer work is a recurring theme in many gap-year choices. Meredith Sherman '16, for example, is working as a cardiovascular research technician at Children's National Medical Center's Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. She also continues to serve as a volunteer EMT for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
Of course, gap years need not involve all work and no play. Some women set aside time for vacation-like sojourns to complement their cerebral, practical, and benevolent endeavors. 2016 classmates Elisa Gobbo and Lizzie Wiggins studied Italian, visited vineyards, and took cooking classes in Florence last fall, during the first part of their gap year. Then they concluded their European adventure with a three-week tour of major cities, joined by fellow 2016 alumnae and gap-year students Mary Clare McMahon and Jennifer Owens.
These experiences—be they refining a skill, chasing a dream, or providing service to people—can last a lifetime, and they can be transformative. NCS alumnae are using their gap years to realize the benefits of a life well lived and a goal well earned, and their redefinition of success has inspired the women who come after them. We look forward to encouraging many more students to pursue their dreams in whatever way suits them best.
Erin K. Johnston is director of college guidance at National Cathedral School.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of NCS Magazine.
    • Vanessa Moore '15 (in cap) and friends in Consuelo, Dominican Republic, one of the gap-year stops.

    • Elisa Gobbo '16 and Lizzie Wiggins '16 spent a portion of their gap year in Italy.

    • Meredith Sherman '16 at George Washington University during one of several conferences where she has presented this year.