Franklyn Zhu, originally from Hong Kong and China, had an acceptance letter to Yale University when he graduated from the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) last June. But instead of packing up and heading to university a few months later, he worked as a graphic designer in Beijing until September, then jumped over to Stanford University in California for two months to take classes in psychology and art. In November, he decided to backpack through Mexico and Cuba. By the time January rolled around, he was studying opera in Siena, Italy. Come April, he was backpacking in Sicily and visiting friends in London and Amsterdam before settling in Milan in May for another session of opera study.
“After high school, I was feeling burnt out. I was going through a massive existential crisis, and I didn’t want to jump right into another four years of institutionalized education just yet,” says Zhu, who will attend Yale this fall. “The biggest reason I decided to take a gap year was that I wanted to try something new and do something out of my comfort zone.”
Many students graduating or about to graduate from high school share this sentiment, and the gap year, though common in the UK and Australia, is still not the international norm. Students take gap years for reasons, existential to concrete: to see the world, to find themselves, to pursue an interest, to get work experience, or to make some money before paying university tuition.
“Some students just aren’t ready for the next step in their education [after high school],” says Adam Wilson, a Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB) guidance counselor. “They benefit from maturing, both in terms of age and [from]experiencing the ‘real world.’ Many [international school students]have lived with their parents their whole lives and many have never had jobs. They need to experience a bit more independence and learn to stand on their own two feet.”
Wilson was guidance counselor to 19-year-old Erika Richards, who graduated from CISB last year. She took a gap year for reasons different than Zhu’s. “I wanted to spend more time with my family,” says Richards, whose family moved from Canada to Beijing in her senior year of high school. Not only did Richards want to take advantage of the opportunity to live in Asia, but she wanted to save for university. “I wasn’t ready financially to live on my own. I didn’t want to take on so much debt at such a young age.” Richards has spent her gap year in Beijing living with her parents, and traveled to Australia and Shanghai. She works five days a week at the Canadian Embassy and will attend Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada this fall.
Students who take gap years are vocal about the benefits they have reaped. “This gap year has given me the extra time to think about what I want to do with my life [and]allowed me a glimpse into a full-time career,” says Richards.
Zhu, too, has learned important life lessons: “I’ve seen the ‘real world,’ and that’s helped put things into perspective. It’s made me realize how fortunate I am to have had a WAB education.” In addition to gaining skills like Italian, playing piano, cooking on a budget, and creating an exercise routine, Zhu has “gotten better at dealing with a lot of those existential questions” he faced at the end of high school.
Many parents worry that if their child takes a gap year, he or she may never go back to school. Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, authors of The Gap-Year Advantage, conducted a study, which found that 90 percent of the students returned to school within a year, and that those who took a gap year were more satisfied with their careers after finishing university.
Wilson agrees, “[Taking] one year off to figure things out and do what you want far outweighs the risk of going [to school]too soon and spending thousands of dollars on a degree they change their minds about or puts them in a career they do not enjoy.” Applying to university and deferring ensures a spot, but even if a student waits to apply, Wilson feels that it won’t be hard to prove to a university that he or she has matured and learned in that year off.
If your child expresses interest in taking a gap year, sit down and talk about why. While he may have great reasons like Zhu and Richards did, your child may also be afraid of the transition to university, especially if he’ll be continents apart from his family. Wilson says, “[Students] should be fully educated before making a decision. This does include consulting parents, as they deserve to have a say, but the final say should always be up to the student.”
For students contemplating the gap year, Zhu says, “Do it. It’s a great opportunity to step off the beaten path and learn more about yourself. Just take that risk, that first step, and you will not regret it. It’s only once you’re out of your comfort zone that life becomes truly exciting. There’s a whole world out there!”
The gap year can take on many forms: traveling, volunteering, learning, teaching, working, or a combination thereof. In response to the growing traction of the gap year, many organized programs have sprung up to plan, assist, or inspire the gap year. Richards and Zhu both planned their own gap years, but students can plan through a company (though the cost is often higher).
If your child decides on a program or agency, make sure he or she adequately vets the company, and asks to interview past participants to get their feedback. Should your child wish to plan it, make sure you have copies of the itinerary and are aware of any changes. As tempting as it might be to plan every detail of the trip, don’t. This is your child’s chance to learn how to plan and execute things for him or herself.
Money is often the biggest issue surrounding gap years. Should the parents finance it, or should the student finance it? Each family will find its own answer. Some parents, like Zhu’s, fund their child’s gap year. Others, like Richards’ parents, provide housing and food. Others don’t fund their child’s gap year at all. Financing all depends on the family, but if your child is contemplating a gap year, make sure he or she is completely clear on how it will be funded and how much you will contribute as a parent.
Another issue to address is making sure your child has adequate coverage for health insurance. It’s also a good idea to draw up a basic protocol for emergency procedures, so you and your child are on the same page in case of injury, sickness, or robbery. Try, however, not to worry too much. “You may be afraid [that]your child [will be]scammed, lost, or stranded – all of which have happened to me,” says Zhu, “but that’s part of life. The best way to learn is through personal experience.”
Once the decision to take a gap year is reached, Richards advises, “Don’t fuss over the smaller details. This is the time to do whatever you want. The possibilities are endless. This is the time to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Gap Year, Backpacking & Travel Community
American Gap Association
photos courtesy of erika richards and franklyn zhu
This article originally appeared on p44-45 of the beijingkids June 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com