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The Gap Year

Alternatives to the Big U

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The Gap Year

Singing with children in Walmer Township, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Courtesy of Anna Viljoen

College may not be an automatic choice for every teen. Some new high school graduates choose to work instead or join the military. And an increasing number, more than a quarter of a million students worldwide, take a "gap year" to travel or do community service here or abroad. They build schools in El Salvador, study the Renaissance in Italy or learn Punjabi in India.

The concept of a gap year may not be new, says California college counselor Gwenly Carrel. After all, British students have done it for decades. But interest among American youths is surging and colleges actively support the idea by offering deferred admission and, in some cases, actual gap year programs.

"It's not just a kid hanging out," says Carrel. "It's an enrichment program for your child to grow and find what it is that really turns them on and what they ultimately may study."

So what’s the first step?

  • Attend a Gap Year Fair. These new gap year expos are similar to college fairs, but they're traveling, gap year-oriented events and a veritable gold mine of information. Eight fairs were held in major cities in 2008, and David Denman, head of two well-known gap year programs, Time Out Adventures and Sojourns Abroad, expects more cities will be added in 2009.

  • Check Out Lonely Planet. The travel publisher's "The Gap Year Book" and "The Big Trip" (Compare prices) explore year-abroad and community service programs. They also raise important logistical questions, including health insurance, transportation and cost. The Lonely Planet discussion boards are helpful too.

  • Visit Planet Gap Year . This online community offers considerable resources, articles and helpful links to a broad spectrum of gap year programs, as well as information on upcoming Gap Year Fairs.

  • More? Other programs well worth checking out include Americorps, a national service organization similar to a domestic Peace Corps; your local Rotary club, many of which host year-abroad study programs; Leap Now, which offers life skills training and immersion programs in India and South America; and Sojourns Abroad, which coordinates foreign language and cultural studies programs in Europe.
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