Gap years are becoming more popular in the United States as a transition to college. Here’s one Foreign Service student’s experience.
BY MARYBETH HUNTER
Every year, senior high school students worldwide prepare for graduation and beyond. For some that might mean preparing for college or finding a job. For others it means taking a close look at nontraditional options. One option that is gaining popularity (to the tune of a 20-percent increase since 2006, according to Forbes.com) is taking a gap year.
Often taken between graduating from high school and starting college, gap years are largely used to help students define a plan for personal success. While gap years have long been a common practice for students in Europe and Australia, available information indicates that the notion of seeking an enriching experience by taking a semester or year-long break from academics has gained popularity in the United States during the last 10 years.
Several universities have developed service-based programs for accepted, incoming first-year students interested in deferring their attendance to college and completing internships, traveling or volunteering abroad. The results are impressive. In fact, a recent article in U.S. News & World Report credits gap-year students (affectionately known as “gappers”) with better performance and a better sense of purpose in their studies than their non-gapper peers.
Worldwide prevalence and encouraging facts aside, families in the foreign affairs community might still be wondering—how might taking a gap year help a Foreign Service student succeed? To help answer that question, the Family Liaison Office’s education and youth team interviewed Foreign Service gap-year student Brooke Coskuner, daughter of State Department FSO Melissa Coskuner, asking her some thought-provoking questions regarding her recent gap-year experience in Kenya.
A recent article in U.S. News & World Report credits gap-year students with better performance and a better sense of purpose in their studies than their “non-gapper” peers.
Family Liason Office: Students opt for gap years for a variety of reasons. What prompted your decision?
Brooke Coskuner: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study after high school, so I wanted to travel and take some time to discover myself and my interests. Also, I wanted to do something to help others in the world and something that was rewarding.
FLO: In your opinion, what should potential gap-year candidates do to prepare themselves for this type of adventure?
BC: They should definitely have a good idea about what they want to do during their gap year and stay motivated to do just that. Without a plan, some people end up not doing anything during their gap year because of a loss of motivation and no real objectives.
FLO: With the idea of taking a gap year gaining in popularity, there are a number of organizations offering programs. How did you go about choosing yours?
BC: I searched for programs via the Internet, which was overwhelming because there were so many programs offered in so many locations. Eventually, I decided to start with my desired location and the duration of the program, and then researched programs based on those criteria. There were many types of programs and activities offered, so I read up on what kinds of things I would be doing in detail. I ended up choosing Camps International because it had great reviews, their activities interested me and it sounded like fun.
Students should definitely have a good idea about what they want to do during their gap year and stay motivated to do just that.
FLO: The price of the program would certainly be a deciding factor for many families. What was the overall cost for your gap year?
BC: It always depends on where you choose to go and what is included in the cost. I chose to go to Kenya for two months and, with flights included, it cost about $4,000. It was a bit pricey compared to some of the other programs, but there were four different campsites with different activities, and food and incountry transportation were included.
FLO: Many readers might wonder what a day in the life of a gap-year student could entail. Can you describe a typical day?
BC: A typical day during the week at one campsite would start at 9 a.m. when we would eat a delicious Kenyan breakfast of porridge or eggs and bacon. After helping to do the dishes, we would walk to a nearby village where we would begin our work project. Our objective was to finish buildings that would house medical dispensaries and a boys’ school. We would mix cement and plaster the walls of the buildings.
While we were working, the local children from the village would come and hang out with us. Those kids were so joyful and made us laugh.
We would have lunch around 1 p.m. and go back to work for three more hours. After that, we would go back to our camp and get cleaned up. We would spend the rest of the day playing pool or just hanging out with the other camp participants and the staff.
On the weekend, we would go to the beach and relax. It was really a wonderful and liberating experience.
At another campsite, we monitored wildlife in Tsavo West, a game park near the coast in Kenya. We followed a family of elephants in this area and also helped with construction of a school in a village there.
In my group, there were many Australians and British kids, and it was great to get to know them. I learned about their culture, as well as the Kenyan coastal culture. I am still in touch with many of them, and two of them came to visit me in Berlin, where I lived with my family after going to Kenya.
I didn’t worry about her postponing her studies. I was fully supportive of this idea and thought it would help give her some perspective on her life, as well as providing some challenges. The experience gave her the opportunity to be away from familiar and reliable surroundings and helped to develop her vision for the next steps in her life.
FLO: Staying connected to family and friends back home is important to most travelers. How did you communicate with them throughout your gap year?
BC: I bought a SIM card and used my phone, which also had Internet, so I used “Whatsapp” to talk to them; and, occasionally, I made phone calls. I got a prepaid SIM card from the phone company there [Kenya] that wasn’t too expensive, and that’s how I stayed in contact with my family and friends.
FLO: One would guess that day-to-day life was not always easy for you. What are some of the challenges you faced, and how did you deal with them?
BC: I think the biggest challenge for me was learning how to take care of myself and become more self-sufficient. In the camp experience, all of us had to manage our own laundry, cooking preparations and cleanup. I had to hand wash my clothes every day because there were no washing machines available. Our clothes got so dirty from all of the construction work we were doing.
The local staff showed us how they washed clothes, rubbing them together with a lot of force and a lot of soap. After a couple of tries, I got the hang of this and learned how to do it so that my clothes were clean. We would hang our wet clothes out in the Kenyan sunshine, and they would dry very fast.
It was also a bit hard in the beginning adjusting to being away from my family, friends and the comforts of home, but that faded pretty quickly as I got to know my campmates and started to engage in our work and experience the fun adventures.
FLO: Making sure you had everything you needed must have been a concern. What did you bring with you that you wish you hadn’t, and what did you not bring that you wish you had?
BC: I don’t think there was anything I wished I had brought, but didn’t. I brought everything I needed from the list that was supplied. I ended up buying some local Kenyan fabric and had some long pants and shorts made for casual wear.
In the camp experience, all of us had to manage our own laundry, cooking preparations and cleanup.
FLO: Now that your gap year is over, how have you been able to use the knowledge you gained?
BC: Since this was the first time I lived away from my family, I learned to be self-sufficient and gained greater independence. It really helped me to learn about myself and what I was capable of doing. This experience increased my self-confidence and my abilities by taking me out of my comfort zone. I learned to rely on myself, and gained an appreciation for the things I took for granted in my life.
FLO: Finally, in what ways do you think you have grown both personally and academically as a result of taking a gap year?
BC: Personally, I have learned to be more independent. While helping the less fortunate, I learned to appreciate the things I have in my life. Academically, I have chosen to study art and graphic design in Berlin, Germany. I think this gap-year experience gave me the courage to choose to stay abroad and study, and also helped me to become more focused on pursuing my long-held interest in art and design.
For more information on how to determine if a gap year might work for a student in your family, please review the Gap-Year Resource list on this page.
The Foreign Service Youth Foundation provides scholarship opportunities for Foreign Service gap-year students going on to their first year of college. For more details on how and when to apply, please contact FSYF at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit FLO’s website for information on a variety of education resources for Foreign Service youth, www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo. Contact FLO’s Education and Youth team with questions at FLOAskEducation@state.gov.
The Gap-Year Guidebook 2014: Everything You Need to Know About Taking a Gap-Year or Year Out, Jonathan Barnes (2014)
Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, Joseph O’Shea (2013)
Now What? How a Gap Year of International Internships Prepared Me for College, Career, and Life, Monika Lutz (2013)
Gap Year, American Style: Journeys Toward Learning, Serving, and Self-Discovery, Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson (2013)
Escape Guide to The Ultimate Gap Year: The Essential Guide To Your Year Out, Amar Hussein (2013)
The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College, Kristin M. White (2009)
The Gap-Year Advantage: Helping Your Child Benefit from Time Off Before or During College, Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson (2005)
Planning Your Gap Year: Hundreds of Opportunities for Employment, Study, Volunteer Work and Independent Travel, Nick Vandome (2005)
For General Information:
For Specific Programs:
This organization creates two-week to three-month volunteering programs for 18- to 25-year-olds. Participants live within rural communities surrounded by stunning biodiversity areas while contributing to sustainable project initiatives in Borneo (Sabah), Cambodia, Ecuador, Peru, Kenya and Tanzania.
This website focuses on gap-year programs that emphasize community development, childcare and sports coaching.
The Lattitude group offers worldwide volunteer placements for gap-year students. The four-week to eleven-month projects cover a diverse range of interests including teaching, medicine and conservation work.
This website highlights opportunities for gap-year participants to help empower global communities through sustainable service, transformative learning and adventurous exploration. Opportunities range from two weeks to six months in length.