High School Seniors Opting for 'Gap Year'

Many graduating high schoolers are postponing college for one year to explore things they are passionate about, such as sports or volunteer work. Washington Post Magazine writer Ian Shapira talks about his article "Filling the Gap," and student Tiffany Hamer talks about her gap year.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It's August, and that means that a new class of college freshmen is packing up and preparing to head to campus. But not every high school graduate who's able to go to college is choosing to enroll right away. A number of students are now deciding to delay college admission for a year to pursue their passions or just to get a break. It's called a gap year.

And joining us to talk about this trend is Ian Shapira. He wrote an article about it for this weekend's Washington Post Sunday Magazine. It's titled "Eye on the Goal." He joins us by phone from Guatemala.

Also with us is Tiffany Hamer. She took a year off before attending her current school, South Carolina State University. She joins us here in the studio. Welcome to you both.

Ms. TIFFANY HAMER (Student, South Carolina State University): Thank you.

Mr. IAN SHAPIRA (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you.

MARTIN: Tiffany, why did you decide to take a year off before going to college? What did you do with that year?

Ms. HAMER: I worked for an AmeriCorps a company called City Year, which brings diverse group of 17 to 24 year olds to do a - year of community service.

MARTIN: What made you want to do that?

Ms. HAMER: Well, at the time, you know, I was embarking on my college years. I was graduating from high school, and I was looking for funding for a school and I ran across City Year.

MARTIN: Ian, how many students are following Tiffany's example and are taking that year off to - I don't know - regroup or just sort of get it together?

Mr. SHAPIRA: It's not really well known. There's been no formal research on this kind of demographic, so to speak. But a lot of experts out there think it is growing based on what they're hearing anecdotally from guidance counselors in schools and high school across the country. When I spoke with a National Association for College Admissions Counselors in high schools, they tell me that when they speak to guidance counselors in high schools, they're hearing that particular stuff.

MARTIN: How do they typically use their time? Are they traveling? Are they earning money like, you know, I think that's something that's pretty common, that sometimes people just need to…

Mr. SHAPIRA: Yeah. I mean, a lot of…

MARTIN: …earn some more money. Sometimes people join the military.

Mr. SHAPIRA: Yeah. A lot of folks do what Tiffany's doing, something public service oriented. You know, a lot of them sort of pursue a passion, and they take the time off to sort of concentrate exclusively on that. There's a lot of things you can do in a gap year. People will take art history courses with a group in Europe somewhere, you know. They'll go on a travel adventure through Europe or Southeast Asia. They do a lot of things.

MARTIN: When you were referring to the whole - this whole concept of a gap year, you're not talking - I guess, what I'm wondering about is are you talking about kids who have a direction in college? It's not that they - is it that they just don't whether they really want to go to college or they don't thing they're really ready to go to college? Or is it more a matter of feeling that to get the most out of their experience, they need to take a break or a pause? Or is it that they just have something that they really, really want to do?

Mr. SHAPIRA: It's a combination of all those things. I mean, I think that for the kids that this is the most productive for is someone who really does want to go to college and either has deferred, you know, they've already gotten in and deferred that - their first year, or is going to apply while they're taking that year off. This isn't really referring to somebody who is, you know, not academically motivated, does not want to go to college at all, or is really just looking to postpone it for as long as possible.

This is for someone who, you know, really is serious about academics. It doesn't necessarily mean they were the best student in high school. It just means that they just want to go to college, that they just want to take a year or even two off before going and they've got a somewhat serious plan for that time off. And this isn't really about people who are, you know, trying to postpone until forever, basically. So these are people who are serious about attending college. They just want to delay the starting point.

MARTIN: Tiffany, a lot of times when - we are used to doing things at the same time as all of our friends do them. So, you know, if your friends are all going to college at the same time, you kind of feel a little left out if you're not with the same program. Was it hard for you to take a step back from what everybody else was doing?

Ms. HAMER: Excuse me. In a way, it was hard for me to step back because all my friends, they did - you know, they left and went to college. But in the end, I felt that, you know, I gained an advantage because my eyes were opened to how the real world is going to be because I had gained that work experience with doing City Year and, you know, doing public service because I want to go into social work.

MARTIN: Do you think that you're more serious about your work now at school because you took that year off?

Ms. HAMER: I'm way more serious than I would have been if I'd hadn't taken a year off because by my experiences through the year, I gained maturity because I was able to work in the real workforce.

MARTIN: How did your parents react to your decision to take a year off? Were they worried? In Ian's article, there - some of the parents were like, oh no, no, no. You will be going right away. There's a fear that if you don't, sort of, stayed on track that you'll never go. Were your parents worried about that?

Ms. HAMER: No, my parents weren't worried at all. I had a hundred percent support from my parents and my mom, you know, she really encouraged me to do City Year.

MARTIN: Tiffany, just very briefly, would you recommend a gap year to other people?

Ms. HAMER: I really would recommend a gap year to other people because, like I said before, it gives you insight on what you're going to get yourself into when, you know, pursuing your college career.

MARTIN: Okay. Tiffany Hamer is a current South Carolina State University student. She joined us in the studio. We were also joined by Washington Post staff writer Ian Shapira. He joined us by phone from Guatemala. You can find a link to the story in its entirety on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Thanks to both of you for talking about this.

Ms. HAMER: Thank you.

Mr. SHAPIRA: No problem.

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