Despite all the partying and irresponsible behavior that occurs on college campuses Friday, Saturday, Wednesday (okay, every) night, college is intense. To get into a top university, we devote hours to community service, take practice tests and become class presidents. Starting in our freshmen year (of high school) we begin building our r?esum?e. Before we’ve gone to prom, we’ve toured half a dozen colleges across the county. Then we create hierarchal lists of schools that we hope will accept us so we have the best chance at reaching our ambitious, high-paying careers. We obsess over retention rates, ranking, reputations. As if our lives would be drastically different had we chosen to go to Middlebury or Davidson instead of Colgate.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Colgate. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to come here. My disillusion lies not with this establishment, but with the national sentiment. Across America there is the belief that college is the defining experience in our lives. We’re expected to graduate from high school, go to college, graduate in four years and then start working. Any deviation from this plan is seen as scandalous. Don’t believe me? Watch people’s reaction when someone says they’re taking a gap year. Suddenly their tone changes and they become condescending. Behind that smug smile they’re thinking “This one is going nowhere.” In American ideology taking a gap year is tantamount to the end of the world and we’re taught to avoid it like the plague.
Admittedly, I do not rise above this narrow view of the college process either. I will not be taking a gap year or semester off. I came here fresh out of high school and plan to leave with a degree after my four consecutive years here are finished. But I have to wonder how much of that resolve is my own values or whether it is the brainwashing of America’s over achieving mentality.
I specify America because this college obsession is unique to our county. It’s not that students in other countries don’t work hard to get into college or that they disregard the importance of high education, but for the most part other nations are more laid back about it. In England, taking a gap year is not seen in the same negative light as in America. Many programs are offered to students that allow them to enrich themselves, travel and unwind before pursuing studies at universities. Some programs include teaching English in China, being an au pair in a foreign country, or, my personal favorite, riding the so called ‘vodka train’ on the trans-Siberian railroad while participating in non-traditional learning about East Asian cultures. These programs all sound exciting, so it’s no wonder that the gap year is a common practice in England and other foreign nations.
The rationale behind these programs and a year off is that it gives a student a chance to recharge. After high school, many kids are burned out. For some, taking a year off from studying and testing and stressing over GPAs can be a revitalizing process; one from which they return ready to settle down and focus on their university studies. The theory also exists that this year makes the student more mature, while allowing them to gain real world experience.
At this point a gap year is probably sounding appealing, but before you ask for a refund on next semester’s tuition, I would think carefully. There is some justification for the disapproval people exhibit when they hear the words ‘gap year.’ Undeniably, we would forget many of the things learned in the previous year. Then there’s the fear that after spending so long being free of school, we wouldn’t want to go back. I know I would hate the feeling of returning a year older but not having advanced one bit on the road toward graduation.
So what’s the verdict on taking a gap year? Well, it definitely isn’t for me, though it may be right for some people. Like many things in life, it is neither all bad nor all good. What I can be sure of, is that America places too high a value on the traditional view of the college experience, which is in turn placing too high a strain on us, the students.