Editor’s Note: Malia Obama announced that she’ll be attending Harvard, but before that she’ll be taking a gap year…so we wrote her a letter telling her why that decision is awesome!
Hope all is well at the White House, I can’t believe you only have a few more months living there. I mean it seems like just yesterday that you guys moved in, amirite! Anyways, congrats on this incredibly important decision. You’ve decided to take a gap year. (I mean good job on the Harvard thing too…but the gap year thing is a bigger deal, IMHO). You’re opening a door that America desperately needs opened. For whatever reason, we lag behind the rest of the developed world in the gap year department. Elsewhere it’s a right of passage, an opportunity to learn more about the world, and yourself, than any college degree can teach you.
But here…well, in America it’s often seen as a scarlet letter. In the background, a chorus of whispers wonder what must be wrong with the kid that doesn’t go straight to college from high school. I find it hilarious, the parents who pressure their kids out of a gap year for fear that they’ll lose focus. The gap year IS ABOUT FOCUS. (Sorry for yelling.) Sure, that focus may tell a kid that college isn’t their path. Guess what? That’s OK. Typically though, the gap year encourages a commitment to education. A study from the American Gap Year Association (yes, it’s real and I’ve hyperlinked to prove it!) shows 90 percent of students who take a gap year end up in college once that year is finished. That same data show that 60 percent come to realize career ambitions and college majors during the gap year. But hey, if those parents want their kids to get immediately locked into a rat race that will only end with their death 60 years later while still under the specter of student loans…to each their own!
The way we treat 18-year-olds in this country is kinda sad. If you can’t answer the question: “where are you going to college?” as a senior with, at least, a short list of options you’ll be greeted with the raised eyebrow and pursed-lipped nod of judgment. We’re programmed to believe that taking time off is tantamount to failure. And this is part of why have a malformed perception of the world. If there’s ever a time for Americans to debark from our safe shores to experience the adventure and discovery abroad…now is that time. Although getting back in may be tough after President Trump builds a huge wall all the way around America.
I took a gap year. And while I didn’t travel abroad, I used the time to refocus my energies without the pressure of grades and due dates. It’s the one time that you can completely focus on yourself. It’s a great time to find something you want to do better and then strive for progress with laser focus. It’s a perfect time to find a new passion. For me, I built a passion for reading (lame, I know). Freed from the constraints of a syllabus, reading became enjoyable again and in the process of rebuilding that love I also discovered a love for politics and history, two interests that blossomed into a career.
Screw your social life. Seriously. Friends are important, but you’ll only hang on to one or two from your first 18 years of life. It’s the next five years that you’ll really build the friendships that last a lifetime. College and travel tend to be the crucible under which lasting friendship is forged. And the better you know yourself, the better quality friendships you’ll form. So, who cares if your best friend Sally is going on and on about her new roommate and what sorority she’ll rush. Don’t worry, all of that will be there for you after the gap year. And Sally will be there too, but you won’t ever see her because she’ll be totally in love with Bobby (who is definitely not that into her…)
Volunteer. You’re going to discover you have more time than you know what to do with…use it. Only when dedicating your life to someone else’s cause can you really start to focus on your purpose. Volunteer at home, and volunteer abroad. Find ways to come into contact with people well beyond your natural circles. Listen. Everyone has a story, and as you volunteer you’re putting yourself into someone else’s story. The gap year is about perspective, and this is a critical element to gaining that perspective.
If I could come up with a gap year formula it would look something like this: 40% work. 20% Volunteer. 10% Nothing. 40% travel. I know that doesn’t add up. The nice thing is the volunteering can fit into both the work and travel.
Let’s start with the work part of your gap year. Work like you’ve never worked before. Work more than one job and try to occupy every waking hour. Work until your back is sore and your feet are blistered. Work until you curse waking up…because then you’ll learn the most valuable lesson of all. A strong work ethic is priceless, but if you don’t want to get locked into this pointless grind then you’ll be pushed that much harder to succeed in college. Also you’re not in high school anymore, which means you stand a decent chance of gaining added responsibility at work. In at least one of those jobs try to find something that fits into your long-term career ambition, just to get a taste of what it is you think you want to do. After four or five months of working your face off you should have a nice pile of cash to travel the world with.
Now comes the real test. Travel. It’s an opportunity to test your mettle. You’ll be put in uncomfortable situations in unique environments. You’ll learn that improvisation is an invaluable skill. And if you’re not the improvisational type, you will be by the end of your adventure. You’ll discover the power of self-reliance. Balance your travel. Start easy, especially if you’ve never traveled alone before (yes, you should do this on your own). Western Europe is ideal. But, build in more progressively challenging travel to countries that span the spectrum of industrialization. And then spend your last week somewhere easy and tropical. You’ll be desperately homesick by that point, but you’ll need a little vacation from your travels before you come home to decompress and relax.
Somewhere in the middle of your travels plan a few weeks for volunteering. It’ll be somewhere difficult, and you’ll confront some harsh realities…and that’s the point. Don’t kid yourself, the volunteering is as much for you as it is for the group you’re working with. Do your research before you leave, but also be flexible. You may find something that really sings to you while you’re on the ground in some far away place.
Finally, save that last ten percent for “nothing.” You’ll need the decompression. Be lazy. Sleep until noon. Play video games until your eyes bleed. Work it all out of your system and process the 12 amazing months of your gap year before launching into your college career.
Take stock of the lessons that will inevitably be taught to you along the journey. You’ll learn that America is not the center of the universe (well, at least not until President Trump becomes Galactic Emperor Trump). You’ll see that people live under a thousand different forms of governance…and most of them are happy. All of them will find cause for complaint, but they’ll also have cause to celebrate. You’ll discover how lucky you are to have the choice of a gap year. You’ll learn about failure and stress and anxiety. You’ll learn about overcoming obstacles and fears and your own stupidity. You’ll learn your limits, and then you’ll expand those boundaries.
Again, this is about perspective. The gap year, if used properly is a window into what America does right and what it can do better…and you will be armed with the perspective to make your country and the world just a slightly better place. If you want to talk about this more, feel free to call! We live just a few blocks away, we can grab coffee. You can bring your dad, or your mom. Or both. And the dogs, bring the dogs.
Kris and Lauren