After 12 years of formal schooling, many students feel burnt out. “The chase for the prize begins early…It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes’, stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it… [they] sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp.”
So says William Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions at Harvard, who has written on the importance of student’s taking time out to avoid burnout and get off the relentless conveyor belt that runs from preschool to grave.
Increasingly I am aware of young South Africans taking gap years. This is a year off from formal study or training, usually taken at the end of high school. Some kids will also take their gap year after finishing with some basic studies, before moving onto more specialised or postgraduate studies.
Fitzsimmons reckons that the effect of a gap year is “…uniformly positive. In fact about 20 percent of Harvard students follow the practice of ‘time-out’ at some point before graduation. Harvard’s overall graduation rate of 97% is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off.”
The advantages of a gap year are potentially numerous. A young person could:
- Have a change of pace after school
- Have a new experience and make new friends
- Experience potential life choices or careers
- Make money for future studies
- Mature and gain perspective on their own values and goals
- Expand horizons and learn more about the world
- Face life without the comforts and protection of what’s familiar and predictable
- Volunteer to help make the world a better place: teaching, building, giving back
Of course, there are risks. Parents who consult me about the decision to allow their teenager to take a gap year are nervous about their kid’s safety. They are especially nervous about the “new experiences” and “making new friends” parts – they translate this into drugs, sex and never coming back. They fear the gap year will became a gap decade. Many parents worry that their child will become sidetracked, lose skills or motivation, and never enrol for further study or training. But typically the benefits of a gap year far outweigh the risks.
If you and your child are contemplating a gap year, understand that a gap year is not the same as doing nothing. A gap year should be a reasoned, proactive choice, not a default situation because your kid forgot to submit the application forms to the local Technikon. A kid who has no specific plan for a gap year is unlikely to grow socially, emotionally or intellectually from hanging around the family living room. A kid who is listless, depressed, angry, abusing alcohol and other substances is not necessarily going to have a miraculous turn-around just because she has a year away from formal activity.
Manage the potential risks by being clear about how the year is to be structured and funded. What are you able and prepared to contribute? Help your child prepare a realistic and detailed budget for the year, and make him realise that he must take some or all responsibility for finances. A gap year should be finite and have a carefully considered time frame.
Discuss the range of possibilities for the gap year. Travelling the world is one, but so are working in various jobs, taking part-time courses to develop new skills or joining volunteer organisations overseas. It is often reassuring if kids travel and work with a buddy or as part of a group of friends. There are even businesses that offer structured gap year programmes for a fee – some are reputable and worthwhile, while others are apparently glorified scams.
Finally, assess your child as an individual and make decisions about the merits of a gap year in relation to each child’s specific personality, needs and abilities.
Fitzsimmons suggests that “parents and students alike could profit from redefining success as fulfilment of the student’s own aims, usually yet to be discovered. Burn-out is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one’s own passions.”