For Alice Hodgkins ’11, it was simply a matter of checking a box on a form — and then, instead of walking through Phelps Gate with the class of 2010 last September, she was soaring above the clouds in North Carolina at the controls of a Cessna 150, earning her pilot’s license.
That fall, as her would-be class adjusted to life on Old Campus, Hodgkins traveled to Nepal to distribute clothing to villagers in the Khumbu region near Mount Everest. Then, after a stint waitressing in New Jersey at a bar and grill called “Winberries,” Hodgkins spent the next five months backpacking over 1,600 miles of the Appalachian trail, from Georgia to Vermont.
Now, as a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College, Hodgkins looks back on last year as the best decision she has ever made.
“I really wanted to spend some time getting to know myself and reconnecting with my authentic interests,” Hodgkins says. “It calmed me down, it focused me, and it reorganized my priorities.”
Students have always been allowed to defer admission to Yale and take a “gap year” — time off between high school and college to work, volunteer, travel or explore — virtually no questions asked, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel says. But, unlike its peers, Harvard and Princeton, Yale has never taken steps to actively encourage time off.
In fact, in the University’s admissions office, the gap-year discussion — and all the questions that come with it — is only just beginning.
Should Yale, like Harvard, send letters to students touting the advantages of striking out on one’s own? Or perhaps take Princeton’s route and formalize a program to send incoming freshmen abroad for a year on university-sponsored service trips?
And the larger question underlying both approaches: Should the University — or any outside entity for that matter — play a significant role in a student’s gap year decision?
Hodgkins certainly does not think so — her decision to take time off was hers alone.
“I went to a very competitive high school, and I think sometimes I focused too much on success,” Hodgkins says.
“Now I feel that all external pressures and expectations have vanished,” she continues slowly. ”Now I feel much more myself.”
‘Setting the tone’
By the end of high school, Brian Earp ’09 could no longer remember why — or whether — he wanted to be there.
“It felt like a ritual,” said Earp, who worked for several professional theaters in Seattle during his gap year. “You show up for classes, you figure out what you have to do to get an ‘A,’ you do lots of work and don’t sleep. I wanted to set my sights a little wider.”
Earp’s high-school experience is a common one among students accepted to Yale, most of whom have been “working the program” for years, Brenzel said.
“A lot of students have enjoyed what they’ve done in high school, but for many it has been primarily based on extrinsic motivation, or on building credentials for what comes next,” Brenzel said. “It’s generally been a long time since the average student admitted to Yale said, ‘I’d just like to do X for a while, and not work the program.’ ”
At Harvard and Yale, the number of students choosing to defer their admission fluctuates from year to year but has remained within a fairly narrow range. At Yale, 40 members of the class of 2011 took gap years, compared to 23 in the class of 2010, 26 in the class of 2009 and 37 in the class of 2008. At Harvard, that number is a bit higher, ranging from 50 to 70 students, perhaps because of the university’s efforts.
For 30 years, Harvard has sent admitted students a letter encouraging them to consider taking a year off, Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis said. The school’s prospective-student Web site even warns of the detrimental effects of a success-driven society in an essay, “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation.”
“Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a ‘time-off’ is to postpone entrance to college for a year,” the essay reads.
Princeton’s approach is more hands-on: In February, the university announced that it will explore options for creating a “bridge year” program that would allow undergraduates to complete a year of community service abroad before their freshman year. The program — the cost and logistics of which are still under discussion by a working group — would accept approximately 10 percent of the incoming freshman class, or about 100 students.
In addition to benefiting students by expanding their international perspective, the program will have a “ripple effect” across campus as the students return to Princeton with a new sense of commitment and experience, said Princeton professor Sandra Bermann, head of the bridge-year working group.
The program has drawn mixed reviews from educators and those in the business of orchestrating gap years. Princeton’s initiative may encourage other students to take a year off, they say. Still, some wonder: Can a university-run program provide students with the individual experience that many say is the hallmark of a gap year?
But, Brenzel says, this system may not be right for Yale.
Since most students come back from their gap years raving about the opportunity to “get off the program,” he said he was unsure that constructing yet another program would yield the same results. Still, he said he is not ready to “pass judgement” on Princeton’s program and looks forward to incorporating the school’s conclusions into Yale’s own approach to gap years.
Harvard’s McGrath-Lewis had a similar reaction, noting that signing up for a program might rob students of the valuable experience of designing their own gap years.
“I think part of the value [of gap years] that we’ve seen is the great opportunity to make a plan and execute it, and to think about possibilities that might not be instantly obvious,” McGrath-Lewis said.
Bermann said the program remains in the works, adding that how students would be selected and the process of placement in programs abroad is still being discussed.
Still, for those who strongly believe that today’s students need to take time off, any step toward raising the national awareness of gap years is a positive one.
“Princeton, like Harvard, is setting the tone [on supporting gap years],” said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs. “They’re putting the message out there.”
To program, or not to program
Working as a teacher’s assistant in a Boston public elementary school during his gap year, Jed Herrmann ’00 learned teamwork skills and gained focus that he applied toward his time at Yale — all within the auspices of City Year, a program which sends teams to do volunteer work in cities.
“In a program, you know you’re getting some sort of structured experience,” Herrmann said. “It’s easier to do some of the logistics on your own as you get older, but for me, having the structure was valuable.”
But can this sort of structured program really offer the same kind of learning experiences as a gap year done on one’s own?
Maybe not, says Brad Gillings, program director of Youth International, which sends teams of students abroad to volunteer and travel.
The best way to set up a gap year, Gillings says, may be to incorporate a mixture of program and non-program experiences.
“If I were advising my son or daughter on what to do, taking all biases aside, I would encourage them to do a program first,” Gilling said. “But then I would tell them to segue into something more individual. Traveling individually, you absolutely gain experience that you can’t get in a program just by the fact of being out there on your own.”
The half-dozen gap year students interviewed said that while their experiences within groups were valuable, they grew most when they had to fend for themselves.
While Hodgkins was hiking the Appalachian Trail, for instance, a freak blizzard caught her and her hiking partner off guard, and both nearly caught hypothermia while trying to set up camp.
“I probably learned the most from being on my own,” Hodgkins said. “You have to take care of yourself.”
Still, having some sort of self-imposed structure in the gap year is important, students said. Hodgkins lined up a series of items she could “accomplish” — get her pilot’s license, make money by waitressing, travel to Nepal, hike the Appalachian Trail — in order to keep herself focused.
For Emily Hallet ’09 — who worked on organic farms in Costa Rica, took a job with a cruise line in Alaska and did geology research in Chile and Argentina, among other activities — planning out her year was in itself a learning experience.
“It was empowering to see that when I had a big block of time and no guidance, I could make it work and make those crucial decisions,” Hallet said.
When an element of a self-planned gap year falls through, however, the resulting situation can be stressful.
When Anna Robinson-Sweet ’11 returned to her home in New York a few months into her gap year after doing community organizing in Cleveland and gutting houses in New Orleans, she was briefly without a plan for the next few months — and she started to panic.
“I was afraid I was going to be sitting on my butt for the rest of the year,” Robinson-Sweet recalled.
Robinson-Sweet managed to find her way, snagging an internship with Human Rights Watch and working for Utrecht, an arts supply store, for five months, before traveling to Mexico to study Spanish to round out an “exciting” year.
But even with an activity lined up, things may not go as planned, she warned.
When she arrived in New Orleans without a place to stay, she ended up living with a friend in a previously flooded house in a “desolate” neighborhood, Robinson-Sweet said. After she told the company she was working with, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now that she didn’t feel safe, she was moved to a FEMA trailer — but it had a gas leak. Eventually, someone in the office took pity on her and allowed Robinson-Sweet to stay with her, she said.
Programs aim to avoid these logistical nightmares, said Megan Fettig, marketing director at Where There Be Dragons, which offers semester-long programs overseas.
The program organizes home stays, community service, trekking expeditions, language study and other educational opportunities for participants, exposing them to the culture of the countries in ways they could never experience on their own, Fettig said.
Additionally, students wishing to volunteer may be able to accomplish more if they seek out a program, said Jason Holton, recruitment director at the headquarters of City Year.
Over the years, City Year has studied how and where its volunteers can make the biggest impact, Holton said. Additionally, being part of a group allows participants to take part in something larger than themselves, he said, which in itself can be rewarding.
Although anecdotal reports on gap years are almost uniformly glowing, students and educators recognize that serious obstacles — parental worries, substantial costs and difficult adjustments to college — may prevent gap years from becoming more widespread.
First, there are the parents, many of whom fret that their son or daughter will get lost or contract a serious illness in Mozambique or Argentina, or — perhaps worse — never return to college.
“The prospect of a gap year tends to panic parents,” Brenzel said. “They want to know if their children have cold feet [about going to college], or if something’s wrong with them.”
But many parents can be brought around if the student has a solid plan for the gap year, he said.
When Hodgkins told her parents she was contemplating a gap year in December of her senior year of high school, her father “freaked out,” she said.
“My parents were really hesitant and completely blocked the idea out,” Hodgkins recalled. “But I was really persistent about it, and I think they finally saw my logic. Now they think it was an amazing experience for me.”
Parents may also be concerned about the cost of a gap year, which for some programs can amount to the equivalent of another year of college tuition.
Still, reasonably-priced gap years do exist: Many service programs or organizations will provide room and board in exchange for the student’s labor, said Bull, the president of the Center for Interim Programs. But the median range of group program fees is around $9,000 to $10,000, she said, which largely restricts gap years to families in the middle- and upper-income brackets.
Most of the Yale students interviewed said they were able to pay their own way during their gap years by doing a combination of programs and travel along with minimum-wage work.
Robinson-Sweet said she managed to break even by working for ACORN, which paid her by the hour, and saving money for her other activities with her job at Utrecht. Being self-sufficient was a parentally imposed prerequisite for doing a gap year, she said, and it ended up being a valuable lesson.
But though students said they were glad to learn these “real-world” skills, coming back to school after living on their own for a year can be a bit of a letdown.
Hodgkins said she had a “really hard adjustment” to Yale when she arrived in the fall, because her new emotional maturity and focus made her feel far older than her fellow freshmen.
“I put a lot of emotional disconnect on my peers, because I felt they couldn’t relate to what I had been through,” Hodgkins said. “It took me until about last month to really integrate myself into Yale and accept that I’m here.”
For some, though, the added maturity can be a bonus. Earp recalled being “a little more steady on [his] feet” than most freshmen, which helped him make friends: Others having tumultuous adjustment periods came to him for advice and reassurance.
While most students take a gap year after deferring matriculation at a specific college, some take time off specifically to gain admission to a more prestigious school — a potentially worrying trend, some educators said.
If schools like Yale, Harvard and Princeton signal to applicants that they want students to take gap years, the number of students trying to “game the system” may jump, said Erin Johnston, a college guidance counselor at the National Cathedral School in Washington, which actively promotes gap years. This may disadvantage lower-income students who cannot afford to take a gap year, she said.
Brenzel said the admissions office does not see many students who take a gap year and reapply to Yale after not having been admitted the first time.
“I would certainly not advise someone taking a gap year solely for that particular reason, given the long odds against admission for any candidate,” he said.
Yale’s ‘third path’
With its peers taking firm stances on gap years, Yale is still in the “wait-and-see” phase.
Right now, the University is not looking to implement a program similar to Princeton’s, administrators said. But the topic of how to treat gap years is on the table, albeit not the “most urgent issue,” Brenzel said.
A letter to admitted students about the merits of taking a gap year is in the works, Brenzel said, but he still wants additional input from current students who have taken gap years before offering more proactive encouragement.
“It isn’t clear to me yet whether you should actively structure gap years, like Princeton is doing, or write essays, like Harvard is doing,” he mused. “Or maybe there’s a third path, where you send signals that you have data-driven reasons to believe that taking a gap year is a positive experience. … I’m not sure yet what the right road is.”
Current Yale students seem to want the administration to take action. In a poll conducted by the News of 273 undergraduates, 44 percent of respondents who did not take gap years said Yale should actively encourage students to take them, though only 18 percent said they regretted not taking one.
In the poll — which was sent via e-mail to 650 Yale college students and has a margin of error of 5.77 percent — 67 percent said they would have been interested in a service program similar to Princeton’s.
Kassie Dantzler ’10 said she thinks Yale should consider establishing a program similar to Princeton’s, which would perhaps promote the option for all incoming students.
“I would have been interested in a program like that, just because I love traveling and seeing the world and having new experiences,” Dantzler said.
Hallet suggested that instead of setting up a University-run gap year program, Yale should instead offer grants to accepted students so they could pursue independent projects.
The administration has not yet considered this idea, Brenzel said.
But even as Yale debates how — if at all — to emphasize the option of taking a year off, the students who have already done so remain adamant proponents.
Although her gap year adventures are officially over, Hodgkins wants to check one final item off her list: hiking the final 525 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from where she stopped in Vermont to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“I’ll finish it sometime before I graduate,” she says, “I hope.”