This time of year is momentous for high school seniors around the US. Prom pictures populate Instagram feeds, AP exams are requiring young people’s undivided attention, and warm days are inducing paralyzing senior-itis. Graduation ceremonies are also fast approaching, and students are preparing to celebrate the next step in their professional or graduate degrees. Some go on to college or university, some pursue a trade at a vocational school, and some will simply enter the workforce.
One small but mighty group of students will take a unique and non-traditional route after they walk the stage this spring. Before they enroll at their desired institution of higher learning, they’ll take a “gap year” to pursue a volunteering effort, an internship, a startup endeavor, or a political movement. The British piloted the idea of a gap year in 1967 with three students spending a year volunteering in Ethiopia, and the US jumped aboard the bandwagon in 1980.
The benefits of a gap year are many and profound. For one, after upwards of 12 years in a traditional schooling environment, many students feel burned out and would take great emotional solace in a year away from the monotony of desks and chairs. Especially for high-performing high schoolers who have stressed over grades, a gap year is a perfect way for them to continue learning but without the rigidity of classroom walls and due dates.
Moreover, students on a gap year enjoy the ability to explore the world while giving back and seeing the real-world applications of all the materials they’ve learned in school for the past decade and a half of their lives. Whether the gap year is spent interning at a business or volunteering in a developing nation, participants find themselves discovering how the textbook materials look in practice.
Gap years also give students room to pursue passion projects before they’ll be once again logged down with school work and group projects. David Hogg rose to international fame after his high school was the target of a gunman’s rampage that left fifteen of his classmates dead. Now a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High, Hogg intends to take a gap year before he heads off to be a full-time college student to continue political organizing and pushing for tighter gun regulations. Samira Choudhury is taking a gap year between her undergraduate and graduate degrees to work at a nonprofit health institution that caters to low-income women and girls. Passionate about reproductive health, she chose to see how her undergraduate studies apply to those suffering from the maladies she took tests on at school. Ariel David went to Israel to study Hebrew and improve not only his language fluency but also his connection to his family’s Jewish culture.
Celebrities are helping to bring awareness to the growing movement that at once allows for relaxation and hands-on learning. From Malia Obama to Benedict Cumberbatch, many famous people took gap years to give themselves a cognitive break from their studies or careers and explore entirely new ways of life. Some give back overtly, and others work on themselves to help them give back even better later in life.