MCT graphic by Sharon Kilday
ADVENTURE: Backpacking around the world can help to develop you as an individual, making you more independent.
MCT graphic by Sharon Kilday ADVENTURE: Backpacking around the world can help to develop you as an individual, making you more independent.

As summer goes on, many students are preparing to return to college for another year of tests, essays and group projects.

New graduates are busy prepping resumes and cover letters in hopes of landing a dream job.

But some who have a different approach to life and education are taking an alternate route.

Gap years are loosely defined as periods of time people take off during or after their education before moving on to graduate school or the workforce.

They generally spend that time working, travelling or volunteering, often doing something unrelated to their eventual career path.

Challenge

While gap years are a common practice in many European countries, they aren’t as popular or well-known in North America.

However, most students who take gap years appreciate the benefits they afford that other life paths might not offer.

Cody Barbour, a young man from Jefferson City, Missouri, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after he graduated college, other than knowing he wanted to travel.

He decided to join an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps programme.

“I was based in Sacramento, California, and was put on a team of 10 people. The base that I was on served the Pacific region states.

“About every two months my team would move to a different place to work for a new non-profit organization,” he says.

Before choosing the programme, Mr Barbour says he did a lot of research about AmeriCorps and spoke with past participants.

He also had to factor in his finances to make sure his time off would be feasible, since he wouldn’t be earning much money beyond a living stipend.

While he was with AmeriCorps NCCC, he says he learned about a variety of topics he’d never known before, like environmentalism and sustainability. He also thinks it was personally rewarding.

“It gives you a break from school, and most of these programmes are challenging so you will learn a lot about yourself,” he says.

His gap year also helped him get on his feet financially once his programme was over.

“AmeriCorps programmes also offer an education award upon completion. I used my ed award to pay off student loans that I had for undergrad,” he says.

Joan Schneider, the career services director at Northwest Missouri State University, says many students might take gap years after college if they’re unsure of what their next step should be.

“Between college and work, I am aware of the fact that some people do not go directly into employment or continuing education,” she says.

According to data the career centre collects about recent graduates, a small percentage purposefully put off work or grad school for personal reasons.

However, gap years occasionally result from necessity if a student’s plans fall through or they can’t find a job.

“Sometimes it’s that self-assessment time that helps point us in the right direction,” M. Schneider says.

This is true in Liz Bledsoe’s case. She graduated from Truman State University with a Bachelor of Science in Justice Systems in May 2011.

She faced the decision of moving back home with her family in Strafford, Missouri, or being closer to her long-distance boyfriend in Indiana.

“I ended up choosing the latter, and I tried to find a job for when I finished my undergraduate degree. I tried and failed finding employment in my field, and the most common response was that I needed more experience,” Miss Bledsoe says.

Though frustrated, she found work in retail and spent the following months saving money and “self-searching.”

She looked into a Master of Social Work programme at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis.

“Social work was never really on my radar because Truman does not have that programme, but I have family that work in various sectors of the field.

“When researching the different concentrations in the MSW programme, I just knew it was what I wanted,” she says.

Miss Bledsoe now is on track to graduate in May 2015.

Although her master’s focus doesn’t exactly correlate with her bachelor’s degree, she says she’s happy she took the time to really think about what she wanted to accomplish in life before making a grad school decision.

“I feel like I was able to gain a better understanding of myself because I had time to consider all of my options and who I wanted to be.

“If I had not taken my gap year, I would probably be in a criminal justice PhD programme.

“I would be just following a logical path, but not a path that I felt was truly my place,” she says.

Ms Schneider says she wouldn’t necessarily encourage someone to take a gap year without a solid plan in mind, but she realizes the experience can be beneficial in helping a person develop new skills.

It’s important to do research and take multiple factors into consideration before taking a gap year.

“As long as you’re growing as a person, you’re learning... I think you need to keep moving forward and keep growing as an individual, and not just sitting on mom and dad’s couch,” she says with a laugh.