In her article “The Gap Year Rift,” Columbia student journalist Mikayla Petchell asserts that gap years are elitist and over-glorified and doubts whether gap-year students truly grow from the experience. I find the author’s perception of the gap year to be a very superficial one: rich kids traveling around the world. This inaccurate perception has led her to inaccurate conclusions. My own gap year experience and those of many others I know are extremely different from what Mikayla Petchell describes in her article.
First of all, Petchell focuses on students who spend their gap years traveling abroad, labeling them as elitist and superficial; however, gap years are not just about international travel.
“There is very little research out there about the scope and impact of gap years,” Dean of First Year Students Lori Tenser said. Tenser just finished her dissertation on the impact of gap years on students’ transition to college life. She wonders whether Petchell’s data on gap years only came from a handful of students she met. Had Petchell done a broader and more thorough examination, she would have that gap year students undertake found a variety of activities: working, volunteering, teaching, studying, hiking, farming, caring for others or traveling domestically. During my own gap year, apart from traveling, I worked as a language tutor, waitress and farmer. A friend of mine retreated to a small village in China and spent her year reading, writing and learning to grow her own food. I also have computer-geek friends with entrepreneurial spirits who took a year off to start their own businesses. The list goes on and on, and it is simply a mistake to think that the only endeavor of a gap year is international travel.
Even in terms of traveling, I disagree with Petchell’s argument that the gap- year traveling mentality “is not so much about gaining a better understanding of the world” but exoticizes foreign cultures and people, turning them “into static, stereotypical figures.” She doubts whether one truly learns about a place and grows by traveling. It is possible that Petchell’s informants left her with such an impression, but this is by no means a full summary of gap-year traveling. Many of my friends spent several months or a whole year in one place, with a sincere desire to learn about or contribute to the local communities. As a participant in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, I worked for an Australian family on their property in the Blue Mountains near Sydney for two months. Of course, I can’t say that I instantly became an encyclopedia of Australian life, but by the end of my stay I no longer felt like a visitor but part of the family. Living with my hosts, working in their gardens and orchard, cooking and watching TV with them, and celebrating Christmas in the Australian manner allowed me to understand a way of life that I otherwise would never have had the chance to experience. To me, the most important part of traveling was not the sights I saw but all the amazing people who shared their stories with me and taught me new things, whose kindness and generosity meant the world to me. I refuse, under any circumstance, to call my experience a “shallow” one.
Last but not least, contrary to Petchell’s characterization of gap years as “elitist,” my own gap year was a humbling experience. Petchell argues that gap years are expensive and “[serve] as yet another divide between high- and low- income students.” In her study on gap- year students, Dean Tenser addressed financial feasibility, “an important aspect of the decision-making process.” She finds that “[w]hile some families can afford to fund gap-year experiences, many students choose to use all or part of their year to earn money, and engaging in decisions about budgeting, covering expenses, and paying bills can be a significant area for growth and understanding.” To me and many of my friends who took a gap year — and we all came from different backgrounds — our experiences are never something to brag about, never “I took a gap year, therefore I’m so cultured.” Our working, traveling and volunteering experiences taught us the importance of learning to understand others as well as ourselves. My gap year was something I chose to do and worked hard to realize. It allowed me to get a taste of life outside of school and taught me that, while I am capable of doing many things, I also depend on people’s kindness to survive in this world. The precious memory will only remind me that the journey of learning will be lifelong.
Photos courtesy of Creative Commons.