College can wait

Charlie Melvoin ’05 checked a box and was set to visit 22 countries—all before he entered his freshman year of college.

Melvoin’s acceptance letter to Harvard University even proposed taking a year off before college. Since Harvard notoriously encourages its students to take a year off, roughly 70 students accept their offer each year.

After sending the card back to Harvard, Melvoin e-mailed the Dean of Admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, to let him know his plans for the following year. Fitzsimmons not only permitted Melvoin to take a year off, he also told Melvoin that he wished he could accompany him.

 “Harvard was—is—incredibly supportive,” Melvoin said. “They really see the value of [taking a gap year], and I’ve found that a lot of students took a year off.”

Taking a year off between high school and college, or a gap year, as it is commonly referred to, has always been common in the United Kingdom, but in the past decade it has gained popularity and acceptance in the United States.

The Michael Brownstein ’99 Memorial Gap Year Fellowship Program initiated this year (see article; page one) is part of the effort to encourage more students to take gap years in order to be more cultured citizens.

Holly Bull runs the gap year placement service Center for Interim Programs and visited the school last year to promote gap years. Despite no official statistics on the issue, there is “certainly far greater general awareness and appreciation of the value of a well-crafted gap year,” she said.  “I see this in the increased number of articles written each year about the phenomenon, and in the rise in inquiries from students and parents, as well as in the growth in gap-year programs.”

Bull has been helping students, including Sarah Wick ’05 and Tiernan Seaver ’06, plan gap years for 18 years. The Interim Program has been planning programs for 27 years, and it offers 5,000 internships, volunteer positions, apprenticeships, cultural study programs and various other opportunities.

Rather than looking at a gap year as time off, Bull refers to it as “time on.”

A gap year is ”a jewel of a period of time for students to creatively step away from the lock-step path of high school to college,” Bull said.

A classmate of Melvoin at both Harvard-Westlake and now Harvard, Wick spent her gap year backpacking around Southeast Asia for three months, came home to work as a production assistant in the writer’s office for “The OC” and traveled to Costa Rica for more backpacking and surfing.

“A gap year gives you such a different perspective in coming to college and a wholly different appreciation for the experience,” Wick said.

Very pleased with her gap year, she did not have much trouble adjusting to college, despite not going to school for a year. Since so many people take gap years at Harvard, age and grade level are practically irrelevant, she said.

Melvoin’s only difficulty from taking a gap year was interacting with narrow-minded people at Harvard. Students who come straight from high school to college and are not aware of the world outside of their immediate lives were tough to deal with, especially after this expansive trip, he said.

His trip, which consisted mainly of backpacking around Africa, Asia, South America and the South Pacific, was planned through Rustic Pathways, a company that typically plans summer programs for teenagers, including a trip Melvoin took to Thailand the summer before his gap year.

Melvoin decided to chronicle his experiences on his website “whereischarlie.com.” The website was a means of telling his family and friends what he had been up to, posting pictures and allowing people to send messages to him.

“I have a much wider perspective of how college fits into my life and how my life fits into the greater world,” Melvoin said. “I learned the kinds of things you simply cannot be taught in school.”
Upper school deans agree that taking a gap year is beneficial to students.

“Most colleges find that a gap year gives students a chance to rejuvenate before beginning college — especially students who have been extremely busy during high school,” upper school dean Jim Patterson said.

With Bull’s assistance, Seaver found an orphanage for disabled children in Guatemala City where she spent a semester before attending the University of Michigan in Spring 2007.

“I fell in love with each one and got to know all of them, she said. “If I did not come no one would be there. It was amazing to feel like I was making such an impact in someone else’s life, which made it heartbreaking to leave.”

David Derin ’07, who will study abroad in Israel this year, will spend the second half of his time abroad doing community service, like Seaver. Through the NATIV College Leadership Program, which Derin was introduced to through United Synagogue Youth, Derin will spend the first half of the year taking classes that will earn him credits towards his college graduation.

Derin was drawn to taking a year off as “a small way for me to break away from this trend that is not always the best thing for everyone and to do my own thing,” he said. “Coming from a school such as Harvard-Westlake that is so competitive, we are all encouraged to finish high school, go straight to college and then go to grad school.”

Ever since Andrew Schein ’07 was first presented with the idea of taking a gap year from a British family friend, he dreamed of going abroad for a year before college. Now that he is on his gap year, he will live in London with the girl who inspired him.

Like Derin, Schein’s main motivation for taking a gap year before attending Stanford University is “to meet people I would never have met if I’d jumped from the Harvard-Westlake bubble right to the Stanford bubble.”

Schein is guaranteed admission to Stanford in 2008, but since Derin will be receiving college credits, he cannot defer his admissions. He was informed that he would be accepted next year to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on the condition that he reapplies.

Schein has already visited Amsterdam, Nice, Barcelona, Olot, Valencia and Paris. He has worked as a waiter and a tutor in exchange for room and board.

Schein did not go into his gap year with a firm plan like Derin’s.

“Each day is an adventure,” he said. “Finding the route to the beach or the clubs is a big deal.”

Unlike Derin, Schein has some worries, including homesickness, getting mugged, boredom, not being able to afford living on his own and losing the camaraderie he shares with his core group of friends.

Seaver did not have this problem because when she entered the University of Michigan after taking her first semester off, many of her best friends from high school were already attending the University of Michigan.

Seaver had no problem deferring her enrollment for a semester and does not regret her decision at all. In fact, she found adjusting to college easier after coming in a semester late partially because everyone who had just adjusted to college life could give her advice.

Since the University of Michigan is such a large school, she had no trouble making friends, especially since many people didn’t even know she was not there the first semester and just assumed they were meeting her for the first time second semester.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “I would choose it over any semester of intro classes, week-long friendships and binge drinking.”