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10 Gap Year Ideas Close to Home

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Gap Year Ideas

You do not need to leave the country - or your home - to have a meaningful gap year. Long before Coronavirus, we have been defining the gap year as a period of time when an individual takes a deliberate pause from school or work to pursue interests, skills and personal growth. Note that this definition says nothing of the location, activity or cost. As college campuses and travel experiences will all be significantly modified this fall, a gap year close to home – with the right blend of intention, structure, mentorship and peers - may very well be the more realistic, fulfilling and affordable path for many students.

Start with asking yourself these fundamental questions: Why do you want to take a gap year, and What do you hope to gain from it? Once you can identify your Why (your reasons or motivations) and your What (your goals), then you can actively start moving towards, rather than away from, the life and learning experiences that are right for you.

1. Be Local. If you can, now is the time to support your locally-owned businesses and services through your spending, and your service. Your local city’s Parks and Recreation Department will likely have volunteer opportunities in community gardens, trail systems, and tree planting. You can search United Way for small, local organizations near you that are looking for help with conservation, education, senior care, hospitals and more. If you are interested in food security, search Feeding America to find a food bank in your zip code.

2. Pandemic. With the Red Cross you can find opportunities near you supporting blood drives, as well as virtual positions to support pandemic relief efforts. Search your county’s public health website if they are looking for volunteers to do contact tracing. AmeriCorps is also in the process of developing pandemic-related placements such as wellness-checks, contact tracing and tutoring for students who have fallen behind this spring.

3. Social Justice. For those ready to listen more, learn more and engage more, there are many racial justice organizations to connect with. These national groups all have local chapters, opportunities and resources: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Lives Matter, and Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). You can also support black-owned businesses with your wallet; see this recent list of 75 businesses highlighted in Forbes.

4. Service. From as young as I can remember, my mom talked about the idea of every young American participating in a mandatory year of service. While this may sound like a radical idea, being of service to our country is not. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) offers what my mom had long dreamed of: federally sponsored community service throughout the United States. AmeriCorps NCCC is one of CNCS’s best-known programs: volunteers serve in education, the environment, and disaster relief and receive food, housing, transportation and, upon successful completion, an education award to use for paying tuition or student loans. If you don’t have 10 – 12 months to commit, check out All for Good: considered the digital hub for volunteering opportunities all over the U.S., and inspired by President Obama and Craig Newmark.

5. Internships. Why not use this time to gain exposure to mentors and an industry that you may want to pursue for college or career? I’ve had students intern in the arts, business, computer science, education, engineering, fashion, music, public health, and much more. Any student interested in an internship should start with a few basics. Get your resume written and/ or updated. Create a LinkedIn account to connect with individuals and follow organizations that interest you. Network within your family: who do your parents know, what kind of work do they do, and might they be interested in an intern? Indeed.com is an aggregate career site of millions of internships and job listings, while Idealist.org focuses on nonprofit and community opportunities.

6. Academics. While you may not want to attend school full time, remotely, or at all, you are most likely an inquisitive person with questions, interests and a desire to learn. A gap year is a chance to enjoy learning, without the pressures of grades or deadlines. Have you every considered learning what you want, when you want, on YOUR terms? Take a look at the college-level options on Class Central. You can sort by subject (poetry to engineering), and will see a range of options from 6 – 12 weeks, with anywhere from 2 – 20 hours a week of commitment. For more traditional high school academics that you want to revisit or do for the first time, check out the free options with Khan Academy.

7. Paid Work. Making and saving money is a great and typical component of many gap years. More recently I’ve heard many young adults say they feel comfortable and confident going into public spaces for essential work this summer in grocery markets, hardware stores and restaurants. As one student said, “I am young, healthy, and able to work, so it just makes sense that I help locally.” Additionally, I have students who are launching their own small businesses this summer. One is running her own small-group summer camp for kids in her neighborhood, another is tutoring elementary school students, while another has started a service and delivery business, doing shopping, errands, yard work and even pet care for families in need of help.

8. Environment. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) has opportunities for students interested in hands-on conservation and environmental projects. If climate change is your passion, check out Sunrise Movement and get involved with trainings, rallies, canvasses, other events and/ or hubs near you. Organize a river cleanup in your own community; if you register with National River Cleanup they will provide you with “free trash bags, assistance with online and print media coverage, volunteer promotion online and technical support.”

9. Politics. We have seen a surge of young adults get active politically on a local and national scale: canvassing, phone banking, doing data entry, creating yard signs, working on campaigns, and much more. Locally, research your elected officials and attend city council or town hall meetings to understand the issues and people in your city’s government. Nationally, see if your state has its own US PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) chapter; the PIRGS do effective grassroots organizing and direct advocacy work. Check out this Quick Guide to Working on Political Campaigns from Harvard Law School.

10. Passion Projects. Whether it’s something you have never done before, always dreamed of, just thought of, or have wanted to improve in, this is an unparalleled time to pursue a passion project. Are you interested in Film? Writing? Sports? Coding? Cooking? Languages? Fitness? Meditation? Google it, and you will find it for free, or certainly very affordably. Maybe a MasterClass is a gift you can give yourself: it’s affordable, accessible, and was offering quality online instruction loooong before the pandemic.

Jane Sarouhan - along with her husband Jason - is the founder of J2Guides, a gap year counseling service that puts student empowerment, expertise and affordability at the forefront of the gap year planning process. Jane has devoted her 25-year career to experiential education. After her own gap year she worked as a field instructor, guiding students on service-learning programs in Africa, Asia and Central America. She spent a decade as a Director of a national nonprofit, developing international