Spending months working on a farm in New Zealand or hiking the Appalachian Trail can be the adventure of a lifetime, but it’s possible to find meaningful challenges without getting a passport or even hitting the highway.
It could be a matter of finances or a low threshold for exotic places. For some students, a gap year away from school but close to home is a better fit. It could be a gap year volunteer opportunity or a paid internship or a full- or part-time job.
There are all kinds of ways to do a gap year.
“You might not live in a different culture, but you still can learn about a different culture right in your own backyard,” said Marion Taylor, owner and founder of Taylor the Gap, a consulting service that helps students plan and implement gap year programs. “There are a plethora of options that are stateside. What matters is that you get outside your comfort zone in terms of your day-to-day life.”
Another gap-year consultant, Jennifer Haines, founder of Alternative U, LLC, agrees. “What’s most important is that you push whatever your comfort zone is, whether it’s being around new people or trying new things,” she said.
Many of the benefits of a gap year can be gained whether you’re on a new continent or in the next town. There are gap year opportunities everywhere.
“Sometimes a gap year is a first step of independence,” said Taylor. “If you’re living on your own, you learn how to budget and how to do cooking and laundry. It’s all about problem-solving.
“You can be in a situation where you live and work as a team, like with Americorps. You learn about your boundaries and limitations and what you need to be able to cope.”
There can be tremendous benefits in doing close-to-home apprenticeships and internships, said Haines.
“Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to do. Taking a gap year allows them to focus their interests. If you haven’t been in school for a year, you appreciate it more. Students are ready to hit the ground running when they come back.
“Sometimes connections you make will lead to something better. I know someone who was looking for a babysitting job and ended up with a graphic-design internship. The more skills you build, the more you can use them down the road.”
“The time between high school and college is a critical time where children need to explore, experiment, and gain valuable work and life experience,” said Tim Elmore, founder and president of Growing Leaders, an organization that helps students build leadership skills.
“Students who participate in a working gap year are often better prepared for college and a potential career because during this time they begin to look at the bigger picture. Often, kids move from one pressurized environment (high school) to another (college) and don’t have time to think or reflect on who they are and what they want to do. A gap year equips them to better find and further explore their strengths, rather than jumping from one thing to the other without digging in their heels a bit.”
In terms of finding a gap-year opportunity close to home, Taylor said there are “tons of opportunities, but sometimes people need to be creative.”
In addition to Americorps, a domestic Peace Corps-style service program that accepts about 75,000 people a year, she recommends City Year, in which young people work with lower-income school children in 27 cities around the country. Also, the American Conservation Experience offers opportunities at several national parks such as Grand Canyon.
Taylor said online searches can help you find chances for gap opportunities in politics, agriculture, marine biology and culinary arts – or just about anything else that matches your interest.
One of Haines’ favorite gap-year options close to her Ann Arbor, Mich., home is Wheels for Workers, a Detroit nonprofit organization that teaches auto repair skills to 18- to 28-year-olds. “It’s not a typical gap year, but for some kids this is really exciting,” she said.
Other favorites are The Mycelium School in Asheville, N.C., which focuses on social entrepreneurship, and the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colo., where college-age students can work for up to eight months. “Rather than becoming a ski bum, there are strict rules, and you have a safe place to live,” Haines said.
“A gap year doesn’t have to cost a lot,” she said. “Many organizations have scholarships to help pay for a gap year.” The website of the American Gap Year Association also offers tips on fundraising to help pay for a gap-year experience.