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How to Take a Gap Year and Help Save the Environment

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How to Take a Gap Year and Help Save the Environment

If you’re a high school student thinking about a gap year before college, you may want to spend some of that time saving the environment.

Or, at least some small corner of it.

A gap year is time in between high school and college that’s for seeing the world outside of academics. That could be the world thousands of miles from your home, or around the block. The important thing is to use the time – usually a year or semester – to discover, explore and focus. A gap year program can include working, travel, interning – almost any activity you can imagine. Yes, it’s time “off” academics, but it’s time spent “on” maturing and gathering skills that will help you once you get to college.

And a gap year is a great way to explore careers in the environment, whether you’re interested in animal conservation, water quality, wilderness preservation, reef restoration or climate change. There are scores of gap programs with an environmental focus. Some are in exotic locations like Africa or Patagonia. Others are focused on the American West or your own community.

If you’re a student interested in science, technology, engineering or math, a gap year or semester devoted to the environment is a great way to figure out whether STEM is really your thing. And if you’ve always been that A-plus English student afraid to dip a toe in science, a gap year focused on the environment might be a way to discover the unexpected. And, you’ll feel as if you helped make a difference.

Here are eight gap programs that offer a chance to work with environmental or conservation groups:

AmeriCorps, part of the federal-affiliated Corporation for National & Community Service, welcomes gap year volunteers and others ages 18 to 24 for its 10-month community-based programs in the United States. AmeriCorps projects include environmental stewardship and energy conservation, among others. Upon completion of the program, members are eligible to receive an education award equal to the maximum Pell Grant.

The School for Field Studies offers semester and summer programs across Asia, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean and is accredited by the University of Minnesota. Topics include biodiversity, environmental policy, ecotourism, rain forest management and conservation ethics, among others. In Costa Rica, for example, participants live on an organic farm and study sustainable development strategies in rural communities.

African Conservation Experience offers conservation placements in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, lasting from two to 12 weeks. Projects include marine conservation, wildlife management and wildlife veterinary skills, among others. You can even pick a project by animal: rhinos or elephants, for example. The program assesses your application and helps you find a good placement. It also helps with transportation to your project and help problem-solve.

High Mountain Institute Gap Semester concentrates on wilderness and conservation in the American West and Patagonia. Participants learn wilderness skills that allow them to work in diverse terrains. The environmental studies curriculum emphasizes field-based activities and service such as trail management and wildlife conservation. In Patagonia, students volunteer with an ecotourism organization.

Kaya Gap Year offers conservation and environmental opportunities in Latin America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific. You can choose from projects such as helping with community water access in Namibia and sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica. Programs also include projects oriented to the arts, health care and community development spread across 29 countries.

Coral Cay Expeditions is based in Southern Leyte in the Philippines near the Napantao Marine Sanctuary. Volunteer programs last from two to 20 weeks and are centered on the Coral Cay Reef ecosystem. Volunteers have a chance to learn dive techniques and help with ecological surveys and community education.

Edge of Africa is based in Knysna, South Africa, and recruits volunteers to learn about African ecology and biodiversity – and to get to see African elephants up close and personal. Programs start at one week but can go for several. The program is based along South Africa’s Garden Route, one of the world’s most beautiful sections of coast. The organization also offers opportunities in community education and teaching preschool.

Love Volunteers gives volunteers a chance to learn Spanish while supporting conservation and social work in Ecuador. Participants can help with animal welfare and environmental protection projects in the Amazon, among others. There are also programs teaching, working with animal therapy and assisting with the elderly or people with disabilities. Knowledge of rudimentary Spanish is encouraged, and language lessons are available.

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Susan Moeller-profile-picture

Susan Moeller is a former newspaper editor and reporter who has directed education coverage as well as written about schools and children. She lives on Cape Cod, has three children and is a veteran of the boarding school and college search process.