Why I am Taking a Gap Year, and You Could Too
By Savannah Graziano
I can count the hours I have spent in a Starbucks on one hand, and the amount of money I have spent on coffee on two; until this year. Waking up earlier than I would on a school day, throwing some snacks and my laptop in a bag, I spent my long weekends, my winter break, my spare time, dutifully driving to and from the Starbucks on Foster. Surviving on Cornick from Seafood City and the occasional holiday latte, I wrote. The amount of time I spent at that Starbucks probably should be a lesson on not saving things for the last minute, but that really did not occur to me until I sat down to write this article. College applications, much like everything else, do not write themselves, and no one knows what an admissions officer might want to see on any given day. If I could give any advice to the juniors reading this, it would be to have fun with your essays and the time you spend writing them. Find a way to enjoy what you are doing because that will help showcase the most genuine you. Of course, I am no expert, but I did survive these long days because I loved what I was doing.
It was the weirdest feeling to send in my applications, to no longer worry every day about what I am going to write or when I am going to write it. I could only wait and see. As the months passed and the decisions of my friends came out, I was happy. Their success is real, their hard work paid off, and their dreams came true. When I congratulated them, a single bad thought never crossed my mind. I love all of the senior class for what they have accomplished this application cycle, no matter where they have decided to go, and I especially love my friends.
Opening up college rejection letters soon became a thing I did in passing. As my friends counted excitedly down for the minute the application portal would update, I refreshed my screen in terror, painfully aware that each rejection letter brought me closer and closer to the inevitable. Like a toddler playing in the major leagues, I struck out at every turn. I tried not to tell anyone. I tried to hide the way my feet dragged in the hall when I could not find the energy to lift them. I tried to ignore the sadness I felt. Now, I am not afraid to admit it. I did not get in. Anywhere.
It was hard to accept at first. My friends had told me that it was impossible, and I was quick to blame the system. Maybe something got lost in the mail, maybe I turned in the wrong essays, maybe it was not my fault. But it was. Not directly, as I cannot control what an admissions officer may want to read on any given day, but there was no other explanation. I had reached too high, believed in myself too much, and it did not pay off. Looking back at the weeks I spent trying to pretend that I was not sad, I laugh. I am okay. My mother had warned me that this might happen, I knew in my heart that it was possible, I needed to move on. So I did.
Alternate college options are boundless. Of course, many of them will decimate your wallet. In the months following my rejections, I decided to pull myself together and look realistically at the options I had before me. Embarrassed to be seen looking at alternative college plans, afraid someone would learn the reason why, I did not want to ask for help. Instead, I, a true Northsider, made a color-coded spreadsheet to organize my thoughts and compare data from different opportunities. I channeled my stress, sadness and confusion into a more positive outlet, one that I hoped would reveal to me the meaning of my rejections. While collecting data, I noticed that it can be difficult and time consuming to find engaging programs within a realistic budget. I struggled to find programs that still accepted applications and scholarships that could help me. I hope that anyone in my situation asks for help from others, but, at the very least, I hope my painstaking research can be beneficial to someone else in a similar situation.
My research does not encompass every opportunity; however, it does encapsulate many of the most exciting and accessible gap year opportunities available to graduating high school students. Below are many of the programs and organizations that I considered while searching for my future plans and some advice from people who have participated in or applied to them in the past.
For over 70 years, CIEE has helped people gain the understanding, acquire knowledge, and develop skills for living in a globally interdependent and culturally diverse world. Gap year programs fall into three categories: Language & Culture, Service & Leadership, and Global Internship and last anywhere from three months to a year with most programs about a semester long. CIEE encourages students to use their gap year to discover the world and find the right path for their future.
While she did not take a gap year, Daviana Soberanis, Adv. 904, was able to participate in a CIEE program last summer. She speaks very highly of the experience saying, “That month was probably one of the best of my life. The ability to be in another country for an entire month and really learn and practice the language was such a great opportunity. I met some really great people who I still speak to and I'm still in contact with my host mom--she might be visiting me this summer. The program itself was organized well, the group leaders were the best and the staff was pretty responsive overall I would recommend and I'd love to go back. It was a large reason behind why I wanted to go to college in France.” Pooja Patel, Adv. 901, also recommends that students interested in a program apply by the priority scholarship deadline as aid is on a first-come, first-served basis.
With a mission of connecting people and planet to create global leaders drives their three branches: Travel, Shop, and Exchange which focus on cultural exchange, fair trade and social transformation. Their programs are divided into four main types: high school study abroad, summer language camps, 1-3 month homestays and work & travel. While each has different requirements, most allow students to stay with a host family from which they either attend high school, language classes, or teach their families English. The work & travel program is slightly different from those with host families as students are expected to pay for accommodations at a hostel from which they can spend their time working and traveling.
For those nervous about living in the home of a strange family in another country, my family has hosted French students via Greenheart for the past three years. The program we participate in allows students and host families to create lasting connections for three weeks as the student immerse themselves in American culture and the city of Chicago. I am still in contact with all of my past students and hope to one day travel to France to see them. All host families are thoroughly vetted by program organizers and, because they are volunteering to host, families are always very welcoming and excited to have a student.
Global Citizen Year
Unlike previous organizations, Global Citizen Year offers a single program, with four international destinations, each with a unique focus. While students may travel to Ecuador, Brazil, India, or Senegal, every participant lives with a host family for a year and is immersed in the local language and culture, with the goal of giving back and gaining experience in a unique apprenticeship. Students start with an orientation weekend at Stanford University where they learn about making a global impact and gain valuable leadership insight from global leaders. This is followed by the actual program abroad which includes a year long apprenticeship and after, students are connected with a large community of others who have participated in the program previously.
Amulya Aluru, Adv. 906, applied and was accepted to the program. When talking about the process, she said, “The application required me to write an essay about why I wanted to do it. While there wasn’t an interview, there was a mandatory information session that I had to attend. What I didn’t realize is that while they give merit scholarships, the rest of the aid is need based which is something that is important to keep in mind when applying.”
For those who do not know, an au pair is a young adult who travels to another country to live with a host family and is considered to be a full member of that family. The responsibilities of an au pair vary based on the host family but they typically assist the family with childcare and take on light household tasks. In exchange, au pairs are given free room and board, pocket money, as well as time to themselves. Au pairs have the opportunity to improve language skills, experience cultural exchange, and bond with a family overseas. Ms. Martha Mulligan, math department chair, has had seven au pairs all from different places. She said, “they lived with us and took care of our kids during the day and they had free time at night. All but one improved their English which was a major goal for them. They also took classes as part of their program, Au Pair in America, for a total of six credit hours. We have really good relationships with all of them and are currently planning to go to Austria and see one.”
Au pair placements are available through many agencies and in many countries. Au Pair International offers seven countries for placement: Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and Spain each with different perks ranging from language classes, health insurance, and even guarantees for high-quality WiFi. Different countries offer different rates of pay, lengths of stay and require various qualifications, but all result in similar experiences.
City Corps is an Americorp program that employs young adults across the country to help at high-needs school across the country. They provide academic and emotional support and form “near-peer” relationships with students. Working with students that exhibit “early warning indicators” for poor academic performance, teachers and principals, Corps members help students become more on track to graduate. Their values focus on service, collaboration, young people, social justice, leadership, empathy, inclusivity, and ubuntu, the belief that one’s humanity is tied to that of others. Members work for 11 months, receiving a bi-weekly stipend, an education award, access to scholarships and health care. My lacrosse coach, Lynn Gerbec, class of 2003, described the program as one of the hardest things she has ever done. While that sent chills down my spine, I am encouraged that after her experience, she still decided to become a second grade teacher.
Not attending college next year is no longer a point of shame in my mind, it is a badge of honor. I had the mindless path of the American schooling system pulled out from under my feet, and it was egregious. I am more conscious, but less afraid of my every decision. The new paths before me are seemingly limitless and provide far better opportunities for me to find myself than neither college, nor Northside, could offer. When people ask me why I made the decision to take a year off, I tell them that I need the break. Years of straight A’s, honor societies, clubs, sports, volunteering and, of course, homework, have driven me off a cliff and into a dark ravine. I need time to drag myself back up, to find the light again and to learn the point of my being. This metaphor makes me wish that I were more physically prepared to scale mountains and escape precarious situations, but much of high school fails to give you the practical experience you need for life.
Looking forward, I am not totally sure of my plans. There are so many great opportunities with possibilities to create change, both within myself and in the world. While the college application process was cumbersome and difficult, I think that whatever experience I choose for next year will be worth living through it all over again. With bright eyes, I look eagerly into the future and the person I will be next year. I am taking a gap year, and you could too.