There seem to be so many options for high school students who are looking for alternatives to heading right to college after graduation. I attended my first Gap Year Fair this week, and was somewhat nervous about what I would find. Let me set the stage and provide full disclosure, I was attending the fair as a parent, with my eager sixteen-year-old daughter, whose recent mission trip to Peru, left her wanting more.
We were seeking answers to many questions: Is a gap year experience possible? Is it safe? Are there affordable options? Will we be able to find the right one? (They can all look kind of the same online.)
We had driven about four hours, on mostly decent roads, but this was January and the event was in Minnesota, so by the time we arrived, my knuckles were probably white from gripping the steering wheel. I admit, I was tired of the guiding Australian voice of my GPS, especially after we missed the exit, twice.
Despite a slightly slippery beginning to the evening, I was impressed with what I learned regarding the choices for teens and young adults. Both my daughter and I left excited about several real possibilities for her and we were invigorated by the intriguing people we had met.
The purpose of the gap year fair is to provide the opportunity for students and parents to gather information and have conversations with many professionals in the field. We picked up brochures and flyers, but more importantly, we asked important questions of people who have been involved in these experiences. The chance to talk to individuals who had been on these excursions or worked on arranging them was extremely important. Many of the company representatives at the fair, were once students themselves, looking for something that would give them real-life experiences in service, education or personal growth.
If your child is interested in a gap year experience, these are some considerations to get you started:
1. Let your teen lead the conversation, and listen carefully. If he is asking about a gap year, perhaps he is not ready to jump into college just yet? Perhaps it is just a conversation, but maybe there is more. Being a good listener with teens is not always easy, but we have to try to understand their needs, wants and desires and then discuss what is best for them.
2. Figure out what your teen is looking for. There are gap year options that enable you to get SCUBA certified; or you can build robots; or you can be immersed in the rain forest or live in a village in Bhutan. You can do service projects in Peru or learn cooking lessons in Italy. There are gap experiences that are several weeks to almost one year in length. Narrow it down and distinguish if your teen is looking for adventure, service, experience, language immersion, or something else.
3. Research the options. There are so many gap year options, so you really must dig in and do some research. Find out how long the company has been in business; the safety records; the cost; the purpose of the company - profit? non-profit? How many students are in each group? What does the training consist of for the leaders? How are the students trained before entering a new culture? How about when they return? What is the cost? Is there help provided for fundraising? Ask a lot of questions!
We were excited by the gap year fair. The experience sparked great conversations and certainly moved the decision forward. If a gap year is a consideration, I would recommend attending a gap year fair or doing research by having conversations with program representatives or students who have had gap year experiences.