Students and alumni opt out of typical high school to college experience to take a gap year

by Ella Koscher

It is that June day many students anticipate. The day they can show off the cords draped around their necks, walk across the stage, shift their tassels to the side and graduate high school. For most, the only gap between that moment and the beginning of college is a short, hot summer. For a select few, however, this is not the case.

Instead of going straight to college after their high school career, some students opt to take a gap year. A gap year is when a student takes, typically, a year off from traditional schooling to focus on an area of their choice. There are many different opportunities for students who wish to take a gap year. Some choose to stay home, some travel, and some join a gap year program.

An Alternate Experience

There are many experiences that can occur during a gap year. Some prefer to join a structured program while others decide to choose their own path.

Janine Berger, a 2011 UAHS graduate, is currently a sophomore at American University in Washington D.C. Berger deferred college for one year and decided to take a gap year through the Rotary Youth Exchange program.

Berger did not intend on taking a gap year until the summer before her senior year. After some research, she decided a gap year would be a good fit for her.

“I decided to go to the first information session/overnight camping trip that was sponsored by Rotary to get a better understanding for the program and I immediately felt accepted by the group of students and supervisors—it was a perfect fit, so I decided to apply,” Berger wrote.

Through the Rotary program, Berger chose to travel to India to get a global perspective in a country entirely foreign to her.

“I applied to the program in India because I wanted to go somewhere completely different from anywhere that I had lived or traveled before,” Berger said. “India taught me so much. I was also lucky to have wonderful host families that I became very close to and they helped me a lot because they were very inclusive, which allowed me to see India from an Indian perspective.”

During her gap year, Berger lived with a host family in Pune, India, traveling across the country and immersing herself in the Indian culture. She also participated in activities led by her host club, the Rotary Club of Sinhagad Road. Some of the activities included the End Polio Now Campaign, providing educational services for local children and celebrations of religious holidays.

For Berger, a gap year meant an entire year in the same foreign country, immersing herself in a single culture. Other UAHS alumni, however, decided to do their gap year differently.

2010 UAHS graduate Laura Hoffman also decided to delay college to see the world, and chose a gap year that consisted of both structured programs as well as traveling on her own. At the time, she thought time off from school would be more beneficial than going straight to college.

“I did not feel passionate about school yet, and college is a huge expense that should not be taken lightly,” Hoffman wrote. “I believe in taking your time in life to do what makes you happy, and at the time school did not make me happy.”

Instead of remaining in one program like Berger, Hoffman was involved in multiple programs and traveled independently.

She traveled to Peru to volunteer at an animal rescue center and rainforest preserve, to Jamaica to volunteer at a children’s home and live with a host family and traveled coast to coast across the United States. She visited family and friends, spent time with monks, and volunteered at Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary in Utah.

While many people thought her plan to take a gap year was interesting, some found the idea crazy and did not fully understand Hoffman’s motivation.

“People were shocked to hear I was traveling to third world countries all by myself as a bushy-eyed 18-year-old suburban American,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman, however, was ready to learn in an environment outside of school walls, and that is exactly what she did. She believes her gap year helped her in a way school could not.

“I was constantly inspired by the things I saw, both good and bad, and the people I met,” Hoffman wrote. “My gap year moved me to become…a more aware and active person.”

Making It Count

Though Berger and Hoffman had different experiences in their gap years, they both agree that the year was beneficial and had an influential role in deciding their futures.

Hoffman is currently a junior at Colorado College and said her gap year shaped her college experience.

“Taking a gap year made me a little older and wiser in college,” Hoffman wrote. “I was more aware of what [made] me happy and what [did not] make me happy than the other students, which…[was] very helpful in deciding majors and choosing friends. I became a much more confident person.”

Berger also said her experience has led her to become a more independent person—a quality that lends a hand when entering college.

“I already had a year of ‘real life’ under my belt, which made my adjustment to college seem like a walk in the park,” Berger wrote.

Berger’s impactful experience during her gap year sparked her interest to study International Development in Emerging Markets at American University. Her time in India helped outline her college experience and she entered college with more certainty of what she wanted to study.

Berger also gives credit to her gap year for giving her a more global perspective of the world and meeting new people she never would have met had she gone straight to college.

“I am so thankful that I have the experience because it was so enriching,” Berger wrote. “I came away with so much—an understanding of a new country, families on the other side of the world whom I consider my own, and international friends from not just India, but also Brazil, Mexico, Germany, France, Italy and Poland.”

Planning the Gap

The positive gap year experiences of past UAHS students have prompted current students to take a gap year prior to college.

Berger’s younger sister, Maria Berger, is a senior at UAHS and is currently planning her gap year. She intends to graduate high school a year early and spend next year in another country as part of the Rotary Youth Exchange, like her sister.

Her schedule is completely full so she can earn all of the credits she needs to graduate at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“It’s very overwelming but it will be worth it in the end,” Berger said.

Berger’s decision to graduate early and spend next year in a foreign country was influenced by her sister’s successful experience in India.

“I saw how much fun my sister had and what new friends she made…so it was really interesting and it made me want to do it,” Berger said.

She is to eager graduate in June and take her gap year during the 2014-15 academic year. Even though she will have one year less of high school compared to her peers, Berger does not believe she will miss having a typical high school experience.

“I do not think I am missing out on anything,” she said. “I think it is time for me to move on and make new friends and start a new life.”

For Berger, this new life begins with a gap year, preferably in a country in South America. Berger hopes the experience is as impactful for her as it was for her sister, and she believes the gap year will help her grow significantly.

“I think taking a gap year between your high school career and your college career [helps] you become a more mature person,” Berger said. “You become more independent because at home you are dependent on your parents…They have all the money [and] they give you food but then over abroad you are by yourself. You are with a foreign family and you don’t really know much [about the country] so it makes you a more independent person.”

Both Hoffman and the Berger sisters recommend other students to consider taking a gap year as they approach the end of high school.


“I would highly recommend taking a gap year to anyone who has ever had a dream of doing something a little bit crazy,” Hoffman wrote. “Hike the Pacific Coast Trail, hike the Appalachian Trail, go to Africa, join a circus. There is a world of opportunity out there and there’s no time but now.”

Image Caption: Laura Hoffman holds a young monkey who was separated from his mother. She volunteered at an

animal rescue center in Peru during her gap year.

Image courtesy Laura Hoffman

Image Caption: Janine Berger explores the Himalayas while on a Deo Tibba trek in India. She had the opportunity to travel across the country during her gap year.

Image courtesy Janine Berger

Image Caption: Laura Hoffman swings on a rope over a waterfall in Jamaica. During her gap year, Hoffman volunteered at a children’s home in Jamaica and lived with a host family.

Image courtesy Laura Hoffman

Image Caption: Janine (left) and Maria Berger pose outside of the Taj Mahal. Maria visited her sister for two weeks while she was living in India.

Image courtesy Maria Berger