Structured Gap Years - Pure Life Adventure in Costa Rica

Structured ‘gap years’ help young adults succeed

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(Image shows Pure Life students in Costa Rica learning Swift Water Rescue while taking time off of formal education).

On college signing day last week many excited young adults donned their new school colors and started planning for their futures.

But not everyone is ready for that big step. Some young adults need a break before continuing their formal education. A structured gap year program could be the answer.

A “gap year” is a year off of formal education, generally between high school and college, during which young adults participate in travel, service projects, internships, jobs, and many other structured or unstructured activities.

Despite some misconceptions, studies suggest that students who take a gap year between high school and college quickly catch up to their peers academically and often show more initiative in their studies. Gap year takers also tend to graduate in a shorter amount of time with slightly higher GPAs, according to a 2015 study by the American Gap Association. Many graduates reported that the gap year on their resume made them more attractive to future employers.

Sparking much discussion on the subject, the Obama family recently announced that their older daughter Malia, now a high school senior, would be taking a gap year before attending Harvard University in Fall of 2017.  Like a growing number of other universities, Harvard encourages students to take time off before attending.

Admissions counselors and professors at the college say taking a gap year counters a troubling trend for college freshmen– “burnout”.

The Pressures of Success

In today’s competitive world, high achieving youth begin college preparations as young as middle school (often younger) by participating in a myriad of extracurriculars and taking extra classes. By the time these students arrive at college they are anxious, overworked, and tired.

On a 2014 survey of college students, over thirty percent of respondents reported that stress had affected their academic performance. Many report making unhealthy choices with their newfound freedoms. Depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol use and abuse are common for college students coping with today’s pressures.

Thirty percent of college students across the United States drop out after their freshman year.

But students who took a gap year were more likely to finish their degree than those who did not. The question remains: why?

Experiential Learning

Human brains are not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Rational thought, emotional regulation, and other executive functioning abilities enabled by the frontal cortex are some of the last functions to solidify, as are the connections between different regions of the brain. The young adult brain begins to develop a capacity for abstract and complex thought as well as divergent thinking–the ability to generate creative solutions by exploring many options.

How the brain develops in this final stage of maturation depends a lot on what a young adult experiences. The neural pathways that are used frequently are strengthened and neural pathways that have gone unused over time are “trimmed” away.

A traditional college experience, while heavy in math and science, will often cut into time that would otherwise be available for experiencing other important aspects of life such as arts, culture, adventure, connection with nature, relationships, and emotional development. This high-pressure environment can limit the development of abilities and coping skills necessary for living a well rounded and healthy life. And it can also negatively affect young adults academically and lead to burnout.

According to the MIT Young Adult Development Project, experiential learning and diversity in exposure challenges young adults “to widen their thinking and reach greater complexity” more than other types of formal education.

“Young adulthood is a time when humans should be integrating learning via both hemispheres of the brain,” explained young adult expert and therapist Rachael Schneider. “Experiential education and therapies support healthy psychological and physiological development. In other words, being out there in the world–creating, failing, getting dirty, making friends.”

Gap year students often have more space to explore and develop. Ninety-two percent of young adults surveyed reported that they took a gap year to gain experience and personal growth. Building new relationships, participating in adventures, traveling, and being exposed to new environments topped the list of most impactful experiences reported.

One Gap Year is Not Like Another

A gap year does not have to be “a year off”, as it is so commonly described. Ideally it is a year in which a young adult gains responsibility, tries new things, and perhaps most importantly, has space to fail. But it is also important for young adults to have a solid support system to help them process these experiences.

There are hundreds of different gap year programs– both national and international, ranging from a month to a year– that provide structure for young adults in this transitional period of their lives. If a student is dealing with mental health issues like anxiety disorder, depression, suicidality, eating disorders or identity issues, it might be best to consider a more structured program with a therapeutic element.

Wilderness Adventure Therapy, which combines traditional experiential education with group and individual therapy in novel, natural environments, is an option for you adults who are struggling to launch into independence.

These structured programs can easily fit into a traditional gap year time frame, such as a first year deferral, or even sometimes during summer break. Though not as common, but still potentially beneficial, some students take a semester to a year off in the middle of their college experience to reset and refresh. College admissions offices can often provide information on options for gap years as well as the potential for admissions deferral.

Remember, college can be important for future success. But play and a wide range of experiences are just as important.

For more information on the struggles of young adulthood, download our White Paper on ‘Failure to Launch’.

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