HERE’S TO THE GAP YEAR: Opening Eyes and Hearts
By Rita Golden Gelman
I’ve been popping in and out of countries around the world for 28 years. I have no home and no possessions; I’m a citizen of the world. My recent visit to Ajijic reaffirmed the fact that we are all enriched when we cross borders and interact.
No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve always felt welcome. My smiles are returned, and I’m endlessly accepting invitations to sit on someone’s porch, join a family for a meal, and participate in events and ceremonies. I’ve learned much more than I’ve taught….and my Western preconceptions have been frequently blown away by on-the-ground reality.
Here’s one example: I was hanging out with a group of teen-age boys who lived in a slum in New Delhi, India. One day I asked them what they thought it would be like if someone gave their family a house…one with running water, a toilet, a kitchen, even a bedroom or two. Five of them responded that they wouldn’t take it! And when they explained why, the other two changed their minds. “Here in the jhuggie where our houses are packed together, we all have many mothers. If our mother isn’t home to help us, there’s always a mother who is!”
A culture can’t be taught in a classroom. It has to be absorbed. The world can’t be understood from books. Though I have no permanent home anywhere, I return at least once a year to the U.S. to visit family, friends, and publishers. (I write books to support my habit and share my joy.) I am always horrified, hurt, and ashamed to hear and read the comments of the U.S. population about foreigners, immigrants, other ways of life…comments filled with ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance.
After many years of frustration, I’ve decided to do something about it! I am determined to create a U.S. population that has experienced the warmth, the welcome, the beauty …and the common humanity of the world. So, I’m promoting…speaking, writing, meeting, shouting from rooftops…the idea that after sitting in classrooms for thirteen years, our young people need to get out into the world for a year of “experiential” education…a Gap Year. They need to cross some borders, live in other parts of the world, connect with fellow humans in other cultures, especially in the developing countries. A Gap Year changes lives, opens eyes.
I want to create a “Gap Year Movement” in the U.S…..with need-based scholarships and partial funding for those who need it. A Gap Year (it can even be a few months) is a time to travel and connect in other cultures.
Here are some facts:
The Gap Year is popular in England, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and Israel (after the army). Many Canadians do a Gap Year, as well. In New Zealand they call it the big OE (Overseas Experience)….and, like us, the KIWI’s have to cross oceans too! Families and youths save their gift-money and work for the funds. If they can do it, why can’t we?
90% of returned Gappers are in college within a year of their return.
The American Gap Association recommends that high school seniors apply to college in their senior year…and when they are accepted, ask for a deferral. More and more colleges are recommending it. Those returned gappers are much more focused, they know what they want, and they have a higher GPA than their stay-at-home peers. Some colleges (Princeton and Tufts among others) are even paying students to do a Gap Year before they begin their college experience.
An out-of-the country experience is a dynamite item on a resumé in today’s global economy.
There are a ton of programs out there that meet a list of standards set by AGA (www.AmericanGap.org) … everything from working with elephants in India to teaching English in Ghana.
Many gappers finish college in four years (they know who they are!). So many young people who go to college from high school need five and six years to decide on a major! A Gap Year actually saves money!
If you’re a parent or grandparent, start a “Gapaccount” when the kids are still young. It will be the best gift you will ever give them. Returned Gappers are the leaders of the future. You will see the glow and joy in their eyes when they return, eyes that see the world with new understanding and respect. For many, that Gap Year is the beginning of a joyous lifetime addiction to “connect across cultures.”
A Gap Year movement changes the participants. It will also change the country…and create a more peaceful world. If you are with me, you might want to Back-a-Gapper. For $5,000 you can choose a high school, and a program; you can even help choose the recipient. Have a look at the AGA site.
What a glorious legacy!
(Ed. Note: Ms. Golden is a best-selling author, best known for her TALES OF A FEMALE NOMAD—Living at Large in the World. She is also a Guest Speaker, and recently was a huge hit at Open Circle.)