By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services, NESCA
On September 12th, I received an email from a colleague with the title May I nominate you? The body of the email described that October is Gap Year Exploration Month (GYEM) and asked if I would be willing to be a GYEM Amplifier, meaning would I be willing to share information with my personal and professional network to create awareness about gap years and increase student consideration of gap years as one of their post-secondary options. This was an easy “YES!” for me because I have spent the majority of my career trying to help students and families who I work with to understand that there are many other options besides college, or before college, for students to pursue after high school. Just last week, I was in an IEP meeting for a 10th grade student recommending that the student have an IEP goal and objectives that would help to enhance his understanding of a variety of post-12th grade options so that he could make an informed and active choice about his post-high school activities.
In the United States, every student who is on an IEP has the right to postsecondary transition planning. This is a process by which a young person is supported in the setting of goals and expectations for themselves and in building the skills and resources that will enable them to reach those goals. This should be a completely individualized process. However, in working with a large number of clients in Massachusetts and other Northeast states, I have observed that most middle and high school students have the same postsecondary vision: College. There is a strong consensus that college is the only goal to reach after high school, rather than an important step that leads to gainful employment in an area of strength, interest, or aptitude. Students with and without disabilities often know that they want to go to college (or that they are expected to go to college), but they have no career goals or sense about whether a college degree will actually benefit them in finding employment related to their aptitudes. Despite the data, most young people (and their parents) simply take as fact that college is what you do after high school. So how do we empower students to better manage the transition process? First and foremost, we need to start discussing career development, and to help our youth to understand the wide range of postsecondary options available to them, at earlier ages. A bachelor’s degree is one academic pursuit that has a place for many students, but for a great number of students, it is not the best immediate option available after high school. There are many other options worth exploring, such as two-year college programs, vocational or certificate programs, apprenticeships, military, employment, and gap year programs. So today, let’s talk about those gap year programs!
What is a gap year? A gap year is a deliberate period of personal growth typically taken by students after high school and before post-secondary education or career. During a gap year, individuals engage in various activities that foster personal growth, skill development, and exploration of different paths before committing to further education or career choices. These activities may include volunteering, interning, traveling, working, learning new skills, or pursuing other forms of experiential learning. The purpose of a gap year is to gain valuable life experiences, expand one’s perspective, and make informed decisions about future educational and career endeavors.
What can you do on a gap year? The options are endless! Gappers can choose from structured programs like service learning or volunteer projects, or pursue independent activities, such as interning, hiking, or working on organic farms. There are opportunities both within the US and abroad.
Is a gap year expensive? A meaningful gap year can be planned on various budgets. Students can offset costs through work, fundraising, scholarships, and financial aid. Some gap year programs accept funds from 529 Plans. Moreover, gap year students often graduate from college in less time, potentially saving families money in the long run. Explore a comprehensive list of scholarships here.
What are the evidence-based benefits of taking a gap year?
- Academic Success: Recent studies show that gap year students outperform traditional students academically when they enter college.
- Employability Boost: 88% of gap year graduates report that their experience significantly enhances their employability.
- Personal Development: 98% of gap year graduates claim that their gap year helped them grow as a person.
- Career Exploration: 60% of gap year graduates credit their experience with either confirming their choice of career or setting them on their current path.
References for these statistics can be found here.
Can you still attend college after a gap year? According to the best data on this question, 90% of gap year students who intended to go to college enroll within a year of graduating high school.
How can I learn more about planning a gap year?
Seek guidance from your school counselor.
Attend local USA Gap Year Fairs or online events to meet with programs and gather more information.
Check out some of the following Articles/Videos:
- Parents Magazine: What Is a Gap Year and Should Your Kid Take One?
- US News & World Report: How a Gap Year Prepares Students for College
- Forbes: Why High School Graduates Should Consider a Gap Year
- Go Overseas: What is a Gap Year and How to Take One
- TEDx: Gap Year: A Path to Purposeful Education
- TEDx: The Higher Education Crisis – and How the Gap Year Could Help Solve It
- Gap Year Alumni Video Playlist
- NYTimes: How Taking a Gap Year Shapes Your Life
- NYTimes: The Four Secrets of Success
- Forbes: Here’s Every Reason You Should Take a Gap Year Before College
Visit the web sites below:
- Gap Year Association (GYA)
- USA Gap Year Fairs
- Go Overseas
- Teen Life
- Go Abroad
Listen to a Podcast
- The Gap Year Podcast with Michelle Dittmer
- Gap Year Radio
- Zero to Travel Podcast
- AFS Exchange Podcast
Read a Book
- The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make by Ron Leiber, 2021
- The Complete Guide to the Gap Year by Kristin White, 2019
- Gap to Great: A Parent’s Guide to the Gap Year by Andrea Wien, 2015
- Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs by Joseph O’Shea, 2013
- Gap Year, American Style: Journeys Toward Learning, Serving, and Self-Discovery by Karl Haigler, 2013
Is a transition program the same thing as a gap year program? Not exactly. Postsecondary transition programs are typically programs for young adults with disabilities that target skill development in one or more transition planning areas: life skill development, vocational skill development, and/or readiness for college. Often, developing executive function and social skills is a strong emphasis of these programs. Some of these programs are therapeutic and target the mental health needs of the young adult while supporting skill development in transition planning areas. While some students will participate in transition programs or transitional living programs as gap experiences, transition programs are typically a different category of program. At NESCA, we specialize in helping families determine whether transition programming is needed beyond 12th grade and support families to find – or create –
postsecondary transition programs. We also coordinate with local specialists – Gap Year Consultants, College Consultants, and Therapeutic Educational Consultants—when students may need special expert support in any of those areas.
REFERENCE: Several of the FAQs in this blog are copied directly from GYEM: Digital Dispatch materials created by the Gap Year Association of America and distributed to Gap Year Exploration Month Amplifiers throughout the world.
About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.
To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s transition specialists, please complete our online intake form.
NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham (coming soon), Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and the greater Burlington, Vermont region, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.