By MAUREEN DOWNEY
Given what I know now, I would stretch out my college years. I would take a gap year between high school and college to work in a service project or political campaign.
In the last few weeks, my daughter has gone scuba diving in France, climbed mountains in Austria and attended Carnivale in Venice.
She’s not on vacation. She’s on a study abroad program, one of more than 6,000 students in the University System of Georgia who will participate this year. Nationwide, about 250,000 college students will study outside the United States this year.
Myself, I didn’t take the scenic route through college. Quite the opposite. I sprinted through college, finishing in two and half years by piling on extra courses and summer classes. Then I worked two jobs for the next 12 months, wrote one whopping check and sent myself to grad school. A week after I earned my master’s, I began a job in New York City and I haven’t stopped working since.
Given that history, it’s no surprise that for a long time, I thought of overseas study programs as glorified junkets. As a 23-year-old, it was hard to imagine the working world of one-week vacations, two personal days a year and weekend rotations. Back then, I assumed that life would someday pause and allow me to throw on a backpack and traipse through the rain forests of Brazil or the markets of Hong Kong. I began to suspect I might have been wrong when I asked an editor at one of my first newspapers whether the company ever approved sabbaticals.
“Sure,” he replied. “It’s called getting fired.”
Later, marriage, mortgages and children made that pause button seem more and more remote, to the point that the only exotic market that I traipse through is the DeKalb Farmer’s Market.
Others in my generation share the concept of college as a four-year interlude between high school and work. In the General Assembly, lawmakers often complain about college students taking five or more years to complete degrees. They’re portrayed as slackers trying to prolong adolescence and forestall adulthood.
But given what I know now, I would stretch out my college years. I would take a gap year between high school and college to work in a service project or political campaign. It might be disconcerting to watch my peers go off to leafy college campuses while I was refurbishing playgrounds in the hot Miami sun or canvassing voters in the middle of an Iowa snowstorm, but it would be worth it.
Unfortunately, that wisdom was gained not from my own experience, but from my daughter’s. When she announced her intention to take a year off to work for a then-longshot named Barack Obama, I responded by telling her that it was a mistake and that her education would suffer. I didn’t think her candidate could win. She would have to spend all her savings, starting with travel costs to attend the inaugural session of Camp Obama in Chicago to train volunteers. She would sleep on floors, work 14-hour days and eat out of cans when she ate at all.
But she did it anyway, and most of what I feared came true. She did sleep on floors. The food was spotty. Her savings evaporated. But in the course of her volunteer work, she received a primer in national politics and her fellow Americans that schools can’t teach. She studied the primary system, the electoral college and effective campaigning.
It changed her life and her major — from business to political science.
Afterward, when I saw how much she had learned that year, I realized how much deeper and richer her study of politics would be because of that experience.
Others have also caught on to the benefits of postponing college for work or volunteering. In the United Kingdom, more than one in 10 high school seniors participate in a gap year before college.
In its admission letters, Harvard routinely suggests a gap year to accepted students. Princeton University is rolling out a pilot “bridge” year program in the fall with 20 students who will go off for a year and do public service in Ghana, Serbia, India and Peru.
We ought to stop treating gaps in education and resumes as liabilities and see them as opportunities to learn something about ourselves and the world.