WASHINGTON - A decision by soon-to-be high school graduate and first daughter Malia Obama to delay college by a year has sparked a social media conversation about the so-called "gap year" experience, a practice common in other countries. The elder daughter of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama was recently accepted into Harvard University but will start her freshman year at her parents' alma mater in the fall of 2017.
Some social media users described the first daughter's decision as a smart one, with others saying the time off can be influenced by a family’s social and economic status.
Experts and students, who recently discussed the topic at HashtagVOA, said the break between high school and college can be a powerful part of the educational experience and does not have to be just for rich families.
“I think the campaign for gap years going forward will probably be to dispel the misconceptions about it,” said Danny Klain, student and AmeriCorps volunteer.
‘A different perspective’
Klain said that the year off can show people ways to serve their community and experience life from a different perspective.
“You don’t need to necessarily travel the world and spend tons of money to do something to educate yourself, to grow as a person,” he said.
Klain said he spent part of his gap year tutoring high school students in algebra in San Antonio, Texas. He then worked for the non-profit group Generation Progress, where he focused on higher education advocacy through its “No Debt Campaign.” Later this year, Klain will enter Claremont McKenna College in California.
Klain added that living by himself and the challenges of adulthood taught him to grow and mature “very rapidly.”
Klain said he learned how to “accept small victories because you will not always succeed," adding, "You have to take what you can and also grow from it because a lot of things aren’t going to go your way and that’s OK.”
Still gaining momentum in US
The gap year practice, however, has yet to gain momentum in the United States.
Joe O'Shea, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University (FSU), said there has not been a big push from major institutions and government to put forth funding to subsidize this type of educational opportunity.
“It’s true that gap years tend to be the domain or at least have been of the middle class and above. I do think that it is an important problem and something we need to work on,” he said.
He did, however, say the university just announced $50,000 to support the gap year experience.
FSU says on its website that it is "proud to be one of the few universities in the country (and the second public university) to offer financial assistance to students taking a gap year. Students applying for a gap year deferment will automatically be considered for a scholarship of up to $5,000 to support their gap year."
Organizations like Carpe Diem Education in Portland, Oregon, also offer financial aid such as scholarships and grants for its educational programs; but, students must be enrolled at an accredited institution to qualify.
Schools should handle alone, some say
Some advocates of the gap year say they do not believe government must be involved in funding such an experience, but agree that institutions around the nation can do their part to support this delayed enrollment process.
“I don’t know if we necessarily need government to step into this; but, I definitely think having university and Ivy League schools come out to the scene and essentially validate the gap year is definitely going to help in the coming years,” said Charlie Taibi, COO at San Francisco-based Uncollege.org.
Through Uncollege, students can apply for fellowships that are divided into three phases: one that sends them abroad and one that brings them back to San Francisco to help them learn soft skills like writing professional emails and networking. The third phase involves having them participate in an internship in order to achieve goals they set for themselves.
Taibi, however, said Uncollege is not another year of institutionalized learning. He said the programs are structured in ways to help people feel they are supported and able to direct their own learning.
Bridging a disconnect
Others take a more unconventional path toward the decision to pursue a gap year.
Rainesford Alexandra is a writer and student at The New School in New York City. Alexandra completed one semester of college, then took a year off before re-enrolling in classes. Alexandra said she experienced a disconnect between what she was learning in class and how it related to her life.
“During my gap year I got a lot of writing published. I published my first official article with The Huffington Post, which led to some incredible opportunities - working in communications for the nonprofit which I am now a director of media for. I gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk and co-founded a community yoga studio,” Alexandra said.
Her accomplishments, however, were not a perfect lineup of opportunities. Alexandra said she learned how to cope with rejection after pitching stories to different organizations.
“You do learn how to handle rejection in a way that in a traditional collegiate system, you simply don’t until after you graduated... Being able to cope with that and find a strategy is important,” she said.