By Brian Burnsed

Students claim gap years abroad have greatly influenced their lives

Jessica Margolis-Pineo had an acceptance letter in hand and was ready to attend Montreal's McGill University in the fall of 2003. However, while embarking on a backpacking trip in Europe after graduating from high school, she couldn't shake the feeling that she'd be missing out on something if she didn't spend more time overseas. She picked up the phone and called McGill, where school officials were willing to defer her admission until the next year.

Margolis-Pineo spent the next year working as an au pair in Ireland and England, caring for children during the week and traveling to countries like France and Spain on the weekends. "It was a wonderful experience," she says. "It also allowed me to enjoy my year to the fullest without worrying about the college application process from abroad, which would have been a nightmare."

Margolis-Pineo's story may have been unique several years ago, but now a growing number of students are taking a gap year between high school and college, according to gap year organizations. Often, they are using that time to travel abroad where they volunteer, study a new language, work -- or, usually, a little of each. But the true purpose of the break, gap year organizers say, is to allow high school graduates to learn more about what truly interests them and to discover themselves before they enter college, choose a major, and embark on a career path.

"It seems to me a really irresponsible thing to send kids off to school and invest a quarter million dollars in their education before they have a clue what they were doing," says Sam Bull, a longtime gap year counselor and executive director of LEAPNOW, a gap year abroad program. "They have no sense of who they are, and sitting in a classroom hasn't conferred that upon them. They simply want to know about themselves and the world before having to choose a major that will have something to do with their adult life."

And students involved indicate that's exactly what they've found. Kyle O'Brien, who took part in a LEAPNOW program in the 2007-08 academic year, visited Central America and Madagascar, scuba dived, and climbed a volcano -- but more importantly, he says, he learned more about himself and what drives him.

Students interested in taking a year to study abroad, but who don't know where to look, can take advantage of myriad international gap year programs offered by organizations like Thinking Beyond Borders and the Council on International Educational Exchange. USA Gap Year Fairs also presents dozens of gap year programs at 30 fair stops nationwide, letting students meet organizers face-to-face and find a program that best fits them.

"If you're looking to gain global perspective, add an international aspect to your education, gain self-knowledge, explore new cultures, become a responsible global citizen, and develop language abilities -- all before you start your college career -- then a gap year program is right for you," says Steve Amendo, strategic marketing manager for the Council on International Educational Exchange.

However, academic experts note that students who don't frequently read or work to learn a new language might suffer a bit of learning loss -- akin to what most students experience during the summer -- that can be a slight hindrance when they begin college. Some also warn that gap years, especially those taken abroad, can be prohibitively expensive. Without help from parents, the cost of travel alone can drain the funds that high schoolers have saved up for their trip, therefore requiring them to work to pay for living expenses -- which can be taxing when coupled with pro bono volunteer work.

Gap year programs that include some meals and accommodations aren't necessarily a cheaper alternative. A gap year to Australia or New Zealand through the group Real Gap Experience, for instance, costs nearly $7,000 up front before factoring in typical daily expenses.

Despite the costs, those who have taken part in gap years abroad before completing college and entering the workforce argue that their year overseas was a worthy investment in their lives and careers. Seraphina Lin, a senior account executive at a public affairs firm, insists she was shy before she put off her freshman year at the University of Colorado to spend a year in Taiwan, teaching English to elementary school students and immersing herself in the culture. Now, she's found success in a job where communication skills and confidence are integral to success.

"[The gap year] made all the difference to me as a young high school grad struggling with her identity. I gained the confidence to be outgoing," she says. "The confidence and [gregariousness] I gained during my gap year really helped [my career]."

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