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Mind the Gap!: 11 Amazing Ways to Spend a Year Off Before College

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Updated on Sep 23, 2010

As a parent it’s natural to want the best for your child. And for many parents, college is more than the best choice; it’s the only choice. But a growing number of high school seniors are deciding to take a breather before heading to the dormitory. It’s called a “gap year” and it’s been standard procedure for students in England, Australia, and many of America’s elite prep schools for years.

As painful as it is to hear that your child doesn’t want to go to college quite yet, it may be less painful than it would be a year from now, $20,000 poorer and no closer to hanging his diploma in the den. Sending a kid who’s not ready to college, is like sending a kid who’s not feeling hungry to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Gap years give kids the opportunity to figure out what they want to do with their lives, but also what they don’t want to do. And they don’t need a trust fund to make it happen! Here are 11 great ways to spend a year off:

  • For Nature Lovers: For kids who love the outdoors, the Student Conservation Association might be just the ticket. Can you see your teen traveling through 7 states and 18 national parks as a member of the National Park Service’s Exotic Plant Management Team? Giving tours of Native American archeology sites along North Dakota’s Knife River? Working to monitor endangered birds with conservation experts in Hawaii’s Hakeakala National Park? Well, brush up their resume! Those were some of the jobs SCA had available when this article went to print. In addition to providing housing, health insurance, and travel expenses to and from the site, SCA interns get a living allowance of $160 per week, and an education award of $1,200-4,725 once their gig is up. But more than that, SCA gives teens a chance to explore a career in over 30 conservation related fields. (www.thesca.org)
  • Make It a City Year- A great program, tailored specifically for 17-24 year olds, this 10-month Do Good-er whirlwind drops volunteers into service teams of 6-12 members. They work in schools as tutors and mentors, helm youth leadership programs, and revitalize neighborhoods by painting murals, planting community gardens, and volunteering in other key endeavors. City Year has 17 locations in the U.S. to choose from, some more popular than others. And there are four times throughout the year to apply. So while their earlier deadline for Fall passed on April 15th, students can still apply for the May 31st deadline. The bad news? Only 1 out of 4 applicants makes the cut. The good news? Your kid will know in just 2-4 weeks whether she’s one of them. (www.cityyear.org)
  • Join the Corps- Searching for the perfect fit on Americorp’s website might feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it’s a seriously cool haystack. There are thousands of intriguing programs to choose from, and they all include a living allowance, healthcare, and $4,725 towards college once the gig is up. (Some programs also offer room and board.) Volunteers might work on a Native American reservation, council teens on alcohol and drug prevention, help Katrina victims, tutor kids through a literacy program, or build low-income housing with Habitat for Humanity. There’s no fee to apply, and depending on which program you pick, this can be a cheapy way to swing a gap year, in a field you care about. (www.americorps.org)
  • For Top Chef Fans: If your kid dreams of opening his own restaurant, becoming a chef to the stars, or hosting a show on the Food Network, it might be time to get his feet wet. A full culinary school degree is probably overkill, but some of the most prestigious schools in the country offer abbreviated versions. Our favorite? The French Culinary Institute in New York, where the pros teach most of the 250 essential skills used in their famous fulltime Culinary Arts course. From prepping stocks, to knocking out a killer array of sauces, this is a quickie version, with the same famous professors. But at $6,875 for the 110 hours of instruction, he’ll definitely need to work a job during his gap to pay for it.
  • Out of Africa: Sometimes a little wanderlust can lead to some major personal growth. And the good news is, your kid doesn’t need a trust fund to traverse the globe. All he needs is a little ingenuity and a willingness to work. InterExchange is his ticket to Ghana, where he’ll have a chance to work with preschool or primary school children. From distributing and collecting library books, to assisting with after school activities, to teaching kids in the classroom, this is a bird’s eye view into a peaceful and welcoming country. And the entire cost (which includes food, housing, and assistance) is $2,945 for the year. Students just need to get themselves there. (www.interexchange.org)
  • Good Day, Mate!: If Aussie life is more appealing than the African rainforest, consider contacting Alliances Abroad. The program fee is reasonable-- $2,200 for room, board, training, and in-country travel expenses-- plus there’s close to $900 per month in salary! The work is in rural hospitality, mostly in the Australian Outback. Participants need to pay their international airfare but the program includes a jetlag recovery weekend at Australia’s Rainbow beach, to make the time change a little easier… (www.alliancesabroad.com)
  • Get Professional Help: For decades, The Center for Interim Programs has been helping kids figure out how to milk a gap year for all it’s worth. The company charges a flat fee of $2,100, which is good for a lifetime, and they offer scholarships if a student has to pay for most of the year on his own. Because Interim has been doing it for so long, they’ve got a thick Rolodex of tempting contacts. A sample year on a low to moderate budget might include turtle conservation work in Greece (tent space provided), helping out at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in France, teaching English at a bilingual school in Costa Rica, and then finishing up by working at an outdoor education center in New Zealand. (www.interimprograms.com)
  • Farm it Out: Have a green thumb under your roof? There’s an amazing organization called WWOOF that allows the willing and able to make their way around the world hopping from farm to farm. Each country has its own organization, but the worldwide website serves as a sort of umbrella to put would-be volunteers in touch with the appropriate contact people. From picking grapes at an Italian vineyard, to volunteering on organic farms from Turkey to Taiwan, Brazil to Bulgaria, WWOOF is a great way to keep budgets lean during a gap year. There are no fees to participate and there’s no payment. But volunteers get room, board, and hands-on experience. (www.wwoof.org)
  • Join the Club: The Rotary Youth Exchange program has been functioning for 75 years in 80 countries, completely through the club’s network of volunteers. Highschoolers can apply directly through their local Rotary Club, and unlike many other travel programs with any sort of infrastructure, there are no fees for placement.  Here’s how it works: the applicant pays for airfare, health insurance, and visas, but the Rotary Club supplies room and board and $50-100 a month in spending money. Want more information? Let their fingers do the walking to: www.rotary.org
  • School Time: For those with a larger budget, Youth for Understanding has some wonderful programs, especially for teens that need a bit more handholding. Dubbed a “13th Year Abroad”, YFU’s gap years run the gamut—from learning Russian in Ukraine, to practicing yoga in India. Most of the 19 programs have some sort of academic component, which can be a great thing for students trying to show the admissions office at their dream school another semester’s worth of good grades.  Prices for the programs vary, but many hover around $7,000- $9,000 for the year, with room, board, all airfare, classes, and costs included. Programs may be eligible for college credit, and there’s a good pool to choose from, whether you’ve got a kid who’d like to study dance in Venezuela, or take intensive Spanish in Chile. (www.youthforunderstanding.com)
  • For Dabblers: Got a kid with no idea what she wants to do with her life? Consider the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a residential program for 18-24 year olds with campuses in Colorado, California, Maryland, and Iowa. Modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, NCCC is like college without the homework: participants live in dorm rooms, eat cafeteria grub, and interact with a group of ready-made friends all 24 and under. They move from project to project and from state to state—doing everything from helping the American Red Cross with hurricane relief efforts, to building low-income housing with Habitat for Humanity, to helping combat soil erosion with the U.S. Forest Service. They get trained in CPR and first aid, and a bird’s eye view of the environmental, education, and public safety non-profits that serve as partners. Many of them end up getting hired down the road by the nonprofits they serve, and everyone gets room, board, stipend, and a $4,725 education award. (www.americorps.org)
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