Life After High School: Learning Outside the Classroom (page 3)
For many high school students, being accepted by the 'right' college becomes a rite of passage. The preoccupation with the search is often just one more step following preceding years of striving -- to earn the best grades, to make the right team, to win the game, to get the best scholarship awards. The race starts early. Even preschoolers compete for the right kindergarten, and are deluged with "educational" toys, potentially enriching experiences and social opportunities. By high school the prize is to get into the "right college." The unspecified but implicit rewards include access to the right jobs, the right opportunities, the right friends. Well-meaning parents unknowingly feed into the pressure by providing their children with opportunities for self-fulfillment, scheduling instruction in sports, music, dance, academics. Many kids have little time to just hang out and pursue an individual interest in depth. By early adolescence, some teens show the effects of their hurried lives -- in eating disorders, drinking binges, substance use and other self-destructive behaviors.
The pressure on kids is compounded by the influence of social trends -- the high divorce rate, the mobility of families, the shifting economic picture, the rising costs of higher education, the alienation induced by advances in technology, the possibility of military service. A number of leaders in education, responding to requests for counseling services, are challenging the notion that the traditional educational progression -- preschool to elementary school to middle school to high school to college -- is the only route to success. Many college admissions personnel feel that postponing college entry for one year can offer a worthwhile break in the unrelenting academic pressure of the preceding 12 years.
What are the benefits of a year-off?
A year-off allows students to:
- reflect on what they think would be the college best suited to their needs and preferences
- clarify their interests; become aware of their strengths and weaknesses
- take advantage of learning that goes on outside the classroom
- apply skills in real life situations (i.e., tutoring students in an understaffed area or a foreign country, traveling, working on an environmental project)
- experience life in communities different from those in which they have been living
- explore choices and opportunities beyond the traditional classroom
- learn about a variety of careers before making a critical decision
- enter college with a reinvigorated sense of intellectual curiosity
- gain in maturity, initiative and resourcefulness, all of which make adjustment to college life smoother
What are the options?
College applications or entry can be postponed for one year. The year can be planned or unstructured. Some students may benefit from simply taking a year off to catch their breath -- staying home, taking part-time courses, reading and working.
Students looking for a challenging and different experience may choose from a number of programs (both for-profit and non-profit) which enable graduating high school seniors to take advantage of an interim year before college. Some programs offer the opportunity to work, travel, learn a new language, study in foreign countries, volunteer in a political campaign, work in disadvantaged areas, help children with special educational needs, or assist in health care facilities. Some programs are of short duration, such as a few weeks; others require longer commitments. Not everyone can afford to travel or take part in activities in other states or foreign countries. Some options are service in the military or other national service programs.
Following are accounts of the experiences of students with a wide range of interests:1
As a child, Alice loved working with her father on carpentry projects. Together they built shelves and bookcases -- even an elaborate tree house. Alice did well academically but wanted a breather before starting college. Taking time off to work on a community development construction project in Ghana gave her the confidence to pursue a career as an architect.
James loved animals and kids, and he chose to travel to the North Shore of Hawaii where he joined a sea turtle education project. James learned through experience about the native environment of these endangered creatures. As he traveled from school to school giving presentations on the plight of turtles, James interacted with the schools and students, better understanding the customs and traditions that make Hawaii unique. Educating the next generation of activists gave James a sense of accomplishment that he would carry with him into the upcoming school year.
Lila's priorities were the outdoors and helping others. She knew she wanted to spend her time off in both fields, but her financial resources were slim. She was delighted to find an experience that would allow her to work on projects in Oregon and Idaho, earn school credit for forest biology and even receive a small salary.
Jong Kim, eager to pursue his interests in music before entering a science-based college, spent most of his year off teaching violin to children in an overcrowded, understaffed school which had cut back on its music and arts program. This experience gave him a better understanding of options for integrating music into other aspects of his life.
The decision to take a year off can be worrisome for both students and parents. Students worry about breaking out of the mold, about not continuing with their classmates, about losing their study skills. Talking with guidance counselors, administrators and others who work in the field of education usually assures them that for many students the personal and educational benefits of the year off are considerable.
For parents the decision is a balancing act; they must weigh their child's individual characteristics, academic interests and values against the gains to be derived from explorations of other choices.
Worry: Their son or daughter will not go back to school.
Reality: Many students complete their year off having gained a more specific idea of what career path they want to pursue. Those students who participate in a planned program are more likely to continue in college than those who do not make plans. Some students may not in fact choose to go to college, which may be an appropriate decision.
Worry: The cost of the year off will decrease the money available for tuition.
Reality: The financial investment in the year off varies. Some programs require tuition, others may pay a stipend, thus adding to the money available for tuition. Living arrangements also vary. They are provided by some programs; in others the students pay.
Worry: Students will find it hard to go back to studying and following a curriculum.
Reality: Study skills are not lost in one year. In fact, lack of focus or burnout can be more problematic for students who don't take a year off. Many students who do take the time off enter college with an improved ability to focus and a renewed desire to learn.
Worry: This is just a way of avoiding 'real life.'
Reality: Many students find the time-off experience rewarding and enter their college studies with a more mature and self-directed appreciation of 'real life.'
Worry: Students abroad aren't safe. They could wind up in a prison in a third-world country or get hurt in an accident.
Reality: The vast majority of those who delay college to work or study in foreign countries come back safe and sound.
Ideally, parents and their children should research, explore and agree on the path to take, so that everyone feels excited and committed to the decision.
The value of taking time off to experience and gain from other ways of learning is highlighted in the remarks of Harvard's Dean of Admissions, "Most students would be better off if they were able to get some perspective on themselves, their lives, what they hope to accomplish. The testimony from people who have done this [taken a year off] is extraordinary. It permeates the entire way they think about using university." 2
References and Related Books
1. The vignettes of Alice, James and Lila were furnished by Gail Reardon, Taking Off, 12 Marlborough St., Boston, MA 02116
2. Quoted in the New York Times April 17, 2001
3. Sources For Further Information:
(Web sites when address not listed)
Center for Interim Programs
Cambridge, MA; Princeton, NJ
City Year – Boston
Gail Reardon, 12 Marlborough St., Boston, MA 02116
Time Out Associates, POBox 503, Milton, MA 02186
Interpoints Inc. Washington Depot, Conn.
Crossroads, Bedford, MA, (781) 280-3774
AboutOurKids Related Articles
About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at http://www.aboutourkids.org/.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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