Sydni Heron talks, April 29, at Ames (Iowa) Middle School, about time spent in Ecuador after graduating high school where she treated machete wounds and helped deliver a baby at a small-town clinic.
(Photo: Charlie Litchfield/The Des Moines Register)
By Jens Manuel Krogstad
Sydni Heron treated machete wounds and helped deliver a baby at a small-town clinic in Ecuador following her graduation from Ames High School in Iowa.
Now, she's headed to college to study nursing.
Heron, 19, took what in the U.S. remains an unconventional route to college by delaying enrollment one year to work and gain life experience, a concept known as a gap year
Living in a foreign land where she did not speak the language helped her develop a new-found confidence, she said.
"I'm better able to think for myself," Heron said. "I didn't even know there was another way to think and do things until I went to Ecuador."
As students are finalizing plans to enroll in college next fall, advocates of the gap year are touting the advantages of taking a year to focus on personal development.
No one tracks the number of students nationally who opt for a gap year, sometimes called a bridge year. Estimates of students who defer college for one year - for whatever reason - range from less than 2 percent to more than 10 percent, said Nina Hoe, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying the effect of gap years.
"This has the potential to be a very, very important part of our understanding of college readiness and success," Hoe said.
Contrast the American rates to those in Norway, Denmark and Turkey, where more than 50 percent of students take a year off before college, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education in Oslo, Norway.
Changing view of the bridge year
Two negative perceptions about gap years prevail in the United States: Taking a year off before college is only for affluent students, and doing so sets a student back because they step off the high school-to-college "conveyor belt," said Abby Falik, who in 2009 founded Global Citizen Year, nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif. that supports gap year choices. Heron was among the 80 percent of students in the Global Citizen Year program that receive financial aid. One-third receive full scholarships from the program, which seeks students with strong leadership potential.
Falik said colleges will be key to changing perceptions and behaviors about what she calls bridge years. About one-third of college freshmen don't return to the same institution for a second year, according to ACT Inc., an education testing company in Iowa City, Iowa.
The factors driving this are complex, but Falik said it suggests the U.S. education system pushes students into college without the necessary "focused sense of purpose, independence, self-confidence, grit and resilience."
Few colleges in the U.S. formally encourage students to take a year off for personal development, Falik said.
Princeton University has been among the early adopters. It offers full scholarships for a bridge year program that will serve up to 35 students this year. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, up to seven students receive $7,500 scholarships to pursue a gap year of their own design.
"We're looking for resourceful students who can think on their feet and are open-minded," said Jakelin Bonilla, UNC Global Gap Year Fellowship coordinator.
Sometimes its the parents who need convincing. Nancy Anderson felt her anxiety rise as she realized her daughter was serious about spending nine months in Senegal before college.
Anderson had reservations about her daughter veering from the direct path to college her two older sisters had taken. Not to mention that her parents feared for their youngest child's safety in Africa. But a visit four months into Erica Anderson's time in Senegal left her mother sold on the value of a gap year.
"Erica was our tour guide, interpreter, the money person, the haggler. It was such a role-reversal, and it was terribly impressive. You looked at this young woman and you thought, 'Oh my gosh, look at what she can do,'" Nancy Anderson said.
Time to figure out goals
Erica Anderson, now 19, felt she needed the time away from school. She had been a driven student with a 4.0 grade-point-average at Ames High School in Iowa.
"I had a wonderful high school experience, but underlying that was a lot of stress," she said.
Anderson deferred admission to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for one year because she said she wanted time to think, reasses and gain real-life experience.
She left high school with illusions of saving the world one person at a time in a far-away land. She returned with a renewed focus on making a difference in her home country, after she saw foreign aid groups struggle to make an impact in Senegal because of cultural barriers.
"Before, I was very interested in working internationally. I could envision myself in some nonprofit," Anderson said. "Now, I've re-oriented myself to do work in the U.S."
Krogstad also reports for The Des Moines Register