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Gap Year Advantage: My Gap Year Made College Even Better

by Will Nelligan

I said I was ready for college long before I could fully comprehend what college was. When I was eight years old, my parents and I relocated from Boston to Palo Alto. Upon seeing Stanford for the first time, I proclaimed I would rather go there than the local elementary school. The sentiment stuck, and I spent most of my primary and secondary school years trying to mimic the eventual post-secondary years: first a Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program at Mount Holyoke College, then classes at the University of Maine (where we moved after leaving California), and finally, a summer program at the University of Chicago.

My parents were accordingly a bit surprised when I proposed a gap year. They felt an anxious disbelief – Why doesn’t he want to go to college now? If he doesn’t go now, what if he never goes? Despite their concerns, I remained resolute. I wanted to take a gap year.

Taking A Year Off After High School: Best Decision Ever

In high school, I’d begun advocating for and organizing low-income young people and their families. I felt that the work deserved more of my time and commitment than an immediate departure to college would allow. On some level, I also believed that a yearlong immersion in this work would serve as a kind of gut check for me; a final test of my love for politics and public policy before I embarked on an all-occupying exploration of the liberal arts.

I can report back, without hesitation (and with agreement from my parents – I checked), that my instincts were right. My gap year was a clarifying experience that continues to inspire and inform much of the work I do today as a junior at Dickinson College. Contrary to some of the common criticisms of gap years (“It’s an extended vacation,” “You’ll fall out of the academic mindset”…), I entered college more energized, focused and committed than I would have a year earlier. I entered with a set of experiences that proved useful in and out of the classroom.

Gap Year Advantages In The Classroom

In American Government, I could talk about how a bill becomes a law because I’d played a part in that process. In U.S. Voting Rights, I could contribute to a discussion about the disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters because I had run voter registration drives in poor neighborhoods. On all-college committees – which include faculty, staff and students – I could apply skills I’d learned from working with the Maine Governor’s Children’ Cabinet or the Reinventing Maine Government Project. Put another way, I spent a year doing things I loved and learned to love them even more. I continue to see their utility multiply in unexpected ways.

I’m always frustrated when people say my gap year was an “unusual” one. I think that gap years should be highly unusual – they should stretch the outer boundaries of a young person’s passions and skills. Colleges should also do more to encourage and reward gap years. Dickinson established the Public Service Fellowship in 2010. It’s a gap program that allows applicants to defer their admission by up to four years to engage in public and community service. Public Service Fellows are given $10,000 toward their tuition per year of public service. I was among two inaugural recipients. So, my gap year not only affirmed my passion for public service, it helped to defray the costs of my years of learning still ahead.

Will Nelligan

Will Nelligan now a senior at Dickinson College. Follow him on Twitter at @williamnelligan