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.