Taking a Gap Year

A 19-year-old’s Remarkable Journey

Katharine Gardner Hankus | Photos courtesy of Alexandra Zehner Sep 12, 2019

On a Wednesday afternoon at the end of May, as her friends are finishing their first year of college, Allie Zehner sips tea with her mom and recalls the highlights of the past year with gratitude and enthusiasm.

A year ago, Zehner was on the same path as her peers, taking Advanced Placement tests and finishing her last semester of high school. But unlike the vast majority of her classmates, Zehner got a deferral from college and boldly deviated from the only path she has ever known — school — to take a gap year. As it turns out, the decision to take an unknown path was the only hard part.

“At the beginning, I was scared of what people might think of my decision because the incredible benefits of gap years are very rarely discussed in America,” Zehner says.

Reflecting back, is she happy she chose the road less traveled? Absolutely.

Is there anything she regretted about taking a year off between high school and college? Absolutely not.

mother and daughter pose for photo
Allie attends the Women Working for the World conference in Bogotá, Colombia, with her mother, Jacki Zehner.
man and woman sitting on rocks
Allie visits the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland with her father.
three women
Allie meets two young women in a Juanfe Foundation program in Cartagena, Colombia.

Keys to a Transformative Gap Year

According to Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit dedicated to reinventing the gap year, “The year between high school and college is the most critical developmental moment in a young person’s life. Recognized by societies and religions alike, this transition — when done by design and not by default — can become a transformation.”

A growing number of organizations offer programs designed to optimize personal growth through travel, service, foreign language development and a delicate balance of autonomy to mentoring. As part of their commitment to make the experience accessible to everyone regardless of income, 80% of Global Citizen Year Fellows receive scholarships.

There are a multitude of other ways to ensure a budget-friendly gap year, including volunteering with a service organization like AmeriCorps. Working, of course, is the antithesis to an expensive gap year and there are even a handful of countries that provide work visas if you want to both work and travel.

Colleges and universities are also seeing gap years as a possible solution to dropout rates that, shockingly, can reach 30%. Some universities, like Princeton, have their own programs where students travel abroad and volunteer. More commonly, universities like Harvard and Barnard College of Columbia University (where Zehner will be attending this fall) offer deferrals. 

Unexpected Benefits

Zehner gained everything she expected from her gap year — and a lot more.

She says it was a much-needed break from the pressure of school. As co-valedictorian of Rowland Hall High School in Utah, all-state volleyball player, a club president and a debate team member who routinely slept just six hours a night, she needed a break. But that “break” also included working, volunteering with a nonprofit and writing a book.

One of the most impactful experiences of Zehner’s gap year was a trip to Colombia where she attended a women’s conference, practiced her Spanish and visited the slums of Cartagena with a nongovernmental organization.

Gap years are known for expanding comfort zones, building confidence, reigniting academic curiosity and clarifying subjects of interest for college. But there were unexpected benefits too.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with family this year,” Zehner adds. She accompanied her mom and dad on work trips to New York City, Seattle and Colombia.

Zehner’s mom, Jacki, says, “She also spent time with her grandparents that she wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of her gap year was realizing that deviating from the norm can be a good thing. Or in Zehner’s case, an incredible thing.

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