How to Take a Gap Year Like Malia Obama — Without Being Rich

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Malia Obama has announced she will attend Havard University after taking a gap year.
Kesia Tosh, 21, never thought she'd "dillydally" before getting a higher education. Tosh, who is African-American and from a low-income Oregon family, said, "I always assumed I'd go straight from high school to college to a master's degree to a high-paying field."

But then in high school, she heard about the idea of the "gap year," the traditionally British or Australian practice of taking off a year between high school and university to travel, volunteer, apprentice, or all of the above.

A year later, in community college and planning to plow her way through higher education, Tosh heard about nonprofit Carpe Mundi. This Portland-based organization offers lots of financial aid to high school graduates to participate in programs around the world where they learn through cultural immersion and adventure.

"I applied on a whim," she said. "It took me a while to even think of it as a really good opportunity because of the stigma of being seen as just wanting to take a break and chill. Initially, my family was like, 'You're taking a break? Other people don't need breaks.'"

But Tosh ended up having a life-changing experience, working on a coastal turtle research farm in Costa Rica and on an organic permaculture farm on an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, climbing giant trees to harvest coconuts and jackfruit, and becoming fluent in Spanish. She was awed by the natural beauty around her and the complex relationship between people, animals, and the environment. Though she was originally looking to go into accounting, Tosh came back from the experience wanting to become an environmental engineer.

Stress, anxiety, and depression have never been worse among high school and college students, and I think Malia's decision can send the signal that a gap year is not just remedial, but aspirational.

Abby Falik, founder of Global Citizen Year
Now a junior at Portland State University, she told Refinery29, "I love going to my environmental science classes, and I want to do the extra credit. It's not hard to pay attention in class. Another friend on the trip fell in love with taking care of kids and now she's getting her nursing degree. It sounds silly, but it's amazing how your career goals click into place once you find that little bit of passion."

Tosh learned what many British, Australian, and European students have known for years now, and what a growing number of American students are discovering — that taking a year before college to engage in meaningful travel, work, or volunteerism can be life-changing. It helps recharge the mind and spirit between the increasingly cutthroat academic stints of high school and college. Plus, it can also help refocus young people from being grade- and achievement-obsessed, to having a broader view of how the world works, and finding a genuine calling within it.
Photo: Courtesy of Riyza Jose.
Riyza Jose in Sweden, where she took a gap year.
When first daughter Malia Obama recently announced she would take a "gap year" before starting Harvard in fall 2017, she threw the spotlight on this very continental practice. Though she is waiting at least in part because her family will be out of the White House glare by then (and she hasn't disclosed how she'll spend her gap year), she is taking part in a practice that is becoming increasingly common in the U.S., as millennials question the grueling American assembly line track from high school to college to career.

"The pressure on kids to get into a selective college has prevented them from having the opportunity to learn things for experimentation's sake, or to fail at anything, ever," said Abby Falik, who founded Global Citizen Year, which offers 80% of its participants partial or full scholarships to partake in educational work-travel programs around the world during a gap year (which Falik is aiming to rebrand a "bridge year").

"Stress, anxiety, and depression have never been worse among high school and college students," said Falik, "and I think Malia's decision can send the signal that a gap year is not just remedial, but aspirational."

There's still an idea that a gap year is for kids who are middle class and up, but that's changing with programs that are low-cost or free.

Joe O'Shea, American Gap Association
Indeed, for Grace Montgomery and Riyza Jose, high school best friends who are now both college students in Florida, a gap year was a chance to lift their heads up from their books after doing a rigorous high school honors program — and to finally see some of the world around them. Via Rotary Youth Exchanges, whose programs are affordable (around $5,000 compared to up to $30,000 for some programs), Montgomery spent her year living with a host family just outside Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she learned Portuguese and did volunteer work throughout the region, while Jose spent hers in Sweden, learning the language, taking music classes, and even playing the cello with a school band there.

Both said that the year set their sights on international careers after college; Montgomery wants to join the Peace Corps, then the foreign service, while Jose wants to do advocacy work with immigrants and refugees. They also both said that, while the experience has helped focus their college work, they also find college life perhaps a bit more boring than other students coming to campus straight from their hometowns.

And both say that the idea of a gap year took some convincing with their parents.

"My dad has never been abroad and asked why I'd want to leave the country," said Montgomery. "He also was worried that I wouldn't want to go to college after my gap year, but it actually had the opposite effect on me." Jose, too, said her parents were skeptical, but ultimately were willing to shell out the $5,000 for the program since she had already earned a full ride to college.
Photo: Courtesy of Grace Montgomery.
Grace Montgomery during her gap year in Brazil.
Gap-year advocates say they are trying to rebrand the experience as something accessible to everyone rather than just pricey programs for rich kids. There are lots of programs helping to foster this mission — programs that offer scholarships, are low- to no-fee, or that even offer stipends. Two examples are City Year, AmeriCorps' program that places high school grads in underserved urban schools nationwide as tutors and mentors, and Omprakash, a network of nonprofits that place students in volunteer positions in poor countries, worldwide.

"There's still an idea that a gap year is for kids who are middle class and up, but that's changing with programs that are low-cost or free," said Joe O'Shea, board president of American Gap Association and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs.

He said it's also possible to divide or blend a gap year between working a wage job to save for college and doing travel or volunteer work that provides meaningful learning and experience. But he notes research by the National Center for Education Statistics that shows delaying college without a goal beyond saving money may make one less likely to complete postsecondary education — or to earn as much later in life as those who do.

School was a way out of poverty...but I had this terrible feeling I was going to start achieving my dream with no reason of why I was going to school other than to gain security later.

Ananda Day, who spent a gap year in Senegal
He is an advocate for extending the federal Gilman Scholarship, which supports students' efforts to study internationally while in college, to support for the same during a gap year. And he stresses that, for students at all income levels, the long-term benefits of doing a gap year, not least for weathering the stressors of college, cannot be underestimated.

"There's a big mental health factor here, because gap years help build resiliency, tenacity, and grit," he said.

That's what Ananda Day, 25, who now works with product teams at Carbon, a cutting-edge Bay Area company that makes 3D printers for industrial use, attained when she took a gap year between high school and college in North Carolina.

"I grew up as the youngest of four in a single-parent household, raised by my dad," Day told Refinery29. "School was a way out of poverty. I was a total nerd, applying to college and working my ass off, but I had this terrible feeling I was going to start achieving my dream with no reason of why I was going to school other than to gain security later. I'd been working jobs all through high school, then doing six hours of homework a night, and I was exhausted."
Photo: Courtesy of Grace Montgomery.
Grace Montgomery and her Brazilian classmates.
So, before starting at the University of North Carolina, she got hooked up with Global Citizen Year and ended up in Senegal, on a full scholarship, mastering French and the native language, Wolof, learning about the history of colonialism and development, and shadowing a doctor on polio vaccinations.

"That sparked my interest in public health, development, small-business entrepreneurship," she said. "I got a visceral understanding of how random the world is and of the effort to get everyone on the planet to start from the same place. When I got to college, I had a driving factor."

At UNC, she ended up majoring in public policy, with a minor in entrepreneurship. And she said that her gap year in Senegal gave her perspective she wouldn't otherwise have had.

"Now," she said, "when I think, 'I have so much work,' I remember that a year ago I was in a small village in Senegal, speaking neither language well and having to learn from scratch simply how to express myself. I feel like I took a year to invest in myself so that I could make the most of college."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ananda Day was currently studying public policy and entrepreneurship. She graduated in 2014.