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The Allure of the Gap Year Abroad

Why volunteering, working, and traveling abroad or at home has been an increasingly popular historical alternative to an immediate move from high school to college. The gap experience is now one more accepted way of experiential learning for North American students. In fact, during the global pandemic, more young people opted for a gap year before entering a college or a university.

A student standing on a rocky ledge gazing down from the top of a mountain during a gap year.
A gap year is an alternative before or during college that many students enjoy and prestigious colleges encourage.

Once utterly unknown in North America, the concept and even the term "gap year" is gathering momentum, with the benefits of the gap year becoming clear, accepted, and well-documented. As an illustration, Malia Obama took a gap year before entering Harvard, which "encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way" as part of its admissions advice. Princeton University has introduced a prestigious Bridge Year Program for a select group of students to spend a year volunteering in locations such as Bolivia, China, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, and Senegal before starting university. The objective is “to provide participants with an international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context”. In addition to a much-needed release from academic pressure, these benefits are becoming accessible to far more than only Princeton and Harvard students.

Increasingly, college admissions officers acknowledge the benefits for some students (not all) who need time to mature, gain confidence and clarify their direction. Most academic institutions allow deferral. For example, the stated policy at Johns Hopkins University is typical: “Students who have been accepted to the university may defer admission for up to two years with approval from the director of undergraduate admissions. The purpose of a deferral is to allow students to take time off in order to travel, work, or experience another culture. Deferrals are not granted for the purpose of studying at another institution.”

Canada has seen an upsurge of interest in taking a year off before university. SWAP offers work abroad programs, where you can learn about their work and volunteer abroad programs in Canada, Costa Rica, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Japan, South Africa, and the U.S.

Why Take a Gap Year Abroad?

Young people approaching the end of school (or university) are uniquely privileged to be able to contemplate taking 6 weeks, three, six, or 12 months off before going on to the next phase of their lives. Some parents and other onlookers may still resist "interrupting" an education or a career to take a year out. But those doubting Thomases are beginning to look outdated in an age that attaches great value to flexible learning and a healthy work-life balance.

Students with an eye for marketability may want to consider options to enhance their university applications or resumes later in life. For example, Au pairing in Berlin or Madrid is an obvious choice for linguists. Joining a dig at a medieval abbey in France or a Greek temple in Greece is a good introduction if planning to study history or archaeology, and working with a solidarity NGO in Latin America is ideal for students interested in international relations. Students wishing to pursue environmental courses can choose from a vast array of conservation projects that welcome volunteers, primarily for short periods, for example, to protect nesting turtles in Greece, carry out surveys of reef damage, or construct nature trails in Scotland. At a very rough estimate, expect to pay about $200 a week plus travel expenses for the chance to get some hands-on conservation experience.

Programs cover an astonishing range of opportunities. For example, one organization accepts aspiring journalists on a scheme in La Paz to write for the English-language newspaper Bolivian Express. At the same time, exotic destinations such as the Maldives offer possibilities for enthusiastic young people to help in schools.

Most good gap years comprise a medley of activities that complement one another: work and play, earning and spending, challenge and self-indulgence, worthiness and fun. An increase in the number of programs and schemes providing structured gap years has accompanied the rise in market interest, particularly in the U.K.

The Many Gap Year Options

The range of choices can be overwhelming — monitoring lemurs in Madagascar, teaching English to Burmese refugees, picking fruit in New Zealand to fund some adventure travel, surveying coral reefs in the Philippines, being a counselor at an English-language summer camp in France, learning Spanish in Guatemala, and so on. Most young people find that as they daydream in front of their computer or cappuccino, one or two ideas swilling around will eventually float to the top. Some placements are straightforward to arrange and require nothing more than phoning a partner agency, filling out some forms, and paying a fee. Ay, there's the rub. Pre-arranged placements are seldom self-financing, with companies and charities charging upfront payments of thousands of dollars for a 3-month attachment to a village school in Ghana.

Relying on footwork and local inquiries can be a different means to the same end and much cheaper than using the services of a mediating agency. The trouble is that only a few 18-19-year-olds have the confidence and maturity to arrive cold (or very hot) in Sri Lanka, Kenya, or Mexico and locate a school or other project willing to provide housing in exchange for their help. Nor are their parents willing to let them try.

Directories for Gap Years Programs

One good starting place to research organized programs is the page on Gap Year Programs, which has links to dozens of gap year providers.

A handful of specialist companies in North America maintain databases of gap year semester and volunteer programs. Consultancies and agencies like the Center for Interim Programs offer personalized consultations to fee-paying clients seeking to be matched to a suitable work, volunteer or study placement abroad.

Of course many Americans taking a gap year do not leave the shores of their country. Some who may be undecided about the next step may join the national service program AmeriCorps, which has been described as a domestic Peace Corps.In exchange for 1,700 hours of community service over 10-12 months, AmeriCorps volunteers aged 17–26 receive an education voucher, living allowance, and invaluable life experience.

Practical Tips For Your Gap Year or Semester
  • Plan early

  • Look at the advice concerning personal safety from the Department of State, which publishes country-by-country travel warnings and alerts at, highlighting any potential dangers to American travelers, such as coups, terrorist activity, natural disasters, epidemics, etc.

  • Be aware of the country's laws, customs, and dress code. Online and conventional guidebooks should provide all this information.

  • Online banking is a great way to manage your finances while away. However, the few remaining internet cafés are slow, and access may not always be accessible, so don't leave essential transactions until the last minute. Of course, international plans for your smartphone allow you to make necessary transactions.

  • Calculate how much money you need for your trip and ensure you have some extra. Find out if you can use a credit or debit card to withdraw emergency funds at your destination, and consider what you would do if your card is lost or damaged. Try to always backup information with a physical copy and on a secure Cloud platform, where possible.

  • Research health requirements online and visit your doctor for advice on vaccinations and malaria prevention if relevant.

  • Contact the relevant embassy or consulate of your chosen country for visa information. Be aware that you can only obtain a visa that authorizes work with the full support of an employer abroad, which is very difficult to obtain. For tourist visa requirements, search on the site of a commercial visa agency.

  • Shop around for travel insurance and ensure coverage for everything you intend to do, such as scuba diving or bungee jumping.

  • Ensure your family or friends at home know your travel itinerary.

  • If you are participating through an organization, ask for the contact details of a couple of recent volunteers to request first-hand feedback.

  • Consider getting a cheap local mobile phone on arrival or a local SIM card for your cell phone, or use the international service of your home carrier if the costs are reasonable.

  • Send scanned images of important documents (passport, insurance info, plane tickets) to your email account for ready access, or store them on encrypted flash drives or a secure Cloud service, such as Google Drive.

  • Most importantly, have a ball. Pay attention to your instincts and aim to perfect the balance between traveling safely and enjoying yourself. If you are overcautious, you might miss out on something amazing, but you also want to avoid unnecessary risks.

Gap Year Programs and Organizations

Of the thousands of organizations, large and small, throughout North America involved with student exchanges and assisting young people to undertake worthwhile volunteer projects or internships abroad, here is a small but reputable selection.

Abroader View Volunteers. The nonprofit charity offers 345 affordable Gap Year volunteer projects in 32 countries.

ARCC Gap Years and Semesters. ARCC Gap Year programs offer an educational and cultural bridge between high school and college. Students gain cultural immersion through homestays, service work, teaching, and exchange. The program offers semesters in Europe, East Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, and the Pacific Islands. Most programs are for 70 days in Spring and Fall.

BUNAC. Administers programs for U.S. students and young people, including an Internship in Britain, Work and Travel in Canada, Work and Travel in Australia, and Work and Travel in New Zealand.

CIEE: Gap Year Abroad. Gap Year Abroad. Offers college-bound high school graduates an opportunity to acquire a broader global perspective, foster independence, and gain self-knowledge in six countries. Programs in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Africa accelerate language growth through classes and immersion into a foreign community, the opportunity to live with a host family, and experience abroad participating in organized volunteer work in the local community.

Global Routes Gap (via Carpe Diem Education). Offers college-bound high school graduates an opportunity to acquire a broader global perspective, foster independence, and gain self-knowledge in six countries. Programs in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Africa accelerate language growth through classes and immersion into a foreign community, the opportunity to live with a host family, and experience abroad participating in organized volunteer work in the local community.

Global Visions International: Gap Year. Offers expeditions, volunteer projects, and internships in countries worldwide for pre-college teens, college students, and graduates.

InterExchange: Working Abroad. Working Abroad. A nonprofit organization with more than 50 years of cultural exchange experience, it offers work and volunteer programs for U.S. citizens in various countries around the world, including Work & Travel, Language Exchange, and Group Travel. Programs exist in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru, and the U.K.

Projects Abroad Gap Year Programs. Volunteering and internships overseas for those who have completed high school (or in many cases need only be over 16) in an extensive range of countries with work experience in internship placements in medicine, media, and other fields.

SWAP (Student Working Holidays). A Canadian organization that makes possible the coordination of working holiday programs for Canadian students and non-students in Canada, Costa Rica, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Japan, South Africa, and the U.S.

United Planet: Gap Year Volunteering Programs, In Person and Virtual. Gap Year Volunteering Programs, In Person and Virtual. Gap programs in 25+ countries. United Planet also provides various programs, even in more than one country, for a virtual experience of another culture.

Where There Be Dragons. Gap-year semester programs often involve volunteering, Language Learning, apprenticeships, and local homestays (3 months starting February or September) in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (aimed at 17–22-year-olds). Optional college credits are available.

Susan Griffith writes books for travelers exploring ways to work and volunteer abroad. She has written many acknowledged classics, including Your Gap Year and Work Your Way Around the World, Teaching English Abroad, and Gap Years for Grown-ups, all revised and published in many fresh editions over the years and recognized as classics.

Editor's note: Please see Susan's bio page to learn more about her and conveniently order any of her books, including Your Gap Year.

Related Topics
Teen Study and Volunteering Abroad
Gap Year Programs Abroad

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