Op-Ed: The benefits of taking a gap year

Kara McFadden is a senior majoring in economics and international affairs and an alumna of City Year, an Americorps program.

For the Class of 2014, graduation is so close, we can almost envision ourselves in caps and gowns on the National Mall. But for many of us, that date is becoming increasingly more bitter than sweet as it approaches.

For four years, we’ve burdened ourselves with handsome loans to finance our famously expensive undergraduate education, pulled all-nighters at Gelman Library and toiled countless hours interning on Capitol Hill. Now, the pressure is on to make that investment of money and time pay off.

And we’re not expected to take just any job, of course. This is GW after all. However, at some point we realize that despite all of the money we’ve spent, papers we’ve written, free labor we’ve supplied and networking connections we’ve made, not everyone is jumping to hire 22 year-olds with mere undergraduate degrees.

That’s why I implore more GW seniors to seriously consider the idea of a gap year with an organization like Americorps. The term gap year has a negative connotation because it makes us think of inserting a gap in our lives, delaying and possibly even derailing our future plans in the process. But this thinking is dated and backward.

Gap years don’t put gaps in our lives – they fill in the gaps left by our college education, making us more competitive in today’s cutthroat job market.

When was the last time that you devoted your undivided energy to service? Led a team of mentors in an under-resourced school? Managed a project gutting and rebuilding homes after a hurricane? These are the types of positions held by 75,000 Americorps members nationwide. They definitely don’t consider working 50 hours a week “taking a year off,” and neither should you.

During those long hours, Americorps members work with and lead diverse teams of people, manage hands-on projects and become intimately aware of problems like poverty that face the communities they serve.

Skills like leadership and teamwork are exactly what recruiters bemoan a lack of in today’s recruiting pool. And that makes sense: It’s tough to teach these skills in a classroom.

We feel the weight of expectation from every direction – parents, competitive friends, people boasting on social media, the list goes on – to have secured a job by the time we graduate. And of course, heading to graduate school is always an option. But few of us feel 100 percent certain of our career paths at this point, and being any less than completely sure isn’t quite reason enough to rush to take out more loans to finance another degree that we may not even end up using. That’s why a gap year is, for many students, the smartest choice.

As GW graduates, we have high ambitions for ourselves: Some of us would even say that we hope to change the world. Taking a gap year not only allows us to acquire the skills that we’ll need to change the world, but it also allows the world to change us.

Not only will it make us more effective leaders, it will allow us to lead with the perspective of those whom we spent a year serving, those who too often lack a voice in our nation’s policy-making. Class of 2014, let’s give a year to better ourselves and our nation.

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