Meghana Aghi: Gap years can better prepare students for college

Going to college may not have been the right decision for me – at least this year.

GW was not my first choice. The spring of my senior year in high school was marked by rejection after rejection from some of the most selective universities in the country. I was devastated, and I began to doubt myself as a student. As someone who spent all four years of high school eagerly counting down the days until graduation, I suddenly felt unmotivated to head off to college: I was terrified to attend GW – a school I didn’t love.

I had spent my whole life assuming I would go on to college right after high school. It was scary to admit, but by the time I graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted anymore. Instead of jumping into all-nighters and frequent assignments, I wanted to take a year to learn who I was before leaping into college.

Taking a gap year would have allowed me to experience the world through traveling and would have given me the chance to learn more about different cultures. Those experiences would have better prepared me for college.

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t see it my way. They believed that a gap year would mean sitting at home and sulking over my college rejections, while my drive for pursuing a degree would slowly fade. But what they didn’t realize was that gap years have value that students can’t get from a university.

Had my parents considered my gap year plans, maybe I could have come back from a year of self-exploration ready to fall in love with GW. And maybe after a year of figuring out what I wanted from college – and what I wanted to major in – I wouldn’t have had such a tough freshman year. Maybe I wouldn’t be considering transferring, like I am now.

As members of the Class of 2020 prepare for their final months of high school, some students may find that they don’t actually want to end up at GW in the fall. Maybe they aren’t ready for college, or maybe they want to discover more of the world before burying their heads in textbooks for four years.

The biggest challenge they may face may not be deciding what they want to do with their year off, but instead, trying to convince their parents that a gap year can be productive – and even necessary. I hope that more students sit down with their parents to talk about why they want to take a gap year, and explain what they hope to accomplish.

If I had taken a gap year, I could have I traveled to places like South America, where I could have learned more Spanish than I am able to in a classroom in D.C. I could have worked at a tea stall in Nepal to learn about small businesses, rather than reading my economics textbook.

My transition into college was difficult for a lot of reasons. I wanted to explore so many different student organizations so I could pursue all of my interests. But, I often felt like I just spent my first semester going from activity to activity, wasting time trying to figure out what I wanted, rather than enjoying getting involved. Had I taken that gap year, I would have had more time to figure out what I care about. Then when I went off to college, I would have been able to spend time getting involved in one or two organizations that I knew I’d be passionate about.

Some people think you need a lot of money to take a gap year. And for many who want to experience a gap year, finances can get in the way. But there are ways to make gap years and experiences affordable, like through the Global Citizen Year Program, which helps low-income students finance travel. And some schools, like Princeton and Tufts universities and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, help pay for a student’s decision to spend their first year abroad in “bridge year” programs.

Students who take gap years see their maturity and confidence increase and are more likely to graduate in four years, according to a 2011 study at Middlebury College. The report also notes that gap years allow for students to discover what truly interests them, which makes the transition into college more smooth.

Gap year experiences can also help students after they graduate college. Added experiences outside of the classroom can boost students’ resumes and help them understand different perspectives. And unlike what my parents thought, students who take gap years also perform better in the classroom when they go to college.

As my freshman year comes to a harsh end, I see members of the Class of 2020 who have the chance to make my dreams of a gap year a reality for themselves. If you are lucky enough to take a year off, seize the moment and run away to a year of endless possibilities. You’ll get more out of that year than one year in a library could ever give you.

Meghana Aghi, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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