From age 5 to age 22, most men ride a non-stop conveyor belt of education. Until a man graduates from college or graduate school, he is expected to faithfully show up each fall with pencils and textbooks in hand. Have you ever taken a step back and wondered why? Why must schooling be a non-stop process until you are done? Who says?
Lads in places like Australia and the UK have rejected that theory for some time now. 10% of men and women in those countries allow themselves a gap year: a year off to explore the world and test themselves. The gap year is a tradition that is slowly growing in popularity in other places like North America. And with good reason, too.
30% of college freshman don’t return for their sophomore year and untold numbers of men don’t decide on their major until their junior or senior years (sometimes as a 5th or 6th year senior). They ride the conveyor belt on and on before it abruptly ends, leaving them with a liberal arts major major, no plan for the future, and without the confidence and skills needed to really begin living on their own.
I certainly could have ended up that way. My freshman year I piddled around, staying up late playing video games and hardly ever cracking open my books. I ended the year with a 2.8 grade point average and no feeling of being closer to maturity or knowing what I wanted out of life.
But I didn’t return for my sophomore year. Instead I found myself in Tijuana, Mexico, thousands of miles from home, speaking Spanish, and meeting people from every walk of life. When I came back to the States two years later, I was a different person. I had manned up in a huge way. I had a new work ethic, greater focus, and the confidence to forge a path for my future. I knew what I wanted out of life. I graduated college with a degree in liberal arts major, the best wife in the world, and a plan for my life.
What is a gap year?
A gap year is a period of time (and really it could be as short as a semester or as long as a couple of years) a person takes off between or during their education years. It’s most popular to take after high school graduation and before starting college. But it can be undertaken any time you’re in college, or after you graduate from college and before taking a job or going to graduate school. Gap years used to be the privilege of the rich; a man could wander around Europe while living off his trust fund. But for many service-type trips, all you really need is airfare to and from your destination. And many jobs will pay you enough that you can actually save some dough while you do them.
The choices of what to do during one’s gap year are limited only by your creativity and desires. You can travel, teach, intern, perform service, or some combination of each. People work on conservation projects in national parks, build wells in third world countries, do missionary work for their church, teach English in Asia, become sailors, and so on.
The important thing in choosing your experience is to seek an adventure that will help you grow as a man, an experience that will truly challenge you emotionally, physically, and intellectually. It’s essential that the experience push you far from your comfort zone. A gap year should not be about extending one’s adolescence; instead, it should serve as a rite of passage,  propelling you from boy to man.
An entire industry has sprouted up around the gap year experience; you can hire consultants and companies to find and provide the experience for you. Such businesses may be helpful to an extent, and there’s nothing wrong with finding a structured program with which to do your gap year. But make sure there’s not too much handholding involved. The whole point of the experience is to grow up-to strike out on your own, and be forced to survive by your own wits.
Why Take a Gap Year?
To Gain Greater Focus. It’s easy to waste a lot of time in college, getting caught up in the partying or paralyzed by indecision in choosing a major. And it’s hard to figure out what you want to do with your future. Don’t spend that time figuring it out on a $30,000 tuition bill. A gap year gives you an experience where you really get to know yourself and what you want out of life. You’ll learn how to be self-reliant. You’ll come back to college with a sense of what your goals are and how to achieve them. So not only can a gap year give you some needed direction, it’ll save you some money in the long run.
To Man Up. Even when you go off to school, mom and dad are often just a short drive or a phone call away. Whenever you have a dilemma, you can call them up and let them tell you how to figure it out. Really breaking away from your old life will force you to make decisions entirely on your own.
To Build Your Resume. Showing your potential employer that you spent a year building wells in Uganda will set your apart from those whose only work experience was waitering at Applebee’s.
To Learn a Foreign Language. A year is sufficient time to become fluent in many foreign languages. It’s a skill you’ll have for the rest of you life and one that employers find very attractive.
You’ll return to a (hopefully) stronger economy. If you’re graduating from college or graduate school right now, you know the job market stinks a big one. Why not duck out for a year, gain some valuable skills, and return with an expanded resume to a (hopefully) improved economy?
Gap Year Ideas
As I mentioned above, the options for your gap year experience are limitless. In my opinion, the best gap year combines doing something fun you’ve always wanted to do with the learning of a valuable skill. For example, if you’ve always wanted to live in New York City and think you might want to be an educator, become an Americorps volunteer in a school there. Or if you’ve always been fascinated by art and wanted to live in Paris, get an internship at the Louvre. Of course, there’s also value in simply doing something that you’ll probably never use again, something really out there, just for the hell of it and for an experience you’ll never forget. Here are some ideas to get you thinking about what you’d like to do:
Work on a fishing boat in Alaska.  Have you’ve been watching “Deadliest Catch” and think you might want to try to make a lot of money while risking a watery tomb? Well hold on there partner; it’s extremely difficult to get a job catching crab as an inexperienced greenhorn. Despite the dangers, plenty of men are willing to take the risk in order to make 6 months salary in a few days. So you’ll have to work your way up, getting experience fishing salmon and working more low key jobs before you’ll even be considered.
Work on a sailboat.  If working on a deck where icy waves crash overhead doesn’t have any appeal, but the ocean still calls to you, consider working on a sailboat in some capacity. You can find work on tour boats and educational boats and learn to be a real skipper.
Become a forest firefighter.  It’s something a lot of men have dreamed about doing. Living in the woods, dousing a raging wildfire, jumping out of a plane. The bad news is that it’s not as glamorous as your imagination. The good news is that you can get hired if you’re truly persistent.
Join the Peace Corps. There’s a lot of “me-time” when you’re a college student. After thinking about your needs, goals, and desires for four years, you might be itching to concentrate solely on other people’s for a few. You’ve lived for 22 years, why not give back 10% of those years to serving other people and trying to make a difference in the world? While we often think of living in a grass hut in Fiji or farming in Africa when we think of the Peace Corps, these days you’re just as likely to be teaching in a school or working to spread computer literacy.
Join Americorps.  If you world travel doesn’t interest you, and you’re not ready to make the two year commitment required by the Peace Corps, check out Americorps. Americorps is a federally-funded program like the Peace Corps, in which you sign up for a year of being a full-time volunteer. The number of Americorps opportunities are endless; you can work with the elderly, build trails, do disaster relief, tutor children, teach ESL and so on. “Americorps” is really an umbrella for thousands of different organizations you can sign up to volunteer with. Kate did a year of Americorps, and it was one of the best years of her life. She served with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers and highly recommends that program.
Become a Park Ranger. If you love nature and wish you could center your life on it for awhile, becoming a park ranger could be a great option for you. National and state parks have a variety of permanent, temporary, and seasonal positions to strike your fancy.
Work for Outward Bound.  If you love nature and you love adventure activities and you love young people, then working for a cool company like Outward Bound would be perfect for your gap year. You get to take adventurous wilderness trips and help change lives. Nice.
Teach English Abroad. Teaching English abroad is one of the most accessible ways to spend some serious and immersive time in a foreign land. There’s a big demand, it doesn’t require special skills, and you often get paid decently. But you’ll likely need to get some kind of certification in teaching English.
Become a Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marines have always been an outlet for young men looking for some adventure. To get a gig with the MM, you have to first contact the Coast Guard. You may also wish to take a free 24 week course offered by the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education at the Seafarers Harry Lundberg School of Seamanship which is an entry level training program for young people seeking careers in the US maritime industry.
Note: As you surf the web looking for gap year opportunities, beware of many scams out there that tell you they can land you a job or tell you the secrets of landing a job…for a price. You won’t be able to find most cool jobs by going through a website. A lot of times you just need to show up and be incredibly persistent.
Did you take a gap year? What did you do? Share your experiences with us in the comments section.