A Student Guide to the Gap or Bridge Year Experience

Why taking the road less traveled by can make all the difference.

Today, more and more students are making the decision to step off the formal education treadmill for a semester or a year. Some choose to do it between high school and college, others during their post-secondary years or directly after finally taking home that coveted diploma.

But far from taking time off, those students taking a “gap” or “bridge” year are spending their time on a whole host of constructive activities. And as they do so, there is a growing consensus that taking a “gap” or “bridge” year may well be the best step to ensuring that a student successfully transitions from high school to college or the world of work.

Below we discuss the rationale, benefits, and funding for the gap experience. We also present Q & A’s with six young men and women who decided to take the road less traveled. The stories of these six “gappers” reveal why that road can in fact make all the difference.

The Gap/Bridge Experience

  • What Is a Bridge/Gap Year?
  • The Benefits of the Experience
  • Paying for the Experience
  • Our Gap Year Recommendation
  • Six “Gappers” Share their Stories

  • Chris Scanzoni: Helping Elect the First African-American President
  • Gaya Morris: A Much-Needed Break from Academics
  • Conor Farese: Working, Community Service, and a Life-Changing Moment in Africa
  • Stacy Tasman: An Unstructured and Unscripted Bridge Experience
  • Aaron Flaster: Seamanship, Teaching and Service to Others
  • Hilary Brown: Serving in a Rural Health Center

    What Is a Bridge/Gap Year?

    The terms “gap” or “bridge” are generally the two words tossed around when talking about taking a year away from formal schooling. The words are particularly relevant so as to differentiate from those students who continue down the preordained path but make the choice to study abroad so as to experience living in a foreign country.

    Some prefer to use the term “gap” when talking about a “time out” either while in college or upon graduation and a preference for the term “bridge” when referring to the concept of taking time between high school and college. However, in America, the terms have essentially become interchangeable.

    The concept of taking “time out” began in Europe and Australia and was not initially seen in a positive light by everyone. For a lot of European students the time off became more of a vacation period, a time when responsibilities were set aside for the opportunity to “play.” The result was the term “gappers” being used to refer to the trendy European practice of vacationing at some of the world’s hottest partying spots. Such a concept did not sit well with the majority of American parents who saw the practice as potentially leading students down a path of foregoing college completely.

    Over time, however, the gap or bridge experience has taken on a very different form, especially here in America. While students can have fun during their experience, the gap or bridge year concept includes specific activities that seek to help students increase their sense of self and further their intellectual capacity.

    Therefore, rather than being a “year off” it is instead a “year on.” It is just that year does not involve traditional formal schooling. The result is that the gap experiences, both formally and informally constructed, help students grow as people.

    Because of this purposeful format, the “time out” period has come to be seen as a very productive step on the college path rather than serving as a retreat from it (“Want to Get Into Harvard – Take a Year Off” – CBS MoneyWatch, “Advice for the College-bound: Wait” – Washington Post, “A Cure for College-Bound Blues” – New York Times).

    The Benefits of the Experience

    While some still want to criticize the gap or bridge experience as some cushy time off, nothing could be further from the truth for those organizing a meaningful experience. The simple act of traveling abroad is mentally demanding – fending for one’s basic needs in a country where you are not fluent in the language or familiar with the culture will challenge you in ways you could not imagine.

    In addition, as we learned from our student Q & A’s, even within organized experiences, you could find your sailing program battling extreme weather conditions or your party held up at gunpoint. Therefore, gap/bridge experiences are not for the faint of heart or those looking for the easy road.

    But that is precisely why the concept is so powerful. Upon completion of your year, the idea of heading off to college will seem routine and those concerns about who you will be assigned as a roommate ridiculously unimportant.

    Generally it is easy to defer a year of college though if you want your school to hold your place for you when you return you will be required to submit a formal request. In particular, you will want to research how that deferral will affect your college financial aid package moving forward.

    But those who choose to take a year between high school and college not only find the college transition much easier to make, they invariably find themselves more focused on what it is they want from their college experience as well. Participants of a gap or bridge discover their inner passions during their experiences and thus find themselves energized upon their return home.

    And when the time comes to head off to college, they do so with a clearer picture of what it is they want to study and with a greater sense as to the career they want to pursue.

    Paying for the Experience

    One of the concerns of families and students is the cost associated with taking a bridge or gap year. Four years of college are expensive enough and adding another year of potential expenses may well seem prohibitive.

    First and foremost, it must be understood that a gap or bridge experience is not by its nature costly. Yes, there are some truly great programs that will provide incredible growth experiences that can cost as much per month as college. But other options do exist that can provide students with a meaningful bridge experience.

    As part of his bridge year, Conor Farese spent time in Florida and rural Georgia with relatives where he worked and experienced the chance to live away from home while working on some interesting projects. Doing so allowed him to earn money to pay for additional organized experiences. One can even work for a full semester and experience other cultures while still in America as Chris Scanzoni did while working on the Obama campaign.

    In addition, the growing emphasis on the gap/bridge year experience also means that there are a growing number of programs available with funding support for those students where finances might make a trip prohibitive. One organized program, Global Citizen Year does not apply a flat program fee to all applicants. Similar to how colleges allot financial aid, GCY works with each family to determine an appropriate contribution and in the case of demonstrated need will even provide some full scholarships for 2011-12.

    Thinking Beyond Borders, Leap Now and Carpe Diem are but a few of the selective programs that operate in a similar manner. At the University of North Carolina, the school offers a fellowship for students interested in pursuing gap years while Princeton has begun a tuition-free year of enrichment focusing on public service abroad for as many as 20 freshmen. These all point to the growing interest and give rise to the belief that additional programs with funding support will be available in the future.

    Our Gap Year Recommendation

    The gap/bridge year concept comes in many forms with varying costs. The sheer volume of options can make gap year choices as daunting to select from as the entire college application process.

    But with only one in three full time students graduating within the requisite four-year college time frame, it is clear that many students would benefit greatly from having additional time to mature and the opportunity to experience an increased sense of focus. For that reason, we think every student should give careful consideration to taking a bridge or gap year.

    When it comes to choosing a specific program, every student has different needs and wants. Some students will require structure while others would be better served by flexibility.

    At GoCollege, we are fans of a combo gap year where one does not necessarily pick a single focus. Splitting the gap year into two, three or even four blocks of varied lengths can provide for various types of experiences and keep things fresh. In particular, the combo year provides the flexibility to work for a period of time and earn some funds to help pay the costs of your year.

    Selecting such an option does demand extensive planning on your part- if that is not your strength then by all means pick a structured program or two for your experience.

    To help provide you with some ideas as you make that all-important decision, we provide six Q & A’s with students who have been significantly impacted by their gap or bridge year experience.

    Chris Scanzoni – Helping Elect the First African-American President

    Political aspirations change in spite of successful involvement in historic presidential campaign.

    Though Chris Scanzoni was born and spent a significant amount of his childhood in Massachusetts, he considers the North Carolina mountains his home. In high school, the activist with a passion for politics was voted ‘most likely to become president’ by his peers.

    When it came time to attend college, Chris considered Columbia, California Berkeley, Stanford, Northwestern, Yale, and the University of North Carolina. UNC and its service-oriented student body ultimately won out.

    A self-proclaimed traditionalist, Chris insists that his decision to take a gap year was a completely unexpected occurrence. But like many other students his age, he was moved by the Obama campaign’s push to empower young people in the political process.

    However, despite being a cog in the groundbreaking election, Chris now notes that he no longer aspires to a career in politics. Today, he is majoring in Public Policy Analysis, Statistics and History.

    What was the impetus for your choosing a bridge/gap year?

    My path to the gap year was rather unconventional and spontaneous. After high school, I accepted an internship with the Obama Campaign in Cleveland, Ohio. The six-week program was explicit – job offers would not be extended to internships at the end of the experience.

    Nevertheless, after six weeks, I was offered a position to continue on the campaign as a paid field organizer, responsible for fifteen-thousand votes on election day. This decision was not easy, as I had missed the deferral deadline at UNC, was communicating with my roommate, and had concreted my course schedule.

    Moreover, my parents were wary of the gap year, fearing I would not return to school. My internal struggle derived from a fear of the unknown and failure. In the end, my passion for the candidate and the nation triumphed, and dictated my ultimate course: I would accept the job offer, and defer matriculation at UNC for one year.

    Why did you specifically choose to work on the Obama campaign?

    From his candidacy announcement in February 2007, I worked endlessly to elect him. Throughout the primaries (and while juggling academics), I held a brief internship in South Carolina and worked nationally to organize for many of the February 5th states. The Campaign genuinely sought to empower youth, to organize their communities and inspire hope. The internship offer in Ohio was made by a former South Carolina primary staffer, with whom I had worked and proved myself.

    While I admit that President Obama has been everything but perfect, I do not regret the work I did. The alternative was terrible; more importantly, through the experience, I gained an invaluable sense of independence, responsibility, self-confidence.

    What were some of the activities/tasks you were involved with during your year?

    From June through November, I worked in Cleveland, Ohio with the Barack Obama Campaign as a field organizer. This position required long hours of building community relationships, establishing a volunteer base, and prepping communities for early vote and election day.

    From February through June, I traveled to Peru to work with the organization Intiwawa (“Children of the Sun” in Quechua). The mission of the German organization was to work primarily with Peruvian children. In all of the localities with which the organization was involved, we confronted grave levels of malnutrition, lack of education, alcoholism, domestic violence, unclean water, and lack of health services. I was charged with the operations in Coporaque and nearby villages, in the beautiful and rural Colca Canyon region. This predominately Quechua-speaking population faced all of the aforementioned challenges, compounded by the isolation of the countryside.

    For more than five months, I lived with the rural life. While most of my days were spent organizing primary school curricula and child nutrition education campaigns, it was not beyond me to work alongside the agriculturists native to this region. For future ‘gappers’, I absolutely recommend seeking experiences outside of the major metropolises.

    What would you say was the high point of your experience? What made it so significant?

    Undoubtedly election night. We had been told throughout the Ohio experience that “if Ohio went blue, the nation would turn blue.” Thus, when Ohio – the Bellwether State – was announced for Obama, and that Cleveland had record turnout, I physically collapsed. Unable to comprehend my surroundings, the tears rolled down my face. Though this was mostly a function of unprecedented fatigue, I had also proven myself that persistence in the face of adversity reaped favorable consequences. This was the best lesson I ever learned.

    Was there a low point?

    I left the comfort of my hometown for an alien metropolis, where I had few social supports and was expected to perform perfectly. I often felt alone. Furthermore, I am prone to debilitating stress under situations of intense pressure. Waking up every day, knowing that I would have to confront the stubborn volunteers and meet and/or exceed the daunting daily goals set by the Campaign was difficult. I would call my mother, upset, pleading for her to permit my return home. While I did not genuinely desire to abandon my efforts in Ohio, it is an important lesson about moving away for the first time, and why the gap year can be so formative.

    Can you talk about the costs of your year and how you funded it?

    My costs in Ohio were fully paid. I used the spoils of the Obama experience to travel to South America.

    How did your gap experience change/impact you?

    Most importantly, I am now a confident and focused individual. In many of my peers, I observe a lack of confidence – in their abilities, interests, and futures. Thus, a notice of rejection to the prized internship or a bad grade on a calculus exam can be devastating to them. For me, I recognize that I connected an entire community to each other and helped to win an historic election – there is no rejection letter that can take this away from me, and I am fully aware of my capabilities.

    On a more superficial level, working in the grind of politics was repulsing to me. Before the gap year, I was certain that I was progressing towards a career in politics. Today, I am a policy major, not a political science major, and I have no ambitions to run for political office. My ability to ‘do good’ and advocate for change will not be dependent on election cycles, schmoozing donors, and myopic partisan politics. The gap year will refine and hone interests.

    Gaya Morris: A Much-Needed Break from Academics

    Structured bridge year provides a new sense of self.

    Gaya Morris is a freshman at Princeton University. Though Gaya attended high school at the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut, she and her family currently live in Hingham, Massachusetts, just south of Boston.

    Before spending a bridge year, Gaya found herself living in a number of different locations. She was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey. Over the years she also spent a year and a half in Switzerland and three and a half in Italy. A bout of that not-so-rare high school disease known as “senioritis” along with those early international and transitional experiences compelled her to seek further travel experiences and cross-cultural learning.

    Gaya is still undecided on her major though she is considering comparative literature due to her interest in folklore and traditional storytelling. On campus she is involved in the Princeton Garden Project (a student run vegetable garden on campus), the Princeton Gap Year Network and sings in an “accapella” group.

    For her year, Gaya found the Global Citizen Year program fit her needs and objectives perfectly.

    What was the impetus for your choosing a bridge/gap year?

    What ultimately inspired me to take a gap year were stories from friends and peers who had taken gap years, hearing of their travels and accomplishments. The idea was at first a little daunting, and distant to me as a high school Junior, but I nevertheless tucked the idea away safely in the back of my mind as simply an intriguing possibility, as I went through the college process.

    But by the spring of my Senior year I began to more seriously consider taking a gap year as I began to feel “burnt out” and tired of academics, a feeling that is pretty universal I believe for 12th graders emerging from the competitive and often grade-centric culture of high school – sometimes referred to as “senioritis.” I was ready to graduate. We were all ready to graduate, and yet I felt that for me graduating had to mean more than simply taking a few months of relaxation, and then returning to the books in the fall, following the same pattern, repeating the same cycle. Indeed, coming out of four years of boarding school (kind of like a mini-college experience), I felt a particular need to create a more significant separation between my high school and my college years. And so the idea of a gap year at this point, felt just right.

    Furthermore, in my last few years of high school I had grown significantly interested in so called “global issues” – poverty, hunger, the environmental crisis – big problems and big words that of course held little real meaning to me beyond the text book definitions. I knew that I wanted to study in college something that “mattered” and that would “make a difference.” I had some ideas, but I didn’t know exactly what this should be.

    And so my gap year was about more than just taking a break. I wanted to travel to a new and different part of the world to experience non profit and development work, before I went off to college to study about it. In this way, the program of Global Citizen Year, with its mission of training young leaders to face the global challenges of the 21st century, fit my goals wonderfully.

    Can you talk a little bit about how you came to choose Global Citizen Year as your program?

    Despite my eagerness and determination to pursue a gap year, the clarity of my goals, and my confidence that my decision to defer college for a year to do something different was right (though I didn’t know at the time exactly what), actually achieving these goals was not easy. So I needed a feasible plan – something exciting, but also not too risky.

    I first looked into various program options, but many seemed too restricting and structured, and exceeded my budget. And so then I looked into identifying NGO’s accepting volunteers, but with little more than Google as my search tool, it was hard to distinguish the truly viable options simply from their websites. Therefore, finding meaningful service learning for someone of my age and experience and budget was difficult.

    My parents were especially wary of the idea of me traveling independently to a part of the world I had never been to before, and I guess I was a little, too. Although I do think the experience of traveling solo during one’s gap year is certainly enriching in different ways than traveling under the protective wing of a program (I think there are pros and cons to each), I would say that ultimately it was the discovery of a program that happened to so well fit my goals that really enabled me to successfully achieve them.

    Without the incredible support and guidance of Global Citizen Year, it is unlikely that I would have found such enriching, fulfilling and challenging experiences. Essential to the depth of the experience GCY was able to provide for me in Senegal was my six-month homestay with a wonderful Senegalese family living in the heart of a sprawling town that previously had rarely seen foreigners. Also essential was my apprenticeship placement in a local elementary school which allowed me to further investigate my interest in education, but most importantly provided me with a welcoming, but challenging environment in which to discover the ups and downs of volunteer work.

    Last but not least, as a GCY fellow I was living and working independently, while constantly participating in discussions, reflections, group learning that helped me maintain the perspective I needed to always move forward deliberately, reassessing my beliefs and goals and always challenging myself one step further. I found the balance between structure and independence to be quite appropriate, and ultimately empowering.

    And the financial aid that GCY provided me was certainly indispensable to my ability to have the gap year experience that I did.

    Can you provide readers with some details as to how you spent your year?

    I would say that every single day in Sebikotane was focused on my work at the local elementary school and spending time with my host family. At the school, my primary goal was to learn, to observe and get to know the school community and the challenges it faced,. Although I eventually was able to help address some of these challenges by helping reopen the school’s abandoned library and computer lab, training teachers to use computers in the lab and leading reading activities for the younger students in the library. Along with another GCY fellow living in Sebikotane, I also organized and led an English club for high schoolers. This work that I did at the school was very important to me.

    However, some of my most valuable learning took place partaking in the everyday rituals of my host family: eating meals, helping women with cooking, and going to the market, helping with laundry and cleaning (although it took some time for them to allow me to help) and playing with the children. I felt that simply living was learning, for everything from toilets to watching tv, from dress to greetings, was new and different. This sort of challenge-intensive lifestyle was certainly difficult, and could be immensely frustrating at times, but incredibly enriching. I felt that I lived in a heightened state of awareness and meaning, which would only continue and even intensify during the transition home.

    What would you say was the high and low points of your experience? Why were these so significant?

    As I and several other fellows discovered, the greatest rewards and lessons came from overcoming the greatest challenges, and so my high points were often related to my low points. I would say the lowest point for me was during my first few weeks in the town of Sebikotane. Overwhelmed by all of the attention I received, unable to express myself fully, and therefore powerless to influence where I went and what I did from one moment to the next, I was soon frustrated and eager to make the transition from guest and foreigner to friend, co-worker and even family member, a transition which I soon learned takes months, and even years. I was eager to overcome the stereotypes of foreigners that I believe prevented people from seeing me as an individual. So the greatest challenge that I faced during my first few months was simply finding “my place” both at home with my host-family, and the elementary school to which I was assigned as a volunteer.

    My exact role as a “volunteer” was left to me to determine, as the school community had never before welcomed a young foreigner like myself. My incredibly gracious hosts, the teachers of L’Ecole Sebiroute, would have been entirely happy to just let me sit and watch their classes for six months, eat peanuts and drink tea with them during play time, and then maybe help them figure out how to use the computers in their dusty, abandoned computer lab, but of course I wanted to provide them some meaningful service. There was clearly much work to be done in a school overflowing with students and lacking in teachers and materials, but with my minimal teaching experience and knowledge of Senegalese culture and the language, I certainly felt more like a burden than a help at first.

    And so I spent the first month or so simply observing and evaluating the school community, getting to know the teachers and the students, in order to eventually identify areas in which I could contribute. Fortunately this school community happened to have a library, a locked up room full of books that hadn’t been used in years, and so I eventually set for myself the task of reestablishing this library: cleaning and organizing and then working with the teachers to begin introducing the students to the library.

    My greatest challenge was simply bringing my ideas to fruition – in a culture where calm seemed to be valued above change, and where anyone below the age of twenty was considered a child – and so implementing my ideas ultimately became the challenge of gaining the respect of and communicating effectively with the school teachers. I wanted to design a library program that would be manageable, potentially sustainable, and that would address their needs, and especially the needs of the students.

    Coincidentally, again, one of the greatest challenges that teachers were facing was simply getting their students to read. Besides the lack of books in the child’s home environment, and the lack of personal attention in overflowing classrooms, the Senegalese system presents a particular challenge to students struggling to read and write in the way that they must learn to do so in a language they do not understand – French (kids grow up speaking Wolof). And so sitting down with small groups of kids on the plastic mat in the newly opened library, reading aloud stories like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I felt like I was addressing a significant need. Reaching this point, at which I felt I was truly offering a meaningful service to the students at L’Ecole Sebiroute, and enjoying the work too, was the most rewarding.

    How did your gap experience change you and impact the next phase of your life?

    I feel that my gap year experience achieved certain goals I had set out for myself while also accomplishing others that I had not considered but that are perhaps more important. My gap year certainly provided the needed break from academics, sending me into my freshman year of college with renewed energy and eagerness to learn.

    I don’t believe that my gap year experience provided me with a definitive answer to the question of what to major in – rather it provided me with inspiration in a few directions. Rather than narrowing the focus of my previous interests it revealed to me other, new areas of interest.

    For example, my experience working in a Senegalese elementary school has inspired me to study education issues and policy, child psychology, children’s literature and folklore, all of which I may not have considered had I not seen for myself the wonders that reading and books can do for children and for a developing society. At the same time I have maintained my interest in food-disparity issues related to global economic policies, and cultural perceptions of agriculture, consumption and nutrition.

    Most importantly, however, I believe that after having found my way in such a foreign environment, I have and will approach the next few defining stages of my life in a new way – with greater patience and perspective, with both a greater openness to new experiences and a stronger sense of my own self and values as I approach these new experiences.

    Conor Farese: Working, Community Service, and a Life-Changing Moment in Africa

    Despite being held at gunpoint in Tanzania, University of North Carolina senior has founded a Gap program for future Tar Heels.

    Conor Farese is currently a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A native of Kentfield, California, Conor grew up in San Francisco, before moving to Kentfield at the beginning of his high school years. After attending public school in 9th and 10th grades, Conor attended the Thacher School, a 240-student boarding school in Ojai, California.

    While in high school, he played a number of different sports and spent a lot of time doing rodeo-style horseback riding. Conor also did some tutoring which served to whet his appetite for public service.

    After looking at Emory, UNC, Vanderbilt, Washington University, Boston College, Colorado College, and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Conor settled on UNC and has been thrilled with his decision ever since. An Environmental Studies major (focus in urban planning), with a minor in Geography, Conor packed a lot into his gap/ bridge year experience.

    To be sure he had adequate funding, he spent part of his year working. In addition, he spent time with relatives living in different segments of the country before spending multiple months with Greenforce.

    Conor’s experiences in Tanzania (where his group was held up at gunpoint) serve as a strong reminder that gap year programs can truly challenge you in ways you had never expected.

    What was the impetus for your choosing a bridge/gap year?

    My older sister took a year off, and so throughout the college process my parents consistently suggested the concept. I was more reserved, however. I was ready (or so I thought) to jump into college—what is consistently referred to as “the best four years of your life.” I was also concerned about being a year behind my peers academically and socially. It’s hard, when stuck in the high school mindset where age and grade level are so highly valued, to understand that being a year older in college will barely impact your experience and certainly not ostracize you from your peers.

    Upon my acceptance to UNC, I reconsidered my anti-gap year stubbornness. I realized that I was undecided on what to study, what my passions were, and that a year off might not be a bad idea. Once I changed my mindset, the concept was infectious. I had a whole year. Did I want to travel, work, volunteer? My parents endorsed the concept highly, and saw the potential of a year to really help me grow and discover both my passions and myself.

    What did your peers think of your choice?

    Most of my peers were thrilled about their college choices, but were supportive of my idea to take a gap year. Overall, I think the concept was so foreign that most didn’t know how to react (myself included).

    Can you talk a little bit about the program you chose and why you chose it?

    I began my year off with a family trip to Peru. The seven of us (I have four siblings) did a Cross Cultural Solutions trip to Ayacucho, Peru, where we all volunteered in some capacity. I was there for 2 weeks, and then returned and moved in with my grandparents to begin a 4-week internship with a ceramicist in Florida. I did ceramics in high school, and thought it would be fun to spend some time pursuing art essentially as a lifestyle.

    I then lived with my other grandmother in rural Georgia, where I worked in a wire factory for two months. This was an opportunity for me to earn some money before the year began, but resulted in one of my more important experiences. Being in the work force—particularly in a factory, was instrumental in opening my eyes to the way so much of America lives.

    I then did a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course in coastal sailing in Baja California. This was one of the more exciting parts of my year, as we got caught in a Hurricane (“Paul”, I believe), and several windstorms.

    My next big trip, and the biggest program I went on, was with a British-based NGO called Greenforce. It combined significant volunteer work with cultural tourism. My parents and I settled on this program because I had been interested in going to Africa, but we felt it was important to go with a well-established program since I had done very little solo-traveling before. I remember very distinctly being on the plane about to land in Arusha, Tanzania, thinking “I don’t speak the language, I barely know how to find my group, and I have little cash…this could be disastrous.” This program ended up being one of the most defining trips of my life. We lived with a Maasai tribe in the bush, helping out in a local school (teaching and building) as well as conducted science projects monitoring animals in the area. I meanwhile endeavored to learn both Swahili and Maa (the Maasai language), which have stuck with me until today. I even ended up taking Swahili in college, and have taken multiple African Studies classes. This experience was so novel because the Maasai live so differently than any other culture I have ever seen—different concepts of religion, property, tradition, respect, even life and death. I was on this program for 3 months. After, I traveled in South Africa before returning home.

    Once home, I started working as a technician in a local vet clinic. This was also to earn money to fund many of the travels of my gap year, and gave me another insight into the working world. I consider work a very important part of any gap year.

    What would you say was the high point of your experience?

    Living with the Maasai – I made several amazing friends there, who taught me a lot about their culture and lifestyle. I still speak with them to this day, but revel even more about our contrasting lives. I have several times received phone calls from them, bored while tending cattle. It’s fascinating to be in college, worrying about upcoming tests or weekend plans, while my friend Nguvu is concerned about a drought that is killing cattle and goats alike. Very few other experiences have made me appreciate my own privileges as much as Tanzania did.

    Was there a low point?

    In Tanzania, 10-12 men with guns and machetes came into our campsite and held us up. They stayed in our camp for about 30 minutes until one of the Maasai escaped and managed to scare them off, but they took with them a car, computer, multiple wallets, phones, passports, etc. They shot at one of my friends (the Maasai, Nguvu) when he escaped, but missed barely.

    This drastically changed our trip, and was a huge psychological blow. It is hard to go through something so traumatic without having lasting mental repercussions. We were all given the opportunity to return home, but every one of us decided to stay. I’m glad I chose not to leave; if I had left, I probably would never have gone back to Africa. As it is, traveling (particularly in Africa) is a very stressful experience for me, as I worry constantly about my safety and my things. It has also been one of the most rewarding and transformative experiences of my life.

    Can you talk about the costs of these programs and how you funded your year?

    These programs all varied in cost. The Tanzania program cost upwards of $4,500 total (including some miscellaneous costs), and the NOLS course was about $3,700. My parents and I reached an agreement that they would help cover any programs that were service or educational based, while I funded all social or other ventures. I feel very fortunate that this was the case, but also acknowledge that working two summers helped me gather quite a substantial amount of money to help cover costs.

    How did your gap experience change/impact you?

    I’ve spent more than 16 years of my life being educated in the classroom, but I can safely say that my year off taught me more about myself and my surroundings than any classroom had to offer. It taught me how to land in a new place, and find my way to new friends and comfort. It taught me how far I could push myself, and which direction I should go. And it allowed me to step outside of the academic realm for a brief moment, giving me the space and time to re-evaluate what I considered to be my passions, my interests, “me.”

    I came back to college ready to launch into academia. I took classes such as Swahili and African Studies because of my gap year travels. I also jumped into many extracurricular activities—such as Students for Students International, a scholarship program for girls in Eastern Africa—because of the interests that I developed on my year. Many of the friends and networks I have established in college are from shared interests in travel, international development, leadership, and general exploration.

    Gap years have since become a tremendous part of my life. I believe firmly in their ability to build a foundation for a student’s college experience. I have been working closely with UNC’s new Global Gap Year Fellowship, and have created a student group called Gappl: UNC’s Gap Year People. I see the United States as on the verge of a phenomenal movement—one where we rethink the educational process, and consider the opportunity of a gap year.

    Stacy Tasman: An Unstructured and Unscripted Bridge Experience

    Not everyone seeking a gap year or bridge experience looks for an existing program.

    Stacy Tasman attended the University of Florida where she studied public relations and business. Since UF (one of the nation’s top public state universities) provided full scholarships for in-state students with exemplary SAT/ACT scores, Stacy was the rare student who completed just one college application.

    Stacy worked throughout high school to build her savings account. Prior to attending Florida, she traveled through Europe for a few weeks. But it was upon completion of her college program that Stacy took the road less traveled, taking some time as a bridge before entering the workforce.

    Graduating one semester early, she opted to travel throughout Southeast Asia, completely planning her own excursion and experiencing each moment for as long as she wanted. Since it was the first time in her life she truly forgot about the structure that defined the first 22 years of her life, the trip proved so meaningful she is planning yet another for the upcoming year.

    Can you talk a little bit about the decision to take some time off after graduating from college? What was the impetus for your choosing such an experience prior to heading off into the world of work?

    I graduated a semester early, because I had received 32 college credits in high school (I dual-enrolled, which a lot of schools offer these days). I had worked in high school and some in college, and my parents had made a deal with me that however much money I saved in a year, they would match it.

    It was really encouraging for me because the more I worked, the more I was “patted on the back,” more or less. So basically, one reason I took the bridge experience was because I had the funds to do it. Also, my schooling was not skill-specific, meaning I didn’t learn to bookkeep or study how to design a bridge. With my degree in Public Relations I could apply my education to a lot of business practices. I am happy for that because I don’t feel boxed into one career path. In the same vein, having no set way meant there was no defined next step. The freedom, combined with my curious heart (and of course, funds), allowed me to open my mind to travel.

    What did your parents and peers say when you informed them that you were postponing work for a while?

    My parents thought I was “running away from the real world.” They thought I was scared and didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, and felt that my “gallivanting” was because I was lost and confused.
    Truth be told, they were exactly right.

    However, I saw traveling as a way to answer these anxieties. I saw it as a way to ground my thought and give me a sense of inspiration, especially after having been in such a structured system of education for the past 15 years.

    They didn’t get it. I had to beg and beg and beg for their approval. I cried over and over for their support, and I knew it was fear that was holding them back from accepting my plans. In my mind, they were concrete plans, but to settle my heart, I wanted them to feel confident about them too. It wasn’t until I shared my experiences with them via my travel blog, that they understood the significance of the trip.

    My peers thought I was just plain crazy. They admired my sense of adventure, especially to Southeast Asia, where Americans are less known to backpack through, but I had other friends who had been to this area of the world, and they motivated my decision.

    Instead of utilizing a specific program, you essentially constructed your own experience. Why did you go this route?

    I constructed my own experience because I wanted to fend for myself and I knew I could do it. I, like every other human, only need three things: food, clothing and shelter. Most everywhere in the world has these things, or life could not survive. Therefore, I can survive anywhere too – that is anywhere inhabited. Don’t get me wrong, if you send me to the middle of the jungle, I’d get eaten alive, but if an ordinary person can live somewhere and find their way, I can too.

    I also had a few friends that lived in China and had traveled to Southeast Asia. Again, I thought, if they can do it, I can too. So I pulled from my available resources (friends, books, internet and my own confidence and independence) and I went!

    Contrived trips and too much planning give me more anxiety than anything else. It’s like that saying, “don’t have expectations and you won’t get let down”, or however the better philosopher than I wrote it. Going into something, an adventure especially, without an exact travel route or defined expectation, means most anything that will happen will be exciting and new, though sometimes unnerving, but why travel if not for those feelings!

    Can you give readers a brief overview of how you spent your time?

    I spent 2 months between Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. I had one backpack, the size of a Jansport. It wasn’t even like a backpackers backpack with a thousand pockets and utilities. Mine just had a big pocket and a pencil pocket. I rotated between two or three shirts and shorts and used soap and water to clean them in between wears. EASY!

    I went with my closest friend. We’d traveled through Europe together too, but that was a bit more of a posh trip. There was no frill to the hostels we stayed at in Asia. We’d get a room with two single beds or one double bed, and sometimes, only sometimes did the room have its own bathroom or a shoddy A/C unit. They’d be anywhere between 5-10 dollars, so $2.5-5 bucks each. Meals were roughly $2 and I ate noodles, veggies, rice and soup most of the time. I didn’t eat meat – that was my only ignorant move. I’m not a huge meat eater anyways, but I do regret feeling close-minded in any sense on the trip.

    We spent a lot of time in temples. I loved it. Buddhism is the most prominent religion, and Buddhist monks all studied English as part of their Monk training. They loved being able to practice their English with us Americans, and likewise, we enjoyed hearing of their thoughts and beliefs.

    As for a summary feeling for the trip: peaceful. I saw and felt beautiful things- all instilling an overwhelming feeling of internal peace.

    What would you say was the high point of your experience? What made it so significant?

    Two things: using my independence and then connecting with other people. Sounds a bit oxymoronic, doesn’t it? So I’ll explain. I felt independent in my thought, and free to express it as well. I made the decisions of where I wanted to go, how long I’d stay in one place, what questions I wanted to ask, when I wanted a tour guide, when I could give two sh_ts about kings long ago – it was freedom of thought and action a hundredfold over.

    In the same breath, I also enjoyed connecting with people from all over (location, as well as life experience). We compared stories and feelings and from each I learned a new perspective to challenge who I was and what I’d ever known. It was fascinating how I adopted different points of view that I never would have thought were in my realm of thought. Beyond the scenic splendor making it an eye-opening trip, it was also mind-opening and encouraging of my own independence.

    Was there a low or negative point?

    There was honestly no low or negative point. The only slightly indecisiveness I had was whether to extend the trip to longer than the 8 weeks. I ended up not extending it, and I am thankful now because I’ve decided to take another trip this year!

    Can you talk a little bit more about the costs of your experience and how you funded it?

    The airfare from Bangkok round trip was $1,200 and when I was in Asia I spent $1,800 dollars – so about $3,000 in total. We kept a budget of around 30 dollars a day, and stuck to it! Some days we only spent 12 dollars, so the $18 would go to an overnight bus, or train ride. It evened out perfectly. Most everyone we came across was living off a similar budget, and I can’t even imagine what there is to squander more money on – it’s all on an entirely different economic scale, way less than what we see in America.

    How did your gap experience change you and impact the transition from school to work and next phase of your life?

    My gap experience was incredibly life changing: and I wrote about it in “The Huffington Post.” I met someone new every day, learned something new every day and loved something new every day. I saw the world as a revolving door — indefinitely open, so long as you push yourself through, and closed only when you give up your strong arm. With might, my permanently inquisitive mind wandered to places, both physical and intangible. Experimental was my nature; nature was my eyes’ constant bliss; bliss was every step of my journey.

    I learned more than a few things in these two short months. But most circled back to appreciating the breaths that young American graduates are repeatedly persecuted for taking — myself, too, a persecutor. Elizabeth Gilbert’s ever-praised bestseller-turned-blockbuster, Eat Pray Love, was widely admired because it hit home for thousands of Americans who have similarly discovered that moment, in that 10-years-too-late breath, of realizing that the life they’d created had spiraled out of their control — happiness and self-truth stolen in the whirl.

    My gap year experience gave me insight that I will take with me in all my future endeavors- be it work, relationships, health, love etc. I cannot express how important it is to consider traveling, backpacking, suitcasing – however you get around. I would help anyone, encourage anyone, guide anyone or accompany anyone (strangers included) as to gift them with the experience I was blessed with.

    Stacy Tasman photos courtesy of Beth Babicz.

    Aaron Flaster: Seamanship, Teaching and Service to Others

    Bridge years can offer extensive personal growth in a variety of ways.

    Aaron Flaster continues to call Mill Valley, California, home. Like most high school students, Aaron enjoyed playing sports and spending time outdoors.

    However, the sophomore at Lewis and Clark, experienced what he calls a “kind of cognitive dissonance” during his high school years. Having frequently traveled with his parents to developing countries, Aaron found it difficult to process, mentally and emotionally, why he had been blessed with so much.

    His initial experiences with his parents led him to volunteer with Amigos de Las Americas the summer before his senior year of high school. That volunteer work in Latin America added another rung to the step ladder of experiences abroad that led him to consider taking a Bridge Year.

    The Psychology and Economics major chose three separate programs for his experience: learning seamanship aboard a 112-foot sailboat through a study abroad program called Seamester, voluntarily teaching English to novice monks in Thailand through the non-profit organization Global Service Corps, and volunteering in Argentina with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).

    Can you talk a little bit about the decision to take a year off? How did your parents feel about it when you first discussed it?

    Surprisingly, the idea of taking a Bridge Year was first suggested by my parents! It was not that they thought I was unprepared for college. Academically and personally, they knew I was ready. However, they believed that the experiences and knowledge I would gain from a Bridge Year would enrich my college years. And they were right.

    Ironically, when my parents first mentioned the notion of a Bridge Year, I brushed the idea aside without thinking twice. I was ready for college and I wanted to go. ‘Why postpone college for a year when it is so close!’

    A Bridge Year sounded like an interesting idea, but I thought I would just take the equivalent of a Bridge Year after college. I felt that way until April of my senior year in high school, which is when I had a change of heart. I realized I was making a huge assumption that I would be able to do something like a Bridge Year after college. What if I had to get a job right out of school, or wanted to move home? I would regret it for the rest of my life if I had decided to post-pone a Bridge Year until after college and then was not able to do it. I am glad that I did not continue to live by that assumption because my Bridge Year qualitatively transformed my college experience and mindset.

    In addition to suggesting a Bridge Year, my parents also helped dispel many of my fallacious beliefs about the social implications of a Bridge Year. Academically, I would be a year behind all of my high school friends that were going straight on to college. The thought of being ‘a year behind’ and not having common experiences to share with my friends was really disconcerting. However, my father helped me realize that the notion of being ‘a year behind’ was completely misrepresenting the philosophy behind a Bridge Year. Academically, my peers would be sophomores when I was a freshman, but does that really matter? I plan on growing old with my close friends from high school regardless of whether they graduate college a year before me.

    More importantly, a Bridge Year is an education! It is an experiential and conceptual education that would provide me with an invaluable foundation of knowledge and true passion for learning.

    My understanding is that you were involved with a couple of specific programs? Can you talk a little bit about why you chose these specific programs and also what they entailed?

    Deciding how to structure my Bridge Year took more time than applying to college. With the help of my parents (that is quite an understatement; I would not have been able to organize my Bridge Year in such a short amount of time without them), I chose three particular organizations. Some students prefer not to go through any organizations; I wanted to because my interests were specific and I have found that engaging in service is easier when done through an organization.

    For three months (September-December), I participated in Seamester, which is a seamanship and study abroad program. Twenty seven other college age students and I lived aboard a one hundred and twelve foot schooner sailboat. Unlike Semester at Sea, which is more akin to a cruise ship, we were responsible for maintaining and learning how to sail the boat (with the help of a captain and two first mates of course). In addition to living as a crew member, we took four academic courses: Oceanography, Marine Biology, Student Leadership, and Sailing. Sometimes class was on deck, and other times it was eighty feet below the surface because everyone became certified divers. We began the voyage in Cairns, Australia and sailed up through Indonesia and Malaysia to Thailand, stopping every three or four days to glimpse a new culture and landscape. Most of the other students (including myself) had never sailed before. By the end of the trip though, we were all well versed in the art of sailing, and we placed second in the King’s Cup Regatta, a prestigious sailing race in Phuket, Thailand.

    My parents suggested Seamester because they thought it would inspire and challenge me in ways I never had been. Like when they brought up the idea of a Bridge Year, I immediately refused to consider Seamester. It just seemed like an extravagant vacation on a boat, and I felt guilty even considering such a lavish venture. Fortunately, my parents helped me realize that was not a very reasonable response; I could orient the rest of the year around service, and why would I want to pass up this opportunity? I do not know how my parents always seem to be right, but they are—Seamester challenged me to adopt a new way of life, live in very close quarters with twenty seven strangers that eventually became like family, and see the world through the unique lens of life on the sea.

    Once Seamester ended in Thailand, I stayed for another two months (January/February) and taught English to novice monks. The program was organized through the non-profit organization Global Service Corps. My parents and I found Global Service Corps on a general internet search because I was interested in Buddhism, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tag onto the end of Seamester. I had never taught before and all I had from Global Service Corps was an information packet on teaching English. Luckily, I was able to team teach with another volunteer before embarking on my own. I taught three different classes, and the ages of the students were analogous to elementary, middle and high school. Because of the language barrier, most of the lesson plans involved a variety of group activities, games, and speaking practice. The language barrier was certainly an issue, but many of the students had already been taking English classes. My role was similar to that of a substitute teacher–the groundwork had already been laid by the other monks and I was just filling in for a while.

    I was anxious when I first began teaching because I felt like I was unnecessarily imposing English on the monks. When I expressed this concern to one of the head monks, he told me that English is actually a very useful tool for the novice monks. After the end of their schooling, the novices could choose whether to enter the work force or become monks. The majority of novices (I can only speak for the monastery where I was teaching) chose to enter the workforce, and English gave them a competitive advantage.

    I have not taught since my time at the monastery, but I came away with a deep appreciation for inspiring teachers and a passion for education. Though a liberal arts college is distinct from a monastery in Thailand, I can still tell the difference in college between a competent teacher from one that is inspiring and captivating.

    After my time teaching, I lived at a separate monastery for two weeks (still as a part of Global Service Corps) and practiced meditation four times a day. I shared a room with a Thai monk who spoke very little English, and I spoke very little Thai. He treated me like a younger brother though, and our relationship was not hindered by the language barrier. I learned how to meditate from an American monk that had been a part of the monastery for seven years. He was an old friend of the abbot (head monk), and decided to join the monastery after nearly two decades spent working for USAID in Africa.

    Meditation is still an integral part of my life. The mindfulness practice that I gained from this immersion in Buddhism still drives my pursuit of self-understanding. Now a sophomore in college, I occasionally participate in a meditation group on campus and try to meditate on my own as well. I do not consider myself to be Buddhist, but my immersion in Thai Buddhism continues to shape my thoughts and way of being in the world.

    During the last four months of my Bridge Year (April-July), I volunteered in Argentina with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), a non-profit organization based out of San Francisco. I was the only volunteer at a community center in an impoverished community, and for most of the time, I was solely responsible for pursuing and/or initiating projects. I lived with a host family and worked with a sewing cooperative that was started and run by three women. When the cooperative first began in 2006, the women only had one foot-powered sewing machine and produced baby and dog clothing. Due to the hard work of the women and previous FSD volunteers, the cooperative now has four industrial strength machines and they market women’s clothing.

    The cooperative was located in a relatively poor and patriarchal community, and my role was to help find retail outlets for their products. The lack of transportation and repressive social norms prevented the women from leaving the community and marketing their products. I created a brochure and tried to establish relationships with retail outlets in order to generate consumer demand. My efforts did not generate a significant influx of profits, but the women and I learned a lot about micro-enterprise through our efforts. As a side note, I was also involved with other aspects of the daycare center: I tried to help a school counselor start a sex education program in the nearby middle school, provided the children with free dental care and hygiene lessons by coordinating with a local health clinic, tried to start a baking cooperative with other women from the community, plant a community garden, and create a ‘big buddy’ system between the nearby high school and daycare center.

    The responsibility and independence that I had working at the daycare center was unparalleled by any of my other Bridge Year experiences. I was pulled out of my comfort zone into a realm of unfamiliar challenges and inspiring ideas. I initiated new projects and continued past projects with community members; some of which flourished, while others dissolved. Even though I worked hard, I still felt like I could have done more for that community when it came time to leave Argentina. I did not see any tangible results from my efforts, which was very disconcerting. Upon later reflection, I realized though that the relationships I formed during my time in Argentina, and Bridge Year in general, were more valuable than any tangible project or result. Those relationships opened my eyes to other cultures and lifestyles, as well as my own potential.

    What would you say was the high point of your year?

    When I reflect on my Bridge Year, I do not think of there being one particular high point. I learned something unique and equally valuable from each experience.

    However, I do think my Bridge Year got progressively more challenging. I started off the year with Seamester, which was group oriented and well supervised. The supervision was necessary for safety reasons, but it limited the number of individual challenges I could take on. While teaching English in Thailand, I had to develop my own lesson plans and learn how to teach to students my own age (18), as well as six-year-olds. Finally, in Argentina, I was given the freedom to determine what kinds of projects I wanted to participate in and how to initiate/continue those projects. Such freedom instilled me with a unique sense of independence, but it also pushed my emotional and cognitive capacities. The fragility of the projects and general uncertainty about future sustainability frequently made me question my efforts and intentions.

    Was there a low point?

    Similarly, I cannot say that there was a specific low point during the year. However, I was at times, mentally and emotionally stretched beyond what I thought were my limits. For instance, there was one period during my time in Argentina when I was physically ill, winter was at its height, the community development projects that I was working on were either paused or dissolving, and I was frustrated with my own inability to follow through on all the projects I wanted to be involved in. Although this may seem like a disheartening scenario, in retrospect, that time period was one of the most vital parts of my Bridge Year. It was an intense glimpse into my own potential and ability to push beyond what I thought were my psychological and physical limits. Never before had I been challenged to dig so far down into my own well of strength in search of motivation and understanding.

    Can you talk about the costs of these programs and how you funded your year?

    I love to talk about the value and philosophy of Bridge Years, but I also do not want to sound pompous or hypocritical when encouraging others to consider a Bridge Year. The reason is that my parents paid for my year. I am very conscious of the fact that not everyone has this luxury, but I think I can further the discussion about Bridge Years while being aware of the many socio-economic situations that students and parents face.

    That said, there are a variety of ways to structure a Bridge Year to minimize costs, such as finding paid internships, volunteering locally/domestically, or working for part of the year to save money. Regarding specific costs, Seamester (3 months) cost approximately $15,000, Global Service Corps (2 months) cost $4,000, and the Foundation for Sustainable Development (4 months) cost $6,000. I do not want these prices to be off-putting though because this is NOT the typical cost of a Bridge Year. I mention the prices only to provide as much helpful information as possible, but I am not advocating such expensive Bridge Years.

    How did your gap experience change you? Did it significantly impact the next phase of your life, either when arriving back home or when going on to college?

    When someone asks me how I have been affected by my Bridge Year, I am inclined to say that I am a qualitatively different person. However, having explored identity in some of my philosophy classes, I am reluctant to make such an ambiguous statement.

    Philosophy aside, I can say that the experiences during my Bridge Year imbued me with an intense dedication to learning, critical thinking, and self-understanding. Academia has become personalized in ways I never imagined: graphs about income inequality are people that I met and grew to love like my own family, I critique theories using both my conceptual and experiential knowledge, and my intrinsic motivation to learn evokes a rigor that helps me take advantage of such a rich learning environment. College has been transformed into the pursuit of truth and pure understanding in order to go back out into the world with a stronger heart and mind.

    Hilary Brown: Serving in a Rural Health Center

    Gap year can shape the next phase of a person’s life.

    Hilary Brown grew up in Seattle, Washington. While in high school, Hilary was involved in a lot of outside activities. In addition to an interest in dance, she raised puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind and volunteered at the local children’s hospital.

    When it came time to apply for college, Hilary focused in on small liberal arts schools. She ended up selecting Occidental College where she is currently a freshman.

    Hilary spent a year working with Global Citizen Year. She began her experience abroad in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where she took intense language classes. That time was followed by six months in a more rural location working at a local women’s health health center as well as a general health center.

    Can you talk a little bit about the decision to take a year off? What was the impetus for your choosing a bridge/gap year?

    I thought about doing a Rotary exchange since the beginning of high school but when the time came to apply I was so wrapped up in the idea of going to college the following year that I did not want to have to go to high school for another year, even if it was in a different country. I heard about Global Citizen Year March of my senior year. At the time I was relieved to have finished college applications and the idea of a gap year had completely left my mind. My decision to apply was very impulsive. After reading about the program it just seemed like a great opportunity that I never would have come up with on my own. My parents were both very supportive. My decision was made in such a short amount of time that I did not discuss it with many other people.

    Can you talk a little bit about why you chose Global Citizen Year as your specific program?

    I chose to participate in Global Citizen Year specifically because it seemed like a great opportunity. It was organized and would give me guidance but at the same time allow me to be independent in a foreign country. In addition, at the time I was not aware of any similar programs.

    What did your year entail?

    The year started with group conference calls about once a month throughout the summer. It gave everyone a chance to discuss relevant topics and ask questions. Mid-September we all met up for two weeks of training in San Francisco. During this time we had the opportunity to visit organizations such as, IDEO, Room to Read and KIVA. We also had seminars on development, leadership and cultural immersion.

    After the U.S. training we spent a month in the capital of Senegal, Dakar, where we took intense language classes. This was followed by six months in a more rural location. Each student lived with a host family and was assigned to a personalized apprenticeship. I was placed at a local women’s health center and a general health center. In addition, I helped with an English club in a nearby town.

    What would you say was the high point of your experience?

    The high point was probably towards the end when I realized how much I had adapted to Senegalese life and culture. Instead of wanting to go home I wish I could have stayed longer, which I think is a good sign.

    Was there a low point?

    The most challenging aspect was getting used to my new environment once I moved out of the city. My new home was obviously run very differently then my home in the U.S. In addition, I was not used to sharing a room with three small children and had barely any time to myself.

    Can you talk about the costs of these programs and how you funded your year?

    The fact that GCY does not have a set “cost” I think made the program accessible to all participants. Each participant contributed what they could and GCY helped with the rest.

    How did your gap experience change/impact you?

    My experience in Senegal changed both my personality and my perspectives. It gave me self-confidence and in conjunction a sense of strength that I did not have before. This resulted in a new ability to share my opinion when I previously would have kept silent. I also became calmer and not as flustered with minor mishaps that before I would probably have considered a major crisis.

    In addition, my perspective was changed on a variety of topics from polygamy to immigration. I was made aware of challenges I had never been exposed to and therefore could not have previously understood.

    Upon returning to the U.S. it was as if I was seeing everything in a whole new light. Practices and mannerisms that I had never seen as significant felt sometimes strange, wrong or foreign. After reflecting on the year over the summer I realized that, while I had not expected it, the year shaped what I want to do in the next phase of my life. I entered college in a completely different, more focused, mindset then I would have a year ago.

    When I was in Senegal I knew I had made the right decision by taking a gap year however, it was not until talking to other students at college when I truly realized the impact and priceless value of my bridge year. Speaking with most students who come straight from high school I feel as if I am a step ahead. I have a sense of direction and purpose for which many of my peers are still searching.

    Hilary Brown photos courtesy of Global Citizen Year.

    Warning – Only One in Three College Freshmen Graduates in Four Years

    Five steps to ensure that the one who graduates on time is you!

    When college graduation rates are published, most people seem to think the vast majority of students accepted to college graduate. But in reality, the current graduation rate for full-time students stands at a miserable 53%.

    But wait, it gets worse, since that oft-quoted number is actually the six-year graduation rate. When it comes to four-year graduation rates, i.e., those full-time students who graduate in the requisite four-year timeframe, the percentage drops all the way to 37%. That means roughly two out of every three college freshmen has not earned a diploma four years after beginning school.

    Given the costs of college, it is hard to justify the expense unless you come away with that all-important diploma. And even worse, if you don’t graduate in four years you have made a costly proposition even more expensive.

    If you are going to school full-time, you owe it to yourself and your family to complete your program in four years. Here are five steps to ensure that you meet that goal.

    1. Pick the Right College

    The first step to a diploma in four years is to select the right college. Unfortunately, selecting a school is not an easy process.

    The reason is simple – no one school is right for every student. That is why a student should never select a college based simply on name recognition, reputation or selectivity, the caliber of its football team, or the fact that classmates or other family members will or have attended that school.

    To select the right college, you must do your homework. Your selections should be based on at least three critical elements, the location of the school (urban, sub-urban, or rural), the specific academic program offered (consistent with your career and academic interests) and the non-academic, cultural-based, on-campus activities (consistent with your personal interests).

    The best way to tell if a college is right for you is by making a campus visit. Spending a few hours on campus, visiting classes, meeting students and observing the culture will give you a real sense of whether or not you will fit in there.

    At the right school, you will feel a real sense of excitement about what it would be like to attend classes there. College is incredibly challenging, academically and emotionally. Therefore, it is essential your school help bring out the very best in you.

    That won’t happen if you are on a tiny campus where everyone knows everyone else and you actually crave anonymity. Likewise, the anonymity provided by a large state school may be unsettling to someone who wants to get to know each of his or her classmates.

    Ultimately, choosing a college is all about what is the best fit for you. If you don’t do your homework, you will find out very quickly first semester freshman year if you made the wrong decision.

    Should you make the wrong choice, it is not only possible to correct the mistake; you owe it to yourself to correct it. But it will cost you precious time and will likely mean the four-year plan is done.

    2. Pick the Right Major

    Picking a major is even tougher than picking a school mostly because there is no real consensus as to how to determine what is right for you. That is truly a personal matter for the individual choosing.

    Moreover, while some students start college knowing exactly what they want to major in, many others are torn between many subjects that interest them greatly. In fact, most college counselors will tell you that uncertainty tends to be the norm and that the vast majority of students change their majors multiple times.

    Ultimately, you must discover what it is that you are passionate about. First you will do much better in those classes that you’re interested in. Second, it is much easier to study and work on materials in those courses that motivate you.

    This in turn translates to the critical time when you graduate – you don’t want a job, a place where you have to go to work to earn a paycheck. Instead what you want is a career, a place where you get paid to do things you are truly interested in and enjoy doing.

    Therefore you should not pick a major based simply on the notion that jobs in that field pay well or gain a certain level of prestige. Knowing you will make gobs of money one day will not necessarily help you deal with the challenges of those classes today. Likewise, if you don’t care for the work involved, the paycheck will not make up for your level of unhappiness.

    It is important to note that some people are unable to narrow their choice to one major so they construct a path towards a dual option. Other students pursue a major and a minor, or sub-focus.

    But if you have no idea at the outset, that is not necessarily a problem. At most four-year colleges, you aren’t required to declare a major until the end of your sophomore year.

    Therefore, if you are not sure, don’t pick something at random. Selecting the wrong major can be a step backward in the overall goal of finishing in four years. Instead go without specifying a major and select a general program that allows you to initially take courses to see which areas you might be interested in studying deeper.

    For more on the choice of major we suggest you visit the College Board.

    3. Enlist the Help of Your Advisor

    Though college is extremely expensive, one positive is the enormous set of campus resources available. One particular resource every student must take advantage of once they have enrolled in a specific school is their faculty advisor.

    These individuals are assigned a caseload of students and expected to provide both academic and general education guidance. Your advisor will be able to help you refine your goals, your academic focus (including help with choice of major), help you locate key resources, and are expected to monitor your progress toward your educational and career goals. They can also help you with the extremely difficult transition from high school to college.

    During your first two and a half years, these individuals can help you create a course schedule, keeping track of required prerequisites and contrasting your needs with the master calendar of courses that are offered. Without this guidance, students may find that certain prerequisite that must be completed for first semester junior year may not be offered second semester of the sophomore year and thus must be taken earlier in the student’s yearly schedule. Not knowing could lead you to miss a key progression that ultimately prevents you from completing your program in four years.

    In addition, if you are unclear as to what you want to major in or begin to have second thoughts about your choice of major, your advisor will not only be a great resource for helping you identify what you might want to consider instead. In the case of the person who is undeclared as to a major, your advisor can help design a broad-based general program that leaves you ample openings the last two years to move into a selected major. In the case of making a change, your advisor will be able to examine the specific repercussions of a change and help you mitigate the impact.

    During the latter part of your junior and all of your senior year, these individuals will serve as the first resource for that even bigger transition – when you complete your program and begin your career. At the same time, college operates on a you-need-to-be-an-adult basis. Your advisor will not be required to schedule such appointments. In fact, he or she will expect you to seek him out when the need arises.

    The University of Chicago web site has some great advice on how often you should meet as well as the proper protocols for setting up sessions.

    4. Attend Class

    One of the major differences between high school and college is that attendance is not mandatory in most college courses. While a few professors may include attendance and class participation in your final grade, most will not.

    The extra freedom is one of the great things about college. But with that freedom comes great responsibility.

    The quickest way to extend your post-secondary years is to either drop or fail classes. After all, the sheepskin comes only when you have accumulated the requisite number of credits.

    There is no doubt that class attendance facilitates the learning process. First the professor will present material that will supplement and elaborate on the readings and other written assignments. Those presentations can be essential to understanding difficult material.

    Second, the discussions of your peers regarding the material are both enlightening and motivating. In fact, most students soon realize that the lack of interaction that often occurs with online courses makes it very difficult to maintain your enthusiasm.

    Mississippi State University has collected data for eight years and found that the No. 1 predictor of academic success for freshmen was regular class attendance. Furthermore, MSU found a full grade-point difference between those who go to class (2.7 on average) and those who have attendance problems (1.7).

    Michigan State University
    , the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University all have published results that tie class attendance with course performance.

    At the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), they turn to the great philosopher Woody Allen for this basic advice:

    “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

    5. Study Dammit!

    This should go without saying – the surest way to extend college is to receive D’s and F’s in courses. Unlike high school, all college courses have extensive rigor and significant work demands. Cruise control is not likely to cut it unless you are a distant cousin to Albert Einstein.

    To be successful, you must not only find time to study, you must make a commitment to doing so. First and foremost, that means finding a quiet place where you can focus on the task at hand. And for most, that means getting out of their dorm room.

    The second element involves good time management skills. Studies show that studying in shorter chunks of 20-50 minute time periods followed by a brief break of 10 minutes is far superior to multi-hour sessions. Furthermore, the most challenging work should be done as early in the day as you can get to it. The more the day progresses, the more you get tired and your concentration level drops.

    That means you should rank your classes according to difficulty. For the two or three hardest classes, you should schedule some time every day to work on them, again focusing on working on the most difficult as early in the day as possible.

    Lastly, use the self-quizzing method that is so espoused by college professors. That means frequently closing the book and your notes and trying to recite the key concepts aloud.

    12 Red Hot Career Options Requiring Only a Certificate or Associate’s Degree

    Perhaps you saw the NACE Job Outlook 2011 featuring the list of the top majors for the Class of 2011. But for students who struggle with mathematics and the hard sciences, the list of four-year degrees featuring accounting, finance, electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science was no doubt overwhelming.

    But looking deeper, two critical elements of that report should give young people heart. First, NACE is characterizing the job market for 2011 graduates as “good,” a full shelf above last year’s “fair” rating.

    Perhaps more importantly for students, when it comes to job growth opportunities moving forward, there are a number of fast-growing career fields that allow entry into the workforce with no more than a certificate or an associate’s degree. Here are ten fields that are expected to grow significantly over the next five years.

    1. Gaming Book Writers and Runners

    The growth of the regulated gambling industry is providing a whole new field of work where the only required education tends to be a high school diploma. That said, students who have taken basic business courses and received customer service training will have the best chance of securing jobs in the industry.

    The industry still employs only a small number of individuals and work is confined to those regions where facilities have been or are about to be built. But growth expectations stand at 28% over the next five years with median pay at just a shade under $21,000 a year ($400+ week).

    2. Gaming Surveillance Officers

    As states struggle with revenues, there will continue to be cutbacks in public law enforcement personnel. Those cutbacks mean that firms with a need for onsite security will be hiring private security personnel.

    The aforementioned gaming industry is one such business that will require onsite personnel. To enter this field students generally need only earn a basic certificate from a local community college.

    Specific industry training is then conducted. With median pay topping $30,000 a year, this field offers a unique career option that would also include high tech video surveillance to check on any cheaters, either those gambling or even employees of the firm.

    3. Pharmacy Technicians

    As the health care profession continues to look towards greater efficiencies, one area where the work is likely to shift is within the delivery of prescription medications. Pharmacy technicians are expected to assume many of the clerical duties currently handled by licensed pharmacists.

    Formal programs are available at local community colleges, vocational schools, hospitals, and through the military. Ranging from 6 months to 2 years and including classroom and laboratory work, these programs cover medical and pharmaceutical terminology, proper record keeping, and pharmacy law and ethics. Most of these training programs include internships, in which students gain hands-on experience in actual pharmacies.

    Expectations have job growth at more than 30% through 2016 with median pay for 2006 at $26,510 ($12 – $13.00 per hour).

    4. Dental Assistants

    Offering median pay of nearly $600 weekly ($30,000+ a year), the dental assistant field is expected to grow by nearly 30% over the next five years. Once upon a time, students could enter the field directly after high school and receive on the job training.

    Today however, students are expected to complete a one- or two-year certificate or a diploma program first. As with all programs, greater employment options are available for those completing the longer-term certificate option.

    5. Dental Hygienists

    If the dental field is of interest, students may want to consider the higher paying dental hygienist option. Also expected to grow by more than 30%, the dental hygienist field offers a chance for higher pay in return for greater care responsibilities.

    In most states, dental hygienists must earn a degree from dental hygiene school and secure state license to practice. Most dental hygiene programs offer an associate’s degree, though some also offer a certificate option while others offer a bachelor’s degree. In return for that schooling, hygienists can expect to earn significantly more per hour than those serving simply as dental assistants.

    6. Skin Care Specialists

    Given a projected job growth of nearly 35%, the skin care specialist field represents one of the fastest growing sectors available. Some high schools currently offer skin care programs as part of their vocational schools but many candidates go on to a post-secondary vocational school to receive their training.

    Median pay for 2006 approached $30,000 annually ($600 weekly) making this a potentially strong paying option for those interested. Currently, estheticians are the skin care specialists that can expect to see the most job growth.

    7. Manicurists and Pedicurists

    One shelf below in terms of pay we find manicurists and pedicurists. However, an expected growth rate of nearly 28% makes this an up and coming career option.

    Current median wages top $400 per week for a position that does require certification. Personal appearance workers generally need to graduate from a state-licensed cosmetology school and then pass a license exam.

    8. Medical Assistants

    Openings in the medical assistant field will grow by more than a third over the next five years. The field also offers a median pay of $26,000 yearly ($500.00+ weekly) and will generally come with a decent benefit package that includes sick time, health insurance options, and participation in a retirement plan.

    To gain entry to the field, students can enter either a one-year certificate or two-year associate’s degree program with the latter offering better options for both securing initial employment and greater pay. In addition to the initial training, medical assistants also receive on-the-job training specific to their responsibilities from their employer.

    9. Veterinary Technologists and Technicians

    In America, we love our pets and those animals are in need of care. As with the health care field, the veterinary field is in need of technicians to help support the work of the primary care giver, in this case the vet.

    VTs can expect to earn $13.00 an hour in a field that will grow some 40% over the next five years. One method for entering the field is to complete a two-year associate’s degree veterinary technician program from an accredited community college. If you love animals, this field can give solid employment options.

    10. Personal and Home Care Aides

    With more than 750,000 new openings expected over the next five years, the home care aide field will be one of the easiest to find initial employment. Most states require no formal training for these positions with median pay of $9.00 per hour.

    A high school diploma is generally the only requirement to be hired but employees will immediately receive formal, on-the-job training. PCAs focus on performing housekeeping and routine services for those individuals who need support to remain in their homes. Most often, these individuals work with the elderly or those patients who are well enough to leave the hospital but not yet able to care completely for themselves.

    11. Home Health Aides

    As with home care aides, the personal and home care aide field will also produce more than 750,000 new jobs over the next five years. It is also a field where only a high school diploma is required but students looking to enter the field will receive extensive on the job training and work towards earning various certifications.

    With median pay of about $10.00 per hour, home health aides generally provide some medical support as well as personal care for patients. The key when entering the field is to do your homework. Full time employment at certain companies will carry additional benefits for workers including health insurance while other contractors will insist only on at will, hourly employees.

    12. Physical Therapy Assistants

    With growth rates at 32+% and median pay topping $40,000 yearly ($800+ weekly), a career as a physical therapy assistant represents one of those win-win career options: excellent pay along with the chance to help people.

    PTAs must complete an accredited 2-year program featuring an academic study component along with hands-on clinical experience. After completing the program, a PTA generally must pass a licensing test to be accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association.

    Our thanks to Boston.com for providing the data as part of their “The year 2016: The 30 fastest-growing jobs.”

    The Benefits of On-Campus Work Study

    There is much more to work-study than just the monetary benefit.

    College is first and foremost about earning that all-important degree. Successful students always remember why they are in school and structure their time according to the academic demands placed on them.

    But a growing body of research reveals that working on campus while in college pays enormous dividends for students. Those benefits come not only in the form of some much-needed cash to help with the college bills, those opportunities provide students a breadth of experiences that help them better round out their college years.

    Work-Study Options

    Working in the laboratoryOn-campus work-study programs provide students with part-time employment options during their college years. These programs come in two basic formats: Federal Work-Study and non-Federal Work-Study, often called Student Work Initiative programs.

    Federal Work-Study (FWS) is actually a form of financial aid that is awarded to students based upon demonstrated financial need. Therefore, to be awarded Federal Work Study students must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as any other financial aid documents required by their school.

    Ultimately, to be awarded Federal Work Study a student must meet certain financial eligibility requirements. And to be considered for this option, students must also check “yes” on the FAFSA form where it specifically asks if you are interested in student employment. If you are eligible for Federal Work Study, your financial aid award letter will indicate as such.

    While most students work from 10 to 15 hours a week, the amount of hours and thus the sum of money you will be allowed to earn cannot exceed the total amount noted in your total FWS award. It is also important for students to realize that qualifying for FWS will enable them access to specific job opportunities but that students will still need to interview for and secure the actual position (sometimes only a formality but for the best work options more than one qualified student will often be seeking a specific position).

    Non-Federal Work-Study (non-FWS) or Student Work Initiative programs are not based on financial need. If you filled out the FAFSA only to learn you did not qualify for FWS, you can still inquire about student employment opportunities on-campus.

    Though work options always will exist off-campus, on-campus work-study provides students two key advantages. First, transportation to and from work will never be an issue. Second, on-campus employers are far more accommodating regarding your need to place school first in your life. Therefore, they are more likely to provide you that much-needed flexibility when exams pile up.

    And it is important to note that one of the best aspects of Non-Federal Work-Study or Student Work Initiative options is that there is no limit placed on earnings. Therefore, at times when other students are not interested in working you can pick up even more hours should you want to do so.

    Benefits of On-Campus Employment

    There is little doubt that most college students take a job for the financial benefits associated with it. For some, work is absolutely necessary to help them pay their related educational expenses. For others, employment provides some basic spending money for incidentals and for treating themselves to the occasional night out.

    Though most students do work while in school, some believe that working during college serves as a distraction from what should be a student’s primary focus: their academics. But the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement demonstrated that working while in school was positively associated to student engagement.

    Similarly, it is now clear that the work-world can serve to enrich the college experience. Far from being a distraction for students, working during college has proven to be one of the places where students develop two critical employment and life-related skills: teamwork and time management.

    iStock_000012469379XSmallEven working in the school cafeteria can help students develop fundamental work habits. But securing employment with a specific department related to your field of study can provide students with the potential to deepen and enrich what they are learning in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, working students find their on-campus work experiences help them clarify their career aspirations.

    For all of these reasons, the idea of working while on campus is fundamental to the mission of such work colleges as the College of the Ozarks, Alice Lloyd and Berea. These colleges make work and service a fundamental of their educational philosophy.

    Give Careful Consideration

    Clearly, students can benefit significantly from working while in college. Everything from reducing the amount of money they borrow to rounding out the college experience makes working while in school often one of the most important aspects of the college years for all students.

    Such experiences can of course be gained off campus also in the right setting and with the right employer. So those options are deserving of pursuit as well.

    But students interested in work-study will generally find a wealth of options on campus where flexibility reigns and transportation is simply not an issue.

    College Students – It’s Time to Vote!

    It is not quite two years removed from the point when the youth of America propelled a relative unknown senator into the White House. Yet, for many Americans, it seems like an eternity since Barack Obama was elected.

    For those twenty-something’s who saw his election as a watershed moment, the current climate in Washington no doubt has them wondering why, once upon a time, they had such optimism. In fact, the partisanship being displayed by our elected officials may well be at an all time high.

    iStock_000006045721XSmallThe shift has many suggesting that 2010 could well be the “Year of the Non-Youth Vote.” John Della Volpe, the Director of Polling at the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, postulates just such a scenario.

    According to Della Volpe, for more than a decade the Harvard Institute of Politics study group has met regularly to discuss the current generations involvement in politics. Della Volpe insists that “the overarching narrative of the last ten years has been that of a new, potentially great generation — a generation that seemed intent on making an impact first as community volunteers and then in the voting booth.”

    But in the aftermath of the economic downturn and the extreme partisanship overtaking Washington, it now appears that more than 70 percent of young voters are not sure that they will vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Furthermore, less than one-in-five Millennials aged 18 to 29 indicates that they are politically engaged as this year’s election approaches.

    Discouraged, Like Most Americans

    The result is extremely troubling though we might contend that Americans of all ages just might be thinking it is time to sit this election out. Without a doubt, the voters that were the catalyst for Obama’s election have gone from strong levels of optimism to extreme pessimism.

    It is a sentiment that borders on despair, a feeling that comes when the populace becomes completely discouraged with politics. But as November 2nd approaches, Dell Volpe indicates that it is “not too late for young people, the great Millennial generation, to use the technology and tools that they invented to spread the word and encourage their friends and family members to spend five minutes to vote.”

    He further notes that President Obama “challenged Americans to hold both him and other elected officials accountable” for their achievements or lack thereof.

    We couldn’t agree more.

    Time to Vote

    iStock_000007306080XSmallIn simplest terms, now is the time for accountability for all of those currently in office. And those currently serving cannot be held accountable unless voters exercise their right to cast a ballot.

    Now it is the time to set aside our discouragement, to stop making excuses for inaction. It is time for us to review the candidates, their records and their position on issues so as to be able to make an educated decision as to who is worthy of our vote.

    America faces many difficult issues in the coming years: our debt load, our looming social security and medicare shortfalls, our need to make health care available to all, that it is not only about creating jobs but about a high quality of life for all citizens, etc. All represent challenges that demand elected officials who are willing to work collaboratively for the good of all people, not just a single segment of society.

    For those at a loss as to who to consider, we would suggest trying to help eliminate the gridlock by looking at the progressive, middle of the road, candidates, as opposed to either those on the far left or right. In our view, candidates who postulate that only Republican ideals are good or that only Democratic ideas are worthy are simply not going to help us move forward as a country.

    In other words, we challenge readers to consider both the people and their issues according to an independent set of standards as opposed to a simple assessment that has a person voting simply on party lines.

    At the same time, it is not too late to read up on the other issues that are special items in your local community. If you are not sure what the issues are and where you or other people stand, get online and begin a Google search of those items coming up for consideration.

    Check your local and other state papers as to where the editorial boards of these entities stand. With some very brief work you can get up to speed on all issues and how they affect you.

    Ultimately, it is our duty as US citizens to enter our views at the ballot box come next Tuesday.

    Yes, duty calls – so no excuses, make time to vote!

    Class of 2009 – Increased Debt a Function of Student Choices?

    When it comes to earning a college degree, students must do a better job of shopping around.

    untitled1Unfortunately a new report from the Project on Student Debt confirms that the debt load for college graduates continues to escalate. For the most recent set of graduates for which full data is available, the Class of 2009, the average debt load increased yet another 6% from its 2008 levels.

    That puts the average student debt load for a graduate in 2009 at $24,000. That number becomes even more critical when one considers the unemployment rate for young college graduates rose from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009, the highest annual rate on record.

    The Debt Load

    Though the average debt load number is significant, it is imperative that students understand that the variability of debt from school to school and state to state is extremely large. Simply stated, students can significantly limit their accrued debt by choosing an appropriate school.

    First of all, at the state level, debt at graduation from four-year colleges ranged from $13,000 to $30,000. The highest debt states continue to be concentrated in the Northeast while the lower debt states are primarily in the West.

    But as great as the discrepancy is state-to-state, the variation from college to college is far greater. According to the report, the campus debt ranged from as little as $3,000 to a maximum of $61,500.

    And while most tend to think that those with higher tuition are the culprits, the report found many examples of schools with high tuition rates and low debt. As a rule, however, those schools with higher tuition rates did post higher debts.

    Most importantly, this data taken collectively indicates that the decision as to where to go to college and which specific college to attend can dramatically impact the final debt load of a graduating student.

    Controlling Debt

    iStock_000002998021XSmallThe increased debt load of students in the Northeast is attributed to a couple of factors. First, both private and public four-year colleges in the Northeast have higher than average tuition rates.

    Second, the report notes that a larger than average share of students in the Northeast attend private nonprofit four-year colleges instead of public. The result of these two factors, both controllable factors for students, produce higher average debt loads for students in this region of the country.

    The news out of New Hampshire is doubly troubling – the state ranks second in student debt load with an average of $29,443. In addition, a full 72% of graduates end up with some form of debt, a percentage that ranks the state 5th overall.

    The District of Columbia ranks highest in average debt at $30,033. But another important factor is that a much lower percentage of students, 51%, graduate with some form of debt. That figure ranks the District of Columbia 38th overall.

    Clearly, different choices by students impact this data immensely. The bottom line is that there are schools that consistently produce graduates with high levels of indebtedness and those where the opposite is true.

    Private versus Federal Loans

    The report also reveals some very interesting results when looking at the type of loans students take on when incurring their debt.

    application formWe have often noted that other critical element in the loan process, the use of private versus federal loans to help fund the costs of college. Private loans lack the basic consumer protections and flexible repayment options that accompany federal student loans including deferment, income-based repayment, and the potential for loan forgiveness.

    Because private loans also typically have uncapped, variable interest rates, these loans generally cost more for those students who can least afford the additional expenses. Therefore private student loans continue to be one of the riskiest ways to pay for college and should be avoided by students if at all possible.

    However, according to the report, about 33 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients in ‘08 graduated with private loan debt. When all graduates were taken collectively, the average private debt totaled $12,550 for the ’08 grads.

    Here again, the report details significant variation in private loans depending on the school. As but one example, only nine percent of the overall student debt at Indiana University-Northwest (IN) was composed of private loans, compared to 41 percent at Bowling Green State University-Main Campus (OH). Yet both of these colleges had very similar levels of overall borrowing.

    The data once again reveals that at some schools students not only wind up with more debt, they amass more of the worst kind of debt a student can accumulate.

    Message for Students

    There are several key messages for students to take away from this recent report. Unless a student is from a family with unlimited means, all of the data points to the need for students to do their homework before applying and committing to a particular school.

    In addition to the many key elements such as programming options, size of school, type of campus (rural or metro), etc., it is imperative that students carefully review the data from the Project on Student Debt. As with programming, not all colleges are created equal. With a little extra research, it is possible to choose a college that is known for helping you control your acquired debt even as you earn that all-important degree.

    The problem today is that too many students are not doing their homework and in doing so, are mortgaging their future in the process of earning that coveted degree.

    Schools with high levels of debt:

    High Debt – Public Schools High Debt – Private Schools
    Alabama A & M University American University
    Alabama State University Buena Vista University
    Bowling Green State University-Main Campus Cleveland Institute of Art
    Ferris State University College for Creative Studies
    Fort Valley State University Eastern Nazarene College
    Indiana University-Northwest Florida Institute of Technology
    Iowa State University Green Mountain College
    Langston University Kettering University
    Lincoln University of Pennsylvania Lawrence Technological University
    Maine Maritime Academy Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus
    Mansfield University of Pennsylvania Minneapolis College of Art and Design
    Minnesota State University-Moorhead Ohio Northern University
    Pennsylvania State University (multiple campuses) Ringling College of Art and Design
    Plymouth State University Saint Joseph College
    Temple University Simmons College
    University of Alaska Fairbanks The College of Saint Scholastica
    University of Maine University of Dubuque
    University of Michigan-Dearborn Wheelock College
    University of Minnesota-Duluth Woodbury University
    University of Nebraska Medical Center Worcester Polytechnic Institute
    University of New Hampshire-Main Campus

    Schools with low debt levels.

    Low Debt Schools Type of School
    Berea College Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    Caldwell College Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    California Institute of Technology Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    Cameron University Public, 4-year or above
    College of the Ozarks Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    CUNY College of Staten Island Public, 4-year or above
    CUNY Hunter College Public, 4-year or above
    Hampton University Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    Kennesaw State University Public, 4-year or above
    Lamar University Public, 4-year or above
    Lane College Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology Public, 4-year or above
    Princeton University Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    Sam Houston State University Public, 4-year or above
    Southeastern Oklahoma State University Public, 4-year or above
    The Baptist College of Florida Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    Tusculum College Private nonprofit, 4-year or above
    University of Wisconsin-River Falls Public, 4-year or above
    Western New Mexico University Public, 4-year or above
    Williams College Private nonprofit, 4-year or above

    Click here for complete school data.

    6 Ways to Borrow Less for College

    The word is out – too many students are borrowing too much money to earn their college degree. While it can be difficult to control the cost of tuition and fees, students can make their college years far more affordable by simply focusing on reducing the costs of the other expenses incurred while in school.

    iStock_000001263418XSmallOften referred to as incidentals, these aspects collectively can add thousands to the cost of a year of college.

    Ditch the Car

    While attending college, one way to reduce costs is to forgo a car while on campus. Instead, we would suggest, in order, that students walk, bike or ride the bus.

    While most college students think they need a car, a set of wheels means a number of expenses including gas, the cost of parking (or parking sticker?), insurance and maintenance. Throw in the other headaches, even finding a place to park and the fact that everyone will want to borrow your wheels and a car is often a significant negative.

    While on campus, save those costs by walking or bicycling. In addition to the cost savings, there are also the basic health benefits of the extra exercise.

    And for those cases where it is truly not possible to walk or bike, then ride the bus. Public transportation is generally inexpensive and in most college cities, students pay even lower rates or no fares at all during certain times of the day.

    The hitch is you may not be able to go at exactly the time you would prefer. But with a little effort, you can work your schedule around that of the local buses.

    Buy Used or Rent your Textbooks

    Depending on your class load, if you purchase new books at the campus bookstore you can spend several hundred to a $1,000 per semester. If you take the time to shop around, you can get most cheaper online.

    Even better, look to obtain used copies of the same books. You can find copies online at Amazon.com, Half.com or one of the many used bookstores out there. Purchasing used will save you 50 cents on every dollar if not more.

    Yet another option is to consider renting your texts from one of the newer sites such as Chegg.com or BookRenter.com. This is an even better option than purchasing used if the book is not one you think you will want to keep as a resource when you graduate.

    Take Advantage of Free Activities

    One of the best aspects of college is all the peripheral activities, the concerts, the parties, the sporting events, etc., that occur almost daily on campus. But some of these activities can carry a steep price, especially the concerts and performances that feature nationally known talent or the football and mens basketball games.

    However, the beauty of college is that there are always free or extremely reduced cost activities for students. Instead of attending the mens basketball game, students may attend the ladies game instead or one of the lower profile sports for less and in some cases, for free.

    Another set of options includes the many campus recreation facilities, whether it be the first class tennis courts, the state of the art swimming pool, or fitness equipment. On campus there will generally always be times when students are permitted to use these facilities at no cost.

    Lastly, from on-campus movies to concerts featuring new, as yet undiscovered talent, there are always a wealth of options where you can leave your wallet in the dorm room. The key is to do your homework and find these available options.

    Eat In

    iStock_000005739545XSmallOne of the biggest drains on the wallet for college students is the constant desire to eat out. It really doesn’t matter whether it is McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts or a higher end outfit, you can go through cash in a hurry over the course of the week by dining out.

    If you bought a campus meal plan, use it to the fullest. If you don’t get up in the morning, then don’t buy a plan that includes breakfast. And don’t simply skip a paid for meal because you are less than thrilled with what is on the menu.

    If you didn’t buy a meal plan, then make sure you create a budget for how much you can reasonably afford. In addition, spend the necessary time it takes to grocery shop so that you have foods you can prepare for yourself. Those Ramen noodles or cans of prepared pasta just might be necessary once or twice a week to get by but you can’t prepare them if you do not have them on hand.

    Most importantly, get yourself a coffee pot and brew your own coffee or have a microwave and drink instant. One of the largest drains on the budget over the course of the semester is spending $2.00-$3.00 a pop to treat yourself to a cup of fancy coffee once or twice a day, four to five days or more a week.

    Refrain from Drinking Alcohol

    It is likely one of the staples of college for most students. But drinking and partying can prove to be very costly.

    Drinking at a bar or restaurant is always expensive even during happy hour. And when you are drinking, your inhibitions and your self-control diminish even as your appetite grows. The result is blowing some more cash on an outrageously expensive plate of nachos or wings.

    And drinking back at the dorm can also blow some serious cash if it becomes too frequent to say nothing of the costs for the delivery of that loaded pizza.

    Work Part-time During the Semester

    The best way to limit your borrowing is to find a part-time job. Working as little as 6-8 hours a week at minimum wage will produce $40-50 of spending money weekly.

    Some students like to work part-time in the cafeteria where shifts last as little as two hours and three and a half at most. Short shifts are easy to work into your schedule and take very little energy and focus away from classes and study time. Just three such shifts a week can raise some steady spending money.

    A second option is to research convenience store or desk jobs where you have to be available to answer the phone occasionally. In many instances, you will find accommodating businesses that will allow you to bring your school work into the job setting as long as you are committed to handling the job responsibilities when they arise.

    For Profit Colleges – Should You Still Consider their Programs?

    Over the past couple of months, a great deal of negative information has emerged about for-profit colleges. Particularly disappointing are the reports of failed promises regarding the value of a degree and the allegation that admissions counselors had encouraged students to falsify financial aid documents.

    These allegations and others certainly must raise a red flag for students. The question becomes, should students consider for-profit colleges when making their decision as to which school to attend.

    3D chrome Dollar symbolThe answer is an unequivocal yes in our mind. But that answer comes with an important recommendation, that students do their homework regarding the school, the value of its programs, and the costs of those programs before making any commitment to attend.

    What Is a For-profit School?

    When asked, most students do not actually understand the difference between traditional colleges and universities and those that are called proprietary or for-profit. The difference is monumental.

    Traditional schools are run by the government or a religious institution and are answerable to a board of trustees. Proprietary or for-profit colleges are operated by a group of investors or owners and are answerable to those constituents.

    The fundamental goals are therefore different with the focus of the second group being about making money for a group of investors. However, while that idea might seem strange to many people, using a business model in theory could make schools focus more on producing value for students.

    In fact, in most cases for-profits have done a better job than traditional schools in meeting student needs. These proprietary schools were the first to focus on online programming that gave students greater flexibility regarding taking courses. They also broke the traditional school calendar mold that had new students beginning only in the fall or spring and had courses fixed to a specific calendar. For-profits were the first to adopt models that allowed students to begin at multiple points during the calendar year and then work at their own pace to complete.

    The result is that programming for students became far more responsive to the needs of the person taking classes. This was extremely important to those who could not afford to take college in the usual format but needed to gain schooling while they were actively working full time and also raising a family.

    The for-profit model pushed the envelope in this area and now, traditional schools are beginning to understand the need to get on board if they want to compete for the adult student. This competition has been very healthy for the industry and thus we give for-profits high marks for their innovation.

    Work Life Balance signpostThe Concern with For-Profits

    While the business model demands for-profit schools be accountable for their finances instead of relying on a steady stream of tax dollars, concerns have emerged that their focus on making money has them doing so on the backs of their students. Troubling stories abound of students deep in debt and holding almost worthless degrees. Worse yet is the notion that for-profit officials may have encouraged students to commit fraud in the financial aid application process.

    The tales of alleged fraud certainly create a very poor image and raise legitimate questions as to the integrity of certain schools and specific aid offices. No one can condone such outlandish behavior.

    But truth be told, some of the other concerns raised about for-profit schools mirror the non-profit sector as well. Large numbers of students are leaving traditional school with enormous loans to repay and in some cases owning a degree that does little to provide them employment options.

    So what are the key issues for students? We think there are three areas students should focus on. But it is our recommendation that students considering any school, for-profit or non-profit, pay attention to these three items.

    School Accreditation and Degree Value

    If a school does not possess accreditation from a respected agency, then you should not give this school a passing glance. There is a phrase for schools that cannot produce credentials – they are called diploma mills. Such schools simply sell a worthless sheet of paper to unsuspecting victims.

    In the case of viable for-profits, a number will possess a national accreditation that may at first sound stronger than regional accreditation. But the fact of the matter is that regional accreditation tends to be more rigorous and credits from schools that have attained such status are more transferable.

    The bottom line is that students need to do their homework in this regard. You must verify that the program of studies has the appropriate accreditation to give it real value. In the case of certification programs, students must check to be sure the program of studies at that school will indeed give them specific credentials they seek for specific job options.

    Furthermore, if students are using a for-profit as a stepping stone for a full degree program, the responsibility for verifying that the credits from the for-profit will transfer lies with the student. You cannot simply accept the word of the for-profit institution.

    Many traditional programs still hold these newer programs in low esteem. Even for extremely viable study programs, it may be difficult to transfer credits to a more established school.

    But the same advice holds true for community or other public schools. Before taking any two-year program, check to be sure that the credits being earned will be fully transferable upon completion.

    Cost of Program versus Convenience
    istock_000007229384xsmallFor-profit schools will generally offer greater flexibility around the specific courses that they offer as well as around the time frames a student will require to complete their degree or certification program. But this convenience comes with a price, at times a very steep one.

    Despite offering students little in the way of library or on-campus benefits, for-profits are generally more expensive per credit hour than other institutions. In a recent Government Accountability Office report that has garnered a great deal of attention, these costs are made abundantly clear.

    The report notes that one student was informed by a specific school that a certificate in massage therapy would be a good deal despite charging the student a total of $14,000 for the certificate program. The GAO found that a local community college in the same area offered a similar certificate option at a cost of $520.

    As one other example, the GAO report noted that a specific medical assisting certificate program was $12,000 at a for-profit college. The report contrasted that figure with two others for a similar certificate program: one at a cost of $9,307 at a nearby private nonprofit college and another of $3,990 at a local public college.

    These figures make it imminently clear that students must shop before committing to any school for a program. While for-profits are very strong advertisers and pursuers of student business, often focusing on their positive attributes (that flexibility we mentioned), students clearly pay for that convenience.

    School Integrity

    Simply stated, higher education officials and their institutions must have high levels of integrity. If during any meeting related to financial aid you are encouraged to falsify or exaggerate information, you should end the meeting immediately.

    Such encouragement should raise red flags regarding all aspects of what you have received for information from a school. But since you are the one signing the documents, you will be the one held liable for fraud charges should they develop.

    When given information about graduation rates, the job opportunities related to a specific industry, and the earnings potential for jobs in that field, do a little research on your own to see if the figures you have been provided match real data. The Internet makes it very easy to check school claims related to completion rates or job prospects.

    Again, if at any time you find yourself being misled, then you should look for another school that offers programming in your desired field of study. All schools can be guilty of overselling their programs – ultimately it is the student’s responsibility to do their homework in this regard.

    Many Viable Options

    There are many viable for-profit schools and programs that serve a key role in the education of the adult workforce. Painting all with a negative brush does a disservice to students.

    But whether or not it is a non-profit or for-profit college, it is the student’s responsibility to ensure that he or she is getting real value for the money that is spent.

    If you fail to do your homework, you could well end up spending too much for your degree or certificate or worse yet, wind up with a degree or certificate that is of no value to you as you seek improved employment opportunities.

    Duke Graduate Karen Owen Learns Hard Lesson

    By now, you have no doubt heard the story of Karen F. Owen. Actually, you may not be familiar with the name but we would guess you know her story.

    Owen is the 2010 graduate of Duke University who composed the now world famous risqué PowerPoint, “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics.” We will not include a link to her presentation as we are certain savvy readers will know how to find it if they are not familiar with the young lady’s story.

    But we will share it in capsule form as a teaching tool for unsuspecting college students. In her document, formulated to look like a thesis presentation, Owen not only describes the men she’s had sexual encounters with; she also provides charts ranking their sexual prowess.

    The PowerPoint is extremely detailed and includes specific criteria that identifies the young men she assesses. And by identification, we mean the basics, names and photos.

    But most importantly to all at the moment, the thesis has gone viral – like any disease it is spreading across the Internet to every corner of the globe.

    For Once, Facebook not the Culprit

    iStock_000001520756XSmallIt is important to note a couple of basics here. Ms. Owen did not make the mistake of placing this presentation on her Facebook page or other social networking site where it would get shared instantly.

    No, according to the details of the story, Ms. Owen sent the PowerPoint to three of her girlfriends. How close a friend each was, we are not sure but one demonstrated behavior that is typical of most people who receive titillating emails.

    Yes, one girlfriend forwarded it.

    And one by one, members of the voyeuristic society that loves reality television and fawns over the tales associated with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, decided it would be cool to forward it as well.

    Meaning that it is now not only all over the subterranean Internet, unscrupulous bloggers looking to build those page counts have posted it on their sites for everyone to read. Some have decided that perhaps the mens’ names and photos were an invasion of their privacy, even if the young lady in question was the architect of their invasion, and redacted defining details.

    Others have not. And even those that have, well they continue to display the salacious details for the public to see.

    Debate about Empowerment?

    Amazingly, despite the shameful behavior of everyone involved, there are web sites associating her document with the women’s movement. Though Owen appears to be regretful and ashamed to the point that she has gone into hiding (pulling all her social network profiles), some folks are calling her actions self-empowerment.

    These discussions seem to focus on the guys do this kind of stuff to girls all the time (do they really?) so it’s about time they got their due. Funny thing is, if that were the case, one would think Ms. Owen would have done anything but gone into Internet hiding.

    Clearly, for her it was not about empowerment at all.

    Instead, it was about poor judgment; creating a document that reveals personal details about her and the men she encountered represents extremely poor judgment. And then there was the other decision, that one other last step – the urge to share said document with others.

    We have noted several times that one should never put any detailed information on a Facebook page for fear of what it might do to one’s future. We would of course now add, don’t ever email personal details to one of the people you deem a trusted friend either.

    Said trusted friend may or may not be really a friend. Then again, they may actually be a friend who happens to be someone much like the creator of the PowerPoint; someone devoid of judgment.

    A Teachable Moment

    We can’t help but feel bad for Duke University, the young men portrayed, the parents of young Ms. Owens and of course the infamous creator of the PowerPoint herself. There is a great deal of sadness to go around.

    The lesson here is obvious. It is imperative that every young person understands, male or female, that the Internet age demands careful consideration regarding the placement of private details about you and/or others into any document form, but especially digital forms.

    If you don’t, then you too could be as well known as Ms. Owens, for all the wrong reasons.

    The Student Loan Crisis – Is it for Real?

    Today the written word features extensive hype and hyperbole. After all, that is what draws readers to a paper or web site.

    So it was no surprise for us to come across the following headline: The Awful Reality Of America’s Student Loan Nightmare.

    At first, it sounds like a massive case of overhype does it not?

    Well, such a title is rendered much more relevant when we understand that it is on a web site such as BusinessInsider.com. Then, when one reads the article and learns of the debt some students have accumulated we have to agree the term nightmare is more than apropos.

    Consider further the Chronicle of Higher Education and its recent independent research on the topic.

    According to their data, of the student loans that entered repayment in 1995, one of every five has since gone into default. That’s correct, fully 20% of those who borrowed could not meet the expectations set forth in their repayment schedule.

    Fast Forward to 2010

    While one in five is truly scary, one needs to understand that the average student loan debt from that period was roughly $13,000. Today it is nearly double that figure, $23,000 plus.

    One might suggest, using simple math, that fifteen years from now we might expect a doubling of the rate of default.

    So no, the crisis isn’t hyperbole. According to the Wall Street Journal, “consumers now owe more on their student loans than their credit cards.” According to the June 2010 figures from the Federal Reserve, Americans owe some $826.5 billion in revolving credit. The total owed on student loans comes to $829.8 billion, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com.

    Over at the Huffington Post, op ed writer Zac Bissonnette noted the Chronicle data and went on to note that defaults are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of student loans. Many students who were not in default likely managed to stay in good standing only by accepting career options based on pay instead of goals and lifestyle choices based on debt as opposed to following their heart.

    Bissonette writes:

    “Looking at the default rate as a measure of difficulty in repayment is a lot like analyzing obesity in America by looking at the percentage of people who are so fat that they’re unable to get out of their chairs.”

    Avoid the Nightmare

    For the most affluent students such horror tales are likely irrelevant. After all, the cost of college is not much of an issue for those with means.

    But for the average American, the cost of a four-year degree is more than significant. And sadly, for most students, that extensive price tag becomes affordable only when loans are considered.

    But students must understand that college loan debt is far different than credit-card debt. First and foremost, college loans generally can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

    Second they often have very different repayment terms. Those terms often have heavy consequences for anyone who misses payments.

    Before Taking any Loans

    Yes, the crisis is for real. And today’s tough economic times are only exacerbating the issue for grads who took out loans.

    So before you are enticed by the lure of a college degree and the draw of a life on-campus, think carefully about how you are going to pay for that experience. There are a number of important things to consider before agreeing to any loans in your financial aid package.

    We suggest you take the time to review Six Things To Know Before Taking Out A Student Loan published at Forbes.com. All of the suggestions are extremely important though there are two we definitely want to highlight.

    Number three notes you must have a sense of your probable earning potential after you graduate. In simplest terms, if you are studying to be a teacher you cannot take on the same debt load as someone studying to be a doctor. The average student loan debt of $23,000 is most likely too much for someone entering the teaching profession.

    And number six notes you have to set an amount you are willing to borrow. It is imperative that students do their homework up front to be able to set a dollar amount limit on what they will borrow based on their future goals. Once that has been set, students will have a real sense of what they can truly afford in their choice of a school, whether or not they can afford to live on campus or must commute from home, whether to work part-time and attend school part-time, etc.