The start of the 2020 – 2021 school year has been interesting to say the least. From online schooling to learning pods to half-on, half-off schedules, it's a lot to digest for anyone. It's no surprise then, that a record number of college students are trying to ride out the COVID-19 restrictions by taking a gap year between high school graduation and college and deferring enrollment until 2021.
What exactly is a gap year, though, and what should be done during it? According to the Gap Year Association (yes, one exists), the phenomenon can be traced back to Britain after World War II. While never as popular among U.S. undergrads as it has been in England, the idea of taking a year to mature, work, volunteer or travel before jumping into higher ed has become understandably more enticing since the advent of COVID-19.
If you're planning on deferring college for a year, or just want to test the waters to see what else might be out there, please keep reading for our five top ways to fill the gap during your gap year – and prevent every type of collegiate FOMO while you're at it.
One of the most devastating aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has created an enormous amount of people in need at the same time nonprofit agencies have seen their budgets, volunteer numbers and donation rates shattered.
What could possibly stand in the gap you ask? YOU. Volunteers are needed now (maybe more than ever) to help agencies stem the financial and personnel losses of COVID-19. If making a difference is high on your gap year ‘to do' list, reach out to area food banks, social agencies and nonprofits, and talk with them about how to put your specific skills to use. If you're a whiz at website building or hanging out with children or taking pictures, there's a spot for you at an organization that needs the help. And even if you don't have a particularly defined skillset yet and wouldn't quite call yourself a "whiz" at anything, just showing up on the frontlines with a smile and a ‘can do' attitude counts for a LOT.
Before you commit to just any organization or cause however, be sure to think through the impact that what you learn may have on your future schoolwork or professional life. It may be best (and most interesting) to work with one that lines up with your planned course of study. If you've decided on majoring in Women's Studies, for instance, find a nonprofit that works with women. If you're looking forward to majoring in English Literature, look for a group that needs help writing grants, or teaching literacy skills or donating books. And if you have no idea what you want to study, simply look for one that aligns with your interests – like teaching yoga to the elderly, or taking shelter dogs out on runs. Wherever your particular skills or interests lay, there's a match out there that needs ‘em, so don't be shy.
Similar to volunteerism, activism can be a great way to make a difference while learning some critical life lessons while you're at it. The social unrest of the last several months continues in cities across the country, so if getting out there and making your voice heard is important to you, this is the perfect time to research which organizations are active in your area and join the movement! While the activism in the news today tends to be focused on rallies against police brutality and racism, there are grassroots activism efforts for many – if not most – areas of public, economic, political and social concern. Whether it's equal rights, health care, working wages or environmental concerns, the chances for activism span the spectrum. A gap year is a great year to explore different belief systems, meet and talk with new groups of people, and educate yourself about the impact you can make.
Remember too that activism doesn't always mean participating in marches or rallies. If you live in an isolated area, or simply don't feel so keen being in large public gatherings, there are plenty of ways to use social media and the Internet to boost your favorite causes. There are many different ways to get the word out – the important thing is that you try.
Most (if not all) of college students deferring enrollment for a gap year are going to need to bring some money to the table during and after it. While the professional prospects for a would-be student may not be the strongest, there are some opportunities custom-fit to your situation. Chief among them? Childcare, tutoring and overseeing student pods.
Jessica Downes Steubner, founder of The Pupil Pod in Philadelphia, explained that a college student deferring enrollment would be a great fit for her company's ‘Nanny Pod' offering.
"Our Nanny Pods are made up of four to six similarly aged kids overseen by an instructor," explains Steubner. "Unlike our Master Teacher pods, the Nanny pods aren't tied to state education standards and are more about providing a fun, safe and enriching environment for kids to socialize and let out some steam. We've had a lot of luck hiring college students looking to fill time during their gap years because they've got the energy and stamina to keep up with our students!"
Scour Nextdoor, Facebook, Craigslist and the local media for information about job opportunities at pods, camps, schools and private homes in your area, or – if you're feeling particularly entrepreneurial – think about what it would take to start your own childcare business.
If childcare isn't your thing, don't worry. There are still plenty of jobs out there for someone in your circumstances. Just keep your ear to the ground and your mind open for any openings that come your way. And if there's something you've always wanted to do or a place you've always wanted to work, there's no better time than today to investigate and make it happen.
Admittedly, traveling during a pandemic may not be your first choice but if you're looking to see the world (or at least a little corner of it) before committing to higher education, there are definitely many gap year programs to explore. We found a comprehensive list at COVIDgapyears.com, as well as links to organizations to help guide your search, find a job while abroad, and even learn a new language immersion-style. Some of these opportunities also offer the chance to earn college credits, so be sure to check with your university to make sure the instruction is transferable.
If you're in the mood for something different but not looking for anything super- structured, find out if your family members or family friends have any underused bedrooms in their necks of the woods. One Denver mother of an 18-year-old told me her son is staying above his Uncle's garage at an east coast beach while taking free, transferable online courses at a community college. Doesn’t sound so shabby does it? Broaden your definition of what ‘travel' may actually look like in these times and you might be surprised by the chances you find.
Our last tip on what to do during a gap year is probably our most important. Create. Things might seem a little intense and uncertain at the moment, which is not fun to live through but can also inspire some really meaningful art, music and performance as we all try to make sense of the world around us. Take it from a grown-up: a gap year is the perfect time to try new things and new ways of expressing yourself. Look at all the movies and shows being filmed over Zoom, the unknown chefs emerging from the culinary shadows with loaves of sourdough bread, or the thousands of TikTok videos posted daily. Creativity is in. And there are many benefits to it. In addition to giving you a new outlet and, perhaps, a new set of skills to add to your resumé or college application, the act of being creative even improves mental health. Who couldn't use a little improved mental health these days?
One more note about creativity: it's not limited to artistic expression. Don't be turned off if you can't draw or sing. Creativity can be building a business. It can be exploring somewhere new. It can be planting a garden, or refinishing a dresser, or trying out a new haircut. It is as large or as small as you want it to be, because it is all yours. Don't be hemmed in by what you've done before or what people think of you. Going away to college is all about finding out who you are. Skip the FOMO and begin to find it out for yourself, on your terms, during your gap year.
However you decide to spend this time, make sure it's doing something that fulfills you, teaches you and makes an impact – no matter how small. And don’t forget to let us know! We can't wait to hear about what adventures you get up to, and what lessons you learn outside the college classroom.