1/08/2009

Gap Years: Just for the Rich?

I'm responding to the article: "New High-School Elective: Put Off College" December 30th. Now I have a few choice words. So this is taking the form of an open letter below.

It's sad that such elitist and establishment-based examples are how the Wall Street Journal choose to discuss something as simple and potentially democratic as the notion of a "gap year". First of all, what is a gap year? What is the point of it? This article doesn't seem to know. Is it a language program? Is it volunteering? It is being overseas? Is it character building? Is it down-time from high school? Or should it be action-packed with no downtime at all?

I say waste, because I firmly disagree with the notion that taking a year off in which a young adult can gain valuable experience about the world, and more importantly, themselves, is something that the middle class (and the day when these families can be described as middle-class will be happy day for America) can simply not afford. My own gap year, would normally fit into the top tier price-wise, valued at about $10,000 or more, was completely subsidized by the Government of Canada. Such financial aid options are widely available to Americans seniors in various forms. I've since traveled and volunteered quite a bit through the world, and I've learned that gap years, if properly conceived, are neither so expensive nor difficult to research in the slightest. The notion of hiring a consultant to accomplish something that can be done with google in an instant, smacks of a lazy elitism I find quite discouraging. The claim, for example, that there are "more than 100 programs in China" to sort through is simply untrue. There are perhaps half a dozen organized programs of this type in the entire country, unless of course you are a speaker of another European language, such as Italian, French or German, in which case a handful of other programs would be available.

Private schools and consultants are exacting an unnecessary price from uninformed rich parents. While a part of me applauds their entrepreneurship, the image they paint of gap years makes it seem as if the price tag would be a daunting price for others. I write this letter with much love and affection for my friends who are C.I.E.E. students currently completing an entire year here at ECNU in Shanghai. They are brilliant, exciting and hard-working young students with bright futures ahead of them. I suspect their soon-to-be-colleagues are going to be very similar. But $12 000/5 months or $20 000 is not something an ordinary American family can afford, and less-fortunate families that want to send their kids abroad should know... they can.

I come from a lower middle class family. But I have volunteered in Africa for my own gap year and gone to China twice on academic scholarship during my undergraduate degree, which I'm fortunate enough to benefit from the resources of Canada's top universities. The cost to myself and family for all three of those overseas programs was together less than $6000, almost exclusively the cost of airfare. All three programs were subsidized by either the Canadian or the Chinese government. But It is possible to pay substantially less for the programs that these students and their parents desire without even a dime of scholarship money.

(I'm a Chinese Govt. scholarship recipient at the school she will be attending, with friends inher program, so I must admit some insider knowledge) The program which Ms. Kivel selected in the end, C.I.E.E. is the first result on any search engine when the keywords "Gap Year Program China" are typed in. Or perhaps, because C.I.E.E. is one of the oldest, and most established exchange program providers in America. That's how her $2000 consultant found her $12,000 Gap Year program. The university she will attend charges less then $1400/semester and Shanghai has made host family services that will provide free housing (no commission) for English speakers to live with them. Additional classes and tutoring available to CIEE students should have a market value of more than $1000. Avg cost of housing in Shanghai for foreign students is $150/mth otherwise. Avg. living cost (for a foreign lifestyle) $300/mth. Avg. English teacher salary is $20-30/hr. Volunteer jobs are plentiful and again require no commission, just a phone call. A plane ticket to China 2-ways from a West Coast city costs $1000-1200, East Coast is $2000+. Look! I've just cut the cost of a six month program in Shanghai down to $6,300 (and that's living QUITE comfortably in terms of access to ALL the comforts of home and having lots of fun activities and doing lots of shopping in the cheap goods heaven that is China! Of course, you lose a lot of the hand-holding and extra perks of a program as well laid out as C.I.E.E.. For some parents, five thousand, ten thousand more dollars doesn't make a big dent in their minds, but for most teens, they simply wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise.

So in short, high school seniors and parents, if you have an interest in taking a gap year, or sending your child on one, but fear that you can't dole out the money of the rich and fabulous...

Do not fear.

Here are some steps to take yourself through to creating your perfect GAP year.

  1. Do you want to take a gap year? Maybe you don't. It can be an incredible adventure for some, but for others it can be a depressing time away from friends and family. Think first whether you're really interested in living abroad or simply in the romanticism of traveling abroad. There is a immeasurable difference between going to an all-inclusive resort in Acupaulco and volunteering in Barrio in even the same city. Some people crave a cross-cultural experience. If you don't, a gap year simply isn't for you.
  2. What do you want out of your gap year? Spiritual development? Maybe you should go the religious route. Want to become fluent in a language? Find a university or a homestay program. As a professional language student and part-time language teacher, I'll even suggest a third (very cheap) option. If I had to do it all again, I would go to live in a country and teach the language to myself through a combination of exposure to all forms of media, immersion, a modular educational approach, and plenty of private tutoring. Want to save the world? Think first about what skills you actually bring to the table. If you have skills that actually are useful, find out where they're needed. If you don't, there are many humanitarian projects that will take on volunteers and teach you those skills and let you help people in need... for a donation, of course. I felt depressed after my time volunteering in Africa because I felt that I didn't really contribute to the community where I lived in a meaningful enough way. I realized afterward that the point of going, was not for me to help them develop, but for the to help me develop! You having real skills that the community doesn't is what separates humanitarian volunteerism for educational volunteerism.
  3. Okay, you know what you want? Now where do you want to go? Think of a place you've always wanted to go. Sky's the limit. But keep in mind, you have to want to live there. Not visit but live. If you can't rough it out, developed countries are for you. If you crave the wild side, maybe the developing world will fit your personality. But be careful what you wish for. I've had many a gun pointed at my head, and had many close calls with dangerous political and health situations. Don't put yourself into a dangerous situation.This is where private agencies and programs come in handy, but if you're going the cheap route, that just means the research falls to you. Contact the American, British or Canadian consulate or embassy in the country you're interested in. The State Department's website also includes travel adisories on all countries. The CIA World Factbook and wikipedia are also good places to flesh out your interests.
  4. You know where you want to go, you know what you want to do. Don't worry, it could be multiple places. Now, open up Google and begin searching away, using as many keywords as possible. There are many websites that have databases of volunteering/educational programs and placements. One great example, for the environmental/agriculturally-inclined is WWOOF, the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. For a small membership fee, you can have access to thousands of placements in various foreign countries on all inhabited continents. Generally WWOOF volunteers get free room and board, and education about agriculture in return for part-time farm labor.
  5. Select a few top choices, send some inquires, figure out your plan. How much will it cost? Look for scholarships. Make your own scholarships. You might have made a doubletake there, but I am quite serious. In your community. you will have many charitable organizations and foundations. If you have financial need, and can explain the benefits of the program you want to embark on (teaching you a valuable skill, delivering humanitarian aid, etc) you can probably find a group. My small town municipality actually gave me $500 when I went to volunteer in Africa. All it took was a letter and a two minute speech before the town council. Other fraternal organizations helped me make up the remaining cost in donations. I had a bottle drive. Get a paper route. It's shameful that the article I'm address didn't even think to mention Rotary International's international study abroad program (one of the biggest charities in the world), the original gap year program that sends high school seniors to... well... kind of re-do their senior year in a foreign country. Sounds like high school all over again, but it's really not. It certainly isn't a lot different than these programs in the previous article. Oh and did I mention? The Chinese government offers hundreds if not thousands of placements every single year for the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC) award that gives full scholarships to high school graduates, university students, graduate students, researchers and others to study Chinese or even do full university programs in China. In fact, in the past, the CSC has complained about the lack of applicants!
  6. Buy your airplane tickets, arrange your visa (if necessary) and away you go. These days there are plenty of budget airlines and it's pretty easy to find cheap seats on the internet. We don't need to use a travel agent to plan our holidays anymore, why would we need a "gap year consultant" at any time?
There you have an affordable gap year that if planned correctly costs no more than a year of community college. Minimal cost, maximum benefit. I previously gave the example of a six-month program in China. A program to a Latin American nation could cost a tiny fraction of that because the reduction in airfare and other cost of living differences. African and European programs are more expensive then Latin American and Asian programs for the reasons of popularity, cost, A gap year doesn't need a luxury of the rich. It can be a resume, and character builder that all Americans can afford.

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