The Sad State of the American Gap Year – And Why We Should Change Our Ways

Adventure Travel, Solo Travel, Studying Abroad, Working Abroad — By on July 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Rachel Friedman
Special to The Lost Girls

There’s a beloved statistic bandied about by travelers, sometimes behind our backs but mostly right in front of our faces, an open challenge: “Only 5 percent of Americans have passports.” Cue non-American looking aghast. The number changes depending on the speaker. Sometimes it’s 10 percent, sometimes 15. The actual statistic is closer to 37 percent, but even that would be laughable to well-traveled foreigners.

What the percentage is intended to reveal is that Americans simply do not travel as much as people in many other countries do. Why I think the stat tends to be exaggerated and trotted out with gusto by smack-talking backpackers is that it also indicates something about the way we travel. That is – we don’t engage in long-term travel in the numbers that other nations with disposable income do. In particular, our young adults, who many consider have the most flexibility and spirit to go abroad for long stretches, typically don’t.

The term “gap year” is British in origins. The phrase was coined in the 1960s to describe a period of time where one interrupts the normal rhythms of adulthood to experience travel and work abroad. Contrary to what many Americans believe, the gap year is not a gift for the well-heeled. I made the majority of my traveling cash waitressing. There are heaps of service-oriented programs that offer room and board and stipends. And don’t underestimate heading to a country with a favorable currency rate (see: Bolivia). Although the concept is growing in popularity, taking a gap year still remains unconsidered by most Americans – in sharp contrast to the droves of Australians, Canadians, Europeans, Israelis, etc. who take one. Why?

First, the scandalous cost of education. Here in the U.S. we are often indentured to gargantuan student loans; thus, the scramble for post-diploma jobs. Thanks to Obama’s reforms, many students are now covered under their parents’ health insurance until their mid-twenties, but this was not always the case, and healthcare is still a primary concern for Americans – one reason we sprint into the job market.

The gap year is also fighting a quintessentially American myth. It goes something like this: America is the best. We have the most beautiful land, the best doctors, the most advanced technology, the smartest dogs, the highest-functioning democracy, the world’s best coffee, ad infinitum. No one might ask you outright: why would you wish to go anywhere else? But our national identity depends on the belief that we have it all right here. So why leave?

Our national identity also relies on a distinctly American work ethic. We are expected to study hard in school and then seamlessly transition into a job where we work many hours with the promise (increasingly elusive in this economy) of making a good wage, decent benefits, and a secure pension. We love to work in this country, love how it hones our identities into something quantifiable, love what, in our consumerist culture, we are able to buy in order to show the world how hard we work. Italians typically get 42 paid vacation days a year. The French are allotted 37. Us lucky Americans? 13. Travel equals a brief break from endless work, a time you can legitimately be lazy (think: all-inclusive resorts). And we do not yet have a thriving gap year culture where young adults return home with an alternative idea to disseminate – that travel can also be hard work, that it can enlighten and mature, that one travels not solely for leisure but actually to test herself. For these reasons, we view someone who takes time to extract herself from her position as cog in wheel as avoiding the “real world” – a false concept that relies on societal instead of personal expectations.

Although it is growing in popularity, especially given the high-profile deferment options recently offered by institutions like Princeton University, taking a gap year still remains unconsidered by most Americans, and the parents who fear they will never return to their education. They do, by the way, nine times out of 10. Studies also show “gappers” are more diligent students, the kind who don’t change their majors six times and drink away four years. And a gap year offers more than these easily quantifiable benefits: it brings maturity, perspective, and insight. Global citizens typically are educated, empathetic citizens – and, not to get grandiose, but the world could use empathy now more than ever.

When I was twenty, I went far away – alone. I befriended strangers. I forced myself to navigate strange streets and tongues. I swam with pink dolphins in the Amazon; sky dived in Australia; drank, dance, and fiddled in Ireland (not all three at the same time, that’s how people get hurt). I got into trouble and got out of it semi-gracefully. On the road, with only myself to rely on, I was stripped of all past hurts and future expectations. I existed only in the present moment. That is true freedom – and it is an invaluable way to understand who you are and who you want to become.

*****

Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure (Bantam Books, 2011). She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the creative nonfiction program at Rutgers-Newark. A literature instructor and excellent pumpkin bread baker, she lives in Manhattan with the Kiwi husband she met in an Irish bar in Peru.

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