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Mind the gap

Gap years become popular post-high school option for Southwest Portlanders


Ten years ago, asking any intelligent, engaged teenager what he or she planned to do after graduating from high school would almost certainly yield the same answer: “Go to college.” But an-other post-high school option is gaining prominence in the U.S. and in Southwest Portland: Taking a gap year.

The American Gap Association defines a gap year as a two-month-to-two-year break from formal education, taken between high school graduation and the junior year of college, to “increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers ... by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning or working.”

Originally started in the U.K. in the 1970s as a way to fill the gap between final exams and the beginning of university studies, gap years got their start stateside a decade later. And in recent years, their popularity has been increasing exponentially.

Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the American Gap Association — which happens to be based in North Portland — said gap years are rising to prevalence largely for financial reasons.

“It used to be that college was much more subsidized by the government ... and unfortunately now a college degree costs so much darn money — and it seems to be taking people longer and longer to graduate — that the idea is, before you go to college, wouldn’t it be nice to have more of a sense of what you want to do as a career or even as a major?”

He added: “More so, the reason why for stu- dents it’s a growing avenue is because it costs less,” he said. Nowadays, “You don’t have to pay ... certain student-to-staff-ratios along the way. It’s a much less structured, more independent experience, so financially, it costs less.”

But it doesn’t all come down to money, he said. In 2014, high school students are able to do research about the concept of the gap year online.

Plus, gap years have now been a part of the cultural zeitgeist in the U.S. for so long that teens often first hear about gap years through word of mouth — and more and more, friends and family members seem to have only good things to say.

“Ten years ago, if I was going to a high school and ask, ‘What do you think about a gap year?’ most people would say, ‘Oh, it’s like summer school; it’s for kids who quote-unquote aren’t ready for college,’” Knight said. “Now, people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s for kids who want to go out and live life in a different way.’ It’s much more of an entrepreneurial spirit now ... less like summer school and more really laudable.”

Matan Horenstein, a Wilson High School valedictorian, didn’t head straight to a brick-and-mortar college in the States after graduating last year. But he didn’t pause his education either.

Horenstein enrolled in the Israel Experience at Bar Ilan University, a yearlong program in Is- rael in which students take university-level classes while enriching their Jewish identity.

“Many of my secular teachers, from Portland Public Schools, shared with me how important it is to travel and to see different cultures,” he explained. “My religious teachers and rabbis also were thrilled that I was going Israel because they believe Israel is the country you can grow the most spiritually and learn a tremendous amount about my Jewish identity.”

Horenstein will complete his gap year this month, and next fall he’ll start classes Yeshiva University in New York as a sophomore.

“I think that traveling to a foreign country and studying different cultures, religions, and conflicts in our world is extremely important,” he said. “We all live on the same planet, yet we know so little about each other. A gap year also gives you the time to evaluate what you want to do in your life and explore profound questions such as the meaning of life when you are in the right settings. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to attend a program full of staff that are dedicated to helping me search for the answers and truth behind life.”

He added: “I’ve heard ‘gap years’ are for people who are lazy or not ready for university. Although this may be true in some cases, in mine and several of my friends’, it’s the opposite,” he said. “We wanted a year full of receiving insights, knowledge, and experiences that you wouldn’t get in a classroom environment back in a university. Last year, I could have gone straight to university, but I decided that this gap year would raise my ‘potential for success’ in the years to come and now that my program is coming to an end, I could not agree with that thought more.

All in all, he said, “This year was critical for me because I have learned so much about myself. I believe that this year has solidified by values and I am more than ready to attend a serious university back in the States and work at achieving a degree.”

Horenstein’s experience is not unusual for someone from Southwest Portland, according?to Knight: “In Southwest Portland, one thing that’s really nice is ... it tends to be slightly more of a worldly kind of leaning quarter of Portland, so I get a lot more, I would say, of the internationally interested people.”

Olivia Wallace, another member of Wilson High School’s Class of 2013 and the school’s Rose Festival princess last year had to deal with the traditional misgivings parents and teachers have been known to have about gap years. But she said it didn’t take long for them to see the light.

“My parents were initially upset,” she recalled. “They took a roundabout way to finish college in their mid-20s and thought that taking a year off would lead to multiple years outside of school. After I cemented my decision, they have been nothing but accepting and helpful. A few of my teachers were surprised because a common misconception is that students taking gap years are slackers. My extended family was a little surprised initially. Once they found out what adventures I had in store, they were excited for me.”

With that out of the way, “Throughout fall and winter I spent a lot of time WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Oregon and California. I don’t have a substan- tial amount of money, unfortunately, to spend a lot of money on an overseas ticket but wanted to learn more about sustainable agriculture,” Wal- lace explained. “I have also been nannying on and off for several families. In early April I left home for San Diego to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I knew I wanted to spend a lot of the year exploring life outside of a classroom but still learn a lot. I think I have accomplished this.”

When asked what she would say to set straight a popular misconception about gap years, Wallace said, “I would say that students who take gap years are not slackers. I have heard from my college that gap year students usually come in the most prepared and ready to learn out of any. Taking a gap year is not just about travelling and doing fun things. It can also be used in a very productive way to prepare more for college my gaining more real world experience.”

She added: “Any student that feels they have been their limit should think about taking a gap year. After 4 years of AP classes, sports, extracurriculars, and class at Reed (College), I needed a break to explore life in a different way. Taking a year off can definitely help eliminate college dropout rates.”

Indeed, a study the cited by the American Gap Foundation, “The Characteristics of Gap-Year Students and Their Tertiary Academic Outcomes,” found that “Taking a one-year break between high school and university allows motivation for and interest in study to be renewed.”

“I’ve never had anyone regret doing it,” Knight said. “Let’s say they go off — independently, they get mugged, they get robbed, they get sick, all of the tick boxes for a horrible experience are ticked — they’re still so happy. There’s a reality to it. You go out like that, you’re on your own, like the great seafarers of millennnia past.

“With that sort of adventuresome experience, they come back much more self-aware because of it, and even more so, self-empowered.”

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 108.