Earlier this year, the White House announced that Malia Obama would attend Harvard University ― but not before taking a gap year. She, like countless other teenagers, decided to take some time off between graduating high school and enrolling in college.
But why should only young people take advantage of this opportunity? What about those folks middle-aged and older? Fortunately, while there are plenty of programs for students like Malia, there also are several gap year programs that are geared for the restless, the retired or the about-to-be retired.
“There are many volunteer trips abroad that tap into [older] people’s civic-mindedness, and that combine it with travel, something that may have been harder to have time for in past years but is now absolutely a possibility,” Elizabeth Cauchois, program advisor for Projects Abroad, a large international volunteer organization, told The Huffington Post. “For those over 50, who are simply taking a career break, it can be a way to use their skills in a professional setting abroad and bring what they have learned back to their organization or company.”
Got your attention? For those ready to ride the gap-year train, here are seven awesome ideas on how to climb aboard.
1. Join the Peace Corps.
Did you know that the Peace Corps doesn’t have an age limit? Depending on the volunteer program you choose, your service can last from three months to two years. You can even choose what country you want to serve in, the type of work you do, and when you depart. For more information, the Peace Corps recommends talking with a recruiter. Go here to find out more.
2. Try voluntourism.
There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer your time and skills depending on what your interests are. You can do marine research with the Wild Dolphin Foundation in Hawaii or work with orphans in India. You can even volunteer to work on an Israeli military base through the Volunteers for Israel program.
When it comes to Projects Abroad, “we have one-to-two-week trips specifically for volunteers over 50. These are group trips, so volunteers can meet like-minded people around the same age, and are designed to accommodate the needs and interests of these volunteers,” Cauchois told HuffPost. “Volunteers can work with children, assist with renovation work, or contribute to sustainable development. These take place during the fall and spring, with a few different options in terms of dates.”
3. Connect with locals in foreign countries.
Try out an organization that’s designed to help travelers connect with locals. Rita Golden Gelman, 79, has been traveling the world for 29 years. “I have no home and almost no possessions. I have been welcome almost everywhere I’ve been … in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1987, in Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Indonesia, India, tribal New Guinea, Suriname, Guatemala, Mexico, and lots more,” she told HuffPost.
According to Gelman, author of “Tales of a Female Nomad, Living as Large in the World,” Servas is one worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network of travelers and hosts that can hook you up with families all over the world. “This is my favorite organization. There are 15,000 families who belong to the organization because they want to meet you!” Gelman said. “Everyone in Servas has been face-to-face interviewed. It is totally safe and there is no charge for a two-night visit. They feed you dinner and show you their world.”
4. Join a Road Scholar program.
While there is nothing keeping you from enrolling in courses at your local university or college ― and many places will allow older adults to audit classes for free ― the Road Scholar program puts an educational spin on group travel. Tours to a wide range of countries ― including Cuba ― are led by experts in the field. There also are suggested reading lists and most days include lectures and discussion groups. Subjects include just about anything and are based around interests and, of course, travel.
5. Try winging it.
“Often I just go somewhere that I see on a map … or somewhere some stranger suggests. I talk to anyone in the community who speaks English (waitresses, community leaders, guides) and I ask if they know of a family that would like a guest for a while,” Gelman told HuffPost. “I tell them that I will pay and that I want to help with the household chores and learn how they do things. I want to learn how and what they cook. I want to learn their chores, their songs, their dances, their daily routines."
“I want to learn about their religion, their customs. I want to play their games and sing their songs” she said. “I stay a long time … months, even years. Long enough for them to think of me as part of the family.”
6. Enjoy some time in Europe ― on the cheap.
Daydreaming about that summer you spent backpacking through Europe, but maybe without the backpack? You can do it now! For those on a fixed income, leasing out your house may be one way to afford a new adventure. Eliminating your housing expenses may free up enough cash to move freely around the globe. Or if what you really want is a nice base in say, Paris, you might even get lucky and do a house swap. Try a service like HomeExchange.com that claims to offer more than 65,000 homes in 150 countries.
7. Try teaching.
Whether you want to head off to Asia, Africa, Latin America or elsewhere, teaching English offers a wide range of great international opportunities for people of all ages, including those over 50. You may enjoy low-cost housing as well as the chance to soak in other cultures. For more information, go here.
No matter what type of gap year program you choose, Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association, suggests you enlist the right experts.
“If you don’t know about security issues, visas, or vaccinations ― seek out an expert in those specific areas,” he told HuffPost.
And then, just have fun.
“The world is more inviting than the media would portray. Friends are around every corner, and a bit of courage to seek out new friends is an important component to any successful gap year,” Knight said. “Challenge your comfort zones. Indeed, it’s the best way to grow!”