In a Divided World, Gap Years Create Better Global Citizens

By all accounts, the past few years will not be characterized by future generations as a time of peace and harmony. Between Britain leaving the EU, Syrian refugees struggling to find refuge, divisive politics, and the tragic shootings of and by police officers, 2016 is seeing an ever-mounting list of scary, heart-wrenching events that challenge the notion that people are inherently compassionate beings. It is hard to see a period of immense social change when it is happening, but I think we will look back on these years as just such a period. One common theme of many of our current societal troubles is fear of the "other." The person with a different skin color, religion, or socioeconomic status incites a primal fear humans possess -- suspicion of those that don't belong to their tribe.

This primal fear may have offered some biological advantage eons ago when we were still evolving into modern humans. Now, however, in a completely interconnected, globalized world, blind tribalism isn't useful. It is the opposite, sometimes revealing the most ugly and shameful qualities of the human condition.

So, what is the cure for our current malady? We need to learn how to intrinsically recognize the humanity in others. And the best way to do that is through direct contact with people who are different from ourselves. There is a Zulu word, "Ubuntu," which roughly translates to, "I am what I am because of who we all are." It is a word that puts simply the very complex philosophy of interconnected humanity and the necessity of compassion.

It is wonderfully appropriate that this word comes from a language that is strange and unfamiliar to most of us. For the best way to cultivate intrinsic compassion is to seek other points of view and discover new cultures. It is also commonly accepted that when people open their hearts and minds, the imaginary labels, the preconceived notions and the prejudices weaken. Think of this tactic as a small-scale approach to peace making.


Today's young people are listening to a worldwide conversation. They are hearing both sides: those of fear and those of acceptance. And I, for one, would like them to grow into adults with an ubuntu philosophy in their hearts. One approach to encouraging this kind of development is through a gap year, a period of personal development whereby a young person deliberately seeks opportunities that challenge and motivate them.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Gap Association, 94 percent of gap year students reported that their time out allowed them to, "learn to interact with people of backgrounds other than [their] own" and 90 percent stated that their time helped them develop, "a greater understanding and/or respect for other cultures." The more we encourage our young people to take the time to learn outside of their cultural comfort zone, the better off we will be as a global society.

While a gap year can include travel to far-flung locations, the benefits of cross-cultural interaction can have the same profound effects closer to home. A student who grew up in a predominantly white, upper-middle class suburb can volunteer in the schools of inner city Chicago with City Year and develop a complex, nuanced view of the challenges faced by people with a much different upbringing. Another student may choose to shadow traveling doctors in Guatemala and understand the health challenges faced by people in rural poverty. The people on both sides of these interactions will benefit, so long as the experiences are rooted in mutual respect.

A sophisticated understanding of a gap year acknowledges that students may engage in activities that appear indulgent (international travel, short-term volunteering), but that the internal changes are usually the longest lasting positive effect. Offering gap year students the opportunity to develop empathy firsthand at such an impressionable age will inform who they become as adults. And most likely, they will grow into adults who look at complex issues with a nuanced lens and implicit compassion. Having more people with this skill set positively impacts businesses, politics and communities.

Imagine a world where a generation of young people engaged outside the bubble they grew up in through meaningful volunteer work, civil service or ethical travel. They would uncover a truth that is often drowned out by the noise of media, pundits and unconscious prejudice: we are all human, deserving of love, compassion and respect. In a word, ubuntu.

Graduating from high school and taking the next big step toward college can be daunting, so a growing number of students are choosing to take a gap year to focus on personal growth. Whether you spend a year traveling, volunteering or working, we'd love to share your story. If you'd like to contribute a text or video piece, please email and tell us all about your experience.

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