Let's Stop Calling it a "Gap Year"

With the recent news that Malia Obama will be taking a "gap year" before she starts her time as an undergraduate at Harvard University, the term is all over the news again.

Personally, I'm excited for Malia. I took what many called a "gap year" myself after college: working as a volunteer coordinator at an orphanage in Haiti. From 2014-2015, I lived and worked at Espwa orphanage with a friend from college. We spent the year living on a small stipend, organizing volunteer trips for groups across the U.S., facilitating cross-cultural understanding and living in a different country, among new (now lifelong) friends. My time in Haiti is largely what pushed me toward the graduate degrees in Social Work and International Development that I will begin working toward this fall. So it's no surprise that I'm an advocate for "gap years."

For me, that year in Haiti was one of the most formative of my life and I'm thrilled at the thought that Malia has the possibility of such an impactful year in front of her. More than that, her decision has implications for the decisions of future high school and college graduates across the country. Her choice could normalize "gap years" for young Americans. When done right, they can be a time to learn about ethical community engagement and confront some of the injustices in our world and I think that's important.

That being said, I have a couple issues with the term.

First, it's a misnomer. It's not a "gap" from real life. Taking a year to do something you're passionate about, outside of whatever our culture has determined is the correct educational and career trajectory is not a break. It was frustrating to me during my year after college that so many people referred to my first year as a "gap year." From my perspective, I wasn't hitting pause on my career or my aspirations. I was taking very intentional steps towards figuring out what I wanted for myself: steps that I see the fruit of now.

Try telling a "gap year" student working 50 or 60+ hours a week for a small stipend that they are taking a "break" from real life. In reality, that student is likely taking on extra responsibility and often extra stress. I think it demeans the hard work and intentionality of the choices young people like Malia make when we call it a "gap year" instead of recognizing it as the valuable year of work it is.

The other problem I have with the term is that equating a year like this with a "gap" from real life, makes it sound like something that is accessible to everyone. Anyone can take a break, right? The truth is, the ability to do something like I did in Haiti, like others do in fellowship programs across the US and the world, takes a certain level of financial stability.

What the term "gap year" doesn't tell you is that the majority of Americans can't even consider such a thing because they are drowning in debt accumulated from college. A "gap year" isn't the "break" that the term suggests it is and actually it's inaccessible to most. I was able to spend a year working abroad, living on a stipend because I had privileges in life that allowed me to graduate debt free. Many of these programs don't help you pay off your loans and some can't even defer them. That means that for most American students this type of year is not an option.

So, congrats, Malia! I hope the year ahead is a step towards your future career like my first year out of college was for me. If it is anything like my time in Haiti, it will be challenging, but incredibly rewarding.

For all those with Malias in their lives or, perhaps more importantly, those who can't do a year like this, let's stop calling it a "gap year" once and for all. It belittles the work students put into these years of their lives and it marginalizes those without the privileges to be able to work for a year for less than a living wage.