Before College, A Taste Of Real World

February 29, 2004

Before College, A Taste Of Real World
''IT'S incredible. It's fabulous. It's stressful, and some days I just want to tear my hair out. Why can't I save every one?'' said Sonia Pascal, who at 18 recently deferred admission to the Ivy League to tutor sixth-graders in the Bronx.

Ms. Pascal is enrolled for a 10-month stint in City Year, a nonprofit, national service program for young people. Graduating seventh in Norwich Free Academy's 2003 class, Ms. Pascal saw her deferment as a precious chance to ''develop my humanity,'' while still attending the University of Pennsylvania next fall, and then, perhaps, law school.

The fierce competition to get into good colleges has spawned a marathon of stress, punctuated by multiple advanced placement courses, mountains of homework, prep courses for the Scholastic Assessment Tests, peer pressure, meetings with private tutors and admissions consultants, membership in team sports and other résumé-building activities.

Some high school graduates, like Ms. Pascal, while not burned out by the admissions race, are seeking new adventures before sitting in a classroom for at least four more years. Others are so burned out that they need a break.

And so, a small but growing number of students are temporarily stepping out of the race. Instead of college, they first are doing a ''gap year,'' working in inner-city schools, maintaining national parks, or engaging in an experience-based program here and abroad. In turn, their experiences are encouraging other students and sparking discussions about such alternatives among guidance counselors, and parents. While many parents fear a gap year will deter their child from ever attending college, advocates of the interim year said the benefits far outweigh the risks. Meanwhile, some elite colleges, including Harvard and Yale, are delighted by these deferments.

''We see it happening and recommend it more and more,'' said Steve Boyle, a counselor at William H. Hall High School in West Hartford. ''Eighteen-years-old is pretty young to make decisions about your life.''

Most gap year students arrive at college mature, experienced in the ''real world'' and ready to learn, said college admissions officers, guidance counselors and educational consultants.

For almost 30 years, Harvard has been recommending a ''gap year'' in its admission letter. At Yale, ''We just think it's a great idea,'' said Margit Dahl, director of Yale's undergraduate admissions, noting 20 to 40 Yale students defer admission annually. ''We would love it to grow.''

Lewis & Clark and Haverford Colleges are seeing more deferments. A decade ago, Haverford, a small, liberal arts college in Haverford, Pa., averaged one deferment a year, related to unusual family circumstances, said Robert Killion, the director of admissions. Now, Haverford is granting deferments to about a dozen students for gap year experiences and fielding many more related inquiries, Mr. Killion said.

Michael B. Sexton, dean of admissions at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., said it has seen a slight increase of gap year students.

''We don't see a downside to it,'' he said.

Educational consultants said it is growing in New England, California and New York. Some programs, like City Year, pay participants a stipend, while other programs here and abroad don't pay anything and cost participants thousands of dollars in fees and airfare. City Year also gives a $4,725 higher educational award after completing the program.

At Hall High School in West Hartford, five students from the class of 2003 deferred college to work at City Year sites in New York and Boston. The students' decisions set a record at the school, where high-achieving seniors take five Advanced Placement courses and town officials recently eliminated class rankings because so many students had such high grades.

Adwoa Arhin, 18, a Hall High School graduate, didn't let the pressure affect her.

''I'm a pretty mellow person,'' said Ms. Arhin, who deferred admission to Reed College in Portland, Ore, to work with children in New York with City Year. ''I felt it was a like a good time for me to give back.''

Cassie Cats, 18, another Hall graduate in the City Year program, said she needed a break.

''High school was difficult for me. I'm just not that competitive. I had to take a break from that mindset,'' she said, noting that she didn't apply to college.

Some counselors and consultants said many students are saying that.''They just feel like 'There's no time for myself. And if there is free time, I sleep late,''' said Diederik van Renesse, a Westport educational consultant noting, ''They feel so much pressure and they want a change.''

Miss Cats works with elementary school children and on community improvement projects in the Hyde Park section of Boston. Despite the often long hours and busy pace, ''I love it,'' she said. ''You feel a sense of accomplishment.''

Miss Cats, who said her goal is to be a special education teacher, is applying to Boston area colleges.

Dr. Nancy DePalma, Hall interim principal, is judiciously enthusiastic about the gap year concept. ''It's an appropriate alternative for the right student,'' she said.

An unfortunate demographic of too many top students vying for admission to the same select colleges in the Northeast has brought inevitable rejections to even the best students. A well-structured, interim year is a welcome alternative, said Joan Ramsay, guidance director at Simsbury High School. ''It's exciting, acceptable, unique and something fun I can do out there, when so many doors are being closed,'' Ms. Ramsay said, describing some students' reaction to the concept.

Some consultants see the gap year as a way to make a student a more desirable college candidate, bettering their admissions chances the second time around. Robert P. Gilpin, co-author of ''Time Out: Taking a Break From School, to Travel, Work, and Study in the U.S. and Abroad,'' said the strategy has worked well.

''In the past three years, I've worked with 40 kids in that situation; three of them did not change their status, but the others did significantly,'' he said.

For example, one student, unhappy with her college choices, spent a gap year working as an intern at a biotechnology firm and studying in England, and then was admitted to Cornell University; another got into Brown University, Mr. Gilpin said. But some counselors are uneasy with the notion. Marilyn Moks, college and career center director at Weston High School, said the strategy could backfire because the competition could be even tougher the next year.

While relatively few students are taking a gap year, the prospects of an interim year are being discussed in many Connecticut high schools.

''It's part of the conversation,'' said Gary D. Meunier, director of guidance at Daniel Hand High School in Madison. A few students at Joel Barlow High School in Redding also are planning a gap year, said Anne Kipp, the guidance director.

Christine M. Collins, a post high school planning specialist at Wilton High School, said her department has worked with five families seeking alternative programs.

At Edwin O. Smith High School in Storrs, Doug Melody, the guidance director, said he had just met with a student who wanted to take a year off. Several Smith alumni have taken the gap route. ''To a person, everyone has been enriched by the experience,'' he said.

But, Barbara McGehan, a secretary in Glastonbury High School's guidance department, said the gap year would have a tough reception there. The school said only one student has taken a gap year in the past couple of years.

''This town is very big into college,'' she said. ''It's college, college, college.''

Similarly, at Ridgefield High School, Charles McFarlane, college placement counselor, said parents and students were focused mainly on getting into ''the best possible schools'' and have shown no real interest in gap year programs.

Internet access to gap-year programs, word-of-mouth and school visits by satisfied gap-year alumni are helping spread the news.

A recent presentation on a gap year by a Brookfield High graduate prompted visits by a dozen interested students to the guidance office, said the school's guidance director, Jean Baker. A similar visit by a Hall graduate helped ignite interest there.

Yet, many guidance counselors are reluctant to bring up the option for fear of upsetting parents and their traditional college ambitions.

''It's a frightening thing for parents,'' said Robert A. Esposito, the new director of pupil services and guidance at Fairfield High School, whose son, Scott, worked in an Oriental rug store in New Haven before entering the University of New Hampshire. ''In some communities how do you tell your peers? 'My son is going to Yale. My daughter is going to Brown. My son is going to work in an Oriental rug store.''' When other parents learned Lynn Bard's daughter, Maggie, also a Hall student, was enrolled in City Year, they said, '''Oh, you're going to let her do that?''' Ms. Bard said, adding, ''I was thrilled to death.''

As recognition of the gap year and the intensity of college competition grow, some guidance counselors are seeing parent attitudes change. Several years ago, when Choate Rosemary Hall offered a session about the gap year, ''We literally had parents come up to us and be angry at us for offering a session,'' said Rosita Fernandez-Rojo, the school's director of college counseling, noting now, ''Parents are more receptive to the idea.''

Connecticut educational consultants who provide admission counseling and gap-year-planning are busier than ever.

''We are getting lots of calls,'' said Joanne Carter of Education Solutions of Essex. Mr. van Renesse said about 15 percent of his clients want to discuss a gap year compared to about 5 percent a decade ago.

Gap year programs such as Dynamy, a residential, supervised internship program in Worcester, is seeing a steady increase in Connecticut students, said James Zuberbuhler, Dynamy's executive director, adding that the organization is planning to expand to other sites.

Despite the gap year's episodic growth, William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, is confident the trend will become more commonplace.

''I think it takes,'' he said, ''believe it or not, a generation.''

by ABIGAIL SULLIVAN MOORE, New York Times

updated: 8 years ago