Mind the Gap

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

When Colleen Campbell decided to take a gap year between high school and college, she faced mixed reactions.

Her father, Chris Campbell, is a teacher at Bishop Watterson High School. He met the idea with enthusiasm while her mother, Anne Campbell, expressed concern. She didn't want her daughter to lose out on the traditional four-year college experience. Her peers, too, were skeptical.

"They were like, 'What are you doing?' " Campbell recalled.

Though common in the United Kingdom, gap years are not as common with American students. The University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute surveyed 300,000 students in 2010 and found 1.2 percent took a year off before college.

The practice has gained popularity at Ivy League schools. Requests for one-year deferments at Harvard University have risen 33 percent in the last 10 years. Princeton University went a step further and created the Bridge Year Program, in which select incoming freshmen do public service abroad for a year before returning to lectures and chalkboards.

Campbell, now 21, originally wanted to volunteer abroad, but finances limited her options. So she joined City Year Columbus instead; it's a non-profit organization that coordinates full-time tutoring and mentoring volunteers who are called "corps members."

City Year charges no hefty fees, provides a stipend for living expenses and gives volunteers the $5,550 AmeriCorps Education Award after they accrue 1,700 hours of service. Campbell used her scholarship at Columbus State Community College, where she will be a sophomore studying social work this fall.

As a City Year corps member, Campbell logged 50 to 60 hours a week tutoring children at Weinland Park Elementary School in Columbus. She created lesson plans and built playgrounds. Campbell said her students - who called her "Miss Colleen" - improved their reading abilities and started to enjoy the sessions.

Campbell said she is glad she stayed in Columbus because she confronted serious problems she'd never known about in her home community.

"Those kids were dealing with a lot more than test scores," she said.

Campbell's gap year lasted longer than she originally planned - two years total - and she took on greater responsibility the second year. She led a five- to six-person City Year team - and her team members were all older than she.

Campbell made a mantra of her promise to return to college. Many of her high-school classmates will graduate in spring 2012. Campbell's said her two-year hiatus from school used to make her feel behind, but not anymore. With City Year, she learned about the adult world. For example, evenings with her Ohio State friends ended early for her because she had work in the morning. If she didn't do her homework, the kids couldn't do theirs.

"I wouldn't take a moment back," Campbell said.

Tips for Taking a Gap Year

If you're the student:

• Outline goals. These can include saving money for college, exploring possible majors, or increasing self-reliance.

• Submit college applications. If admitted, ask for an enrollment deferment.

• Consider taking remedial or introductory courses at a community college during time off.

• Explore usagapyearfairs.org for popular programs.

If you're the parent:

• Evaluate the student's maturity level and readiness for college.

• Help keep track of college-application deadlines and secure financial aid.

• Talk with him or her honestly about how much of the gap year (if any) you'll finance.

Sources: Cass Johnson, Otterbein University Director of Admission, and Mark Davis, Upper Arlington High School college counselor