Alec Reshefsky was accepted to the Savannah College of Art & Design in March. But when his friends scatter off to college this fall, the recent high school graduate from Washington, D.C., will be an unpaid intern in Worcester, Mass., perhaps working in a shelter for abused horses, helping produce shows for a music festival, or writing for a radio station.
Reshefsky, 18, isn't blowing off college. He's just taking a one-year breather. Educators and other experts say a small but growing number of high school grads are taking a detour from the fast track. Some, such as Reshefsky, need time to get a handle on what they want to do with their lives. Others are burned out from the high-pressure march to get into a top school. "Some have worked so hard to make all the right moves and they're just exhausted," says Brian Hopewell, Harvard's dean of admissions and marketing for Dynamy (dynamy.org), a not-for-profit educational group that will find Reshefsky some internship opportunities.
Even some of the best colleges support the idea of a "gap year," whether it's to wait tables, tutor inner-city kids, or build gondolas in Italy. In its acceptance letter to incoming freshmen, Harvard College proposes that students consider taking a year off. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid, notes in an essay posted on the college Web site that an interim year is one way to "relieve stress" and "to promote discovery of one's own passions." He says 50 to 70 students in a freshman class of more than 1,600 defer their enrollment each year.
Gregory Pyke, senior associate dean of admissions at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., encourages students to use the year on activities that do not involve classroom work. "They return with a better appreciation of what's possible in college after they change the scenery both psychologically and materially," he says.
There are many ways to go about taking the year off. A high school grad can simply get a job and live at home, or consult a number of Web sites that offer numerous options. Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, says she has a database of 5,000 programs. First, students fill out an application that provides a sense of their interests. Then she will conduct brainstorming sessions and toss out ideas. In many cases, she'll arrange for several placements as well as housing, and will keep tabs on the student. She charges a one-time fee of $1,900.
Kate Hagemann, 19, of Naples, Fla., consulted Bull a year ago before taking off for India to teach English in a Ladakh village, study Buddhism, and trek in the nearby Himalayas. After returning home for Christmas, she moved to Costa Rica to study Spanish and work in an orphanage. "I was so afraid of going to India that I was crying," she says. "But when else would you have so much freedom before being locked into a career path?" Hagemann, who intends to study international relations, will attend Yale University in the fall.
BREAK OLD PATTERNS
The Indian part alone of Hagemann's year off cost $9,000, while in Costa Rica, she paid $1,000 for the language school and $45 a week to stay in a home. But Bull says a gap year doesn't have to break the budget: "You can work summers to pay, and many programs will give students housing and food in exchange for labor."
That's what Adam de Havenon did in 1996, when he graduated from a private school in Manhattan and had no interest in going right to college. Taking Off in Boston helped him find a job teaching in Kenya. He then went to Australia, where he maintained park trails and worked for an academic journal.
After attending Colby College and graduating from Yale, de Havenon worked for a magazine in Barcelona. Now 27, he is entering medical school in the fall. Looking back, de Havenon says that the year off broke a pattern of "self-destructive behavior" and that he's reaping the benefits now.
Next year's seniors may want to think about this option. A year off can help 18-year-olds find their feet. They'll return to school more self-reliant -- and ready to give it the old college try.
By Susan B. Garland