So Much To See, So Much To Learn
Gap Years Take Off, and Not Just for Pre-College
By Wendy Greenberg | Photos courtesy of Center for Interim Programs
Within about 10 minutes of chatting with Holly Bull and Kate Warren, you begin to think about all the experiences you want to have, all the places you want to go, and how you can realize what you always thought was beyond your time constraints and logistical ability. You make a note that when ready, you will call Holly and Kate.
Bull is president of the Center for Interim Programs, based in Princeton, and Warren is the director of research and co-counselor at the center. To date they have sent 8,843 students happily packing (some needing a nudge), and lately, many adults who have the time, but not the place.
Bull and Warren find the places. Among them: an elephant sanctuary in Thailand; a dog rescue center in Peru; an animal conservation site in New Zealand; a sports coaching stint in South Africa; SCUBA certification and research in Belize and Madagascar; nature reserve volunteering in Ecuador; farm-to-table sustainable living in New England; natural disaster relief work in Puerto Rico; an organic farm and community center in Hawaii; and filmmaking, ceramics, guitar building and web design — just to name a few of the countless possibilities.
Warren recalls a woman with two slightly different-sized feet who wanted to make her own shoes. She was able to find a cobbler in Italy for her to study under. “You’d be amazed,” says Warren, referring to what can be arranged.
A 17-year-old male was skeptical of taking time off before college — unless he could study eusocial behavior in animals (specifically naked mole rats), which is marked by cooperative brood care and other characteristics. Unfortunately, naked mole rat research is reserved for graduate level students, but with a little research — voila! — the recent high-school graduate was selected for research open to rising college juniors and seniors in the U.S. Southwest working under a professor who had been studying the same ant hills for more than 30 years. “This one was my greatest challenge,” says Warren.
The “gap year” has become part of a national conversation among high school students before they enter college — which Bull attributes in part to Malia Obama deferring Harvard for a year in 2016 to travel and work — but it has been mainstream in Europe since 1960s.
The Wall Street Journal, in April 2022, stated in an article posted on the Center’s website that “rising rejections at highly selective colleges and hopes for better luck in a year are pushing more seniors to take a yearlong pause after high school.” The nonprofit Gap Year Association estimated that for the 2020-21 academic year, 130,000 students took gap years, many of them deferring enrollment. The article notes an increase of between 40,000 and 60,000 students taking a gap year since before the pandemic.
In the article Bull tells of a client who reapplied to colleges after her gap year, with a refocused major, and was more pleased with her acceptances a year later.
Quoted in many articles, Bull defined gap year as: “a period of time where you explore areas of interest and locations, with intentionality, not as a tourist, and see where this learning process takes you.”
Bull, who has two post-gap year daughters, says she has worked in the field longer than any other gap year counselor, for more than 35 years, and did two gap years herself early on. Her father, Cornelius Holland Bull III, was a pioneer in the field. A teacher at the Lawrenceville School, where he graduated from in 1944, and then head of a private school in Sedona, Ariz., where service trips to Mexico and the Navajo Nation were part of the curriculum, he founded the Center for Interim Programs in 1980. Prior to the databases of today, he stored his collected ideas and suggestions in a shoebox.
Cornelius Bull, who died in 2004, was a member of the Class of 1948 at Princeton University. Before receiving a master’s degree in 1960 from the University of Virginia, he was a history teacher, housemaster, and wrestling coach at Lawrenceville, as well as headmaster of Robert Academy in Istanbul, Turkey; the American International School in Vienna Austria; and St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas.
Not surprisingly, his daughter Holly Bull volunteered at an aquaculture research institute in Hawaii and attended an academic cultural study program in Greece during her first gap year. This led to an “appreciation for learning for its own sake without the pressure of tests and grades,” and the helpful realization that she did not want to be a marine biologist, she says.
As a rising college junior, she took a second gap year to travel in India and Nepal, attend a semester program in Athens, and engage in service work in Appalachia. She received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Virginia, and joined her father in the business. She also directed the U.S. office for her original program in Greece, and eventually completed a master’s degree at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has continued to sample programs, including a wilderness survival skills school, a humpback whale research project, dude ranch work, and a yoga teacher training course.
Gap Year Research
Many returnees tell Bull that their gap years have matured them and made them better students. There is research to support this. Admissions professional Robert Clagett, former Middlebury College dean of admissions, found that gap year students tended to outperform peers in college, with the positive effects lasting over the entire four years.
When Bull presented a gap year panel for National Association for College Admission Counseling with Mark Hatch, vice president for admissions at Colorado College, he stated that their gap year students had higher grade point averages, and males were outperforming non-gap year women. On every level, they are better students for the college, he said.
In a 2015 American Gap Association national alumni survey conducted with Temple University, gap year returnees were asked if their experiences had proven fruitful. Ninety-eight percent said they had developed as a person; 96 percent found the gap year increased their self-confidence; and 93 percent credited the gap time with their increased communications skills. Other responses were that gap years helped develop skills for more successful careers, an understanding of other cultures, and a sense of being a global citizen.
“There is some great data,” Bull notes. She addresses the myth that many “still think the gap year is just for people who have problems — people will forget how to learn or get derailed from a planned college education.”
She contends that gap year students “are better students, more refreshed. They have a sense of relevance of their studies to the world around them, and personal power derived from practicing choosing and owning what they are up to.”
Finding the Right Programs
In finding the right programs for this personal growth, Warren, the director of research, keeps an eye out for transparency, legitimacy, and competency. “You don’t want to have to dig for contacts, corporation information, etc. And if all passes, more has to be done – true due diligence takes 8-10 hours,” she says.
A former court stenographer for a maritime arbitrator, Warren wanted to find a job in Princeton and came to work for a firm that did psychological testing. Her neighbor in Princeton was Holly Bull. One day, digging weeds, they got to talking. And 22 years later, Kate is still helping make dreams come true.
“I worked with a doctor who was turning 60,” she says. “I said, ‘What’s your dream?’ He said, ‘To be in Nepal with an Eastern medicine doctor and discuss homeopathic medicine.’ He did that. Next, he said he wanted to work with a backhoe. We had a contact in Alaska building a house who said, ‘send him up.’ He learned stone masonry, went to Romania and repaired an old castle wall, and wrote a book. Then he restored antiques in Lambertville. There’s so much you can do.”
Gap year programs tend to fall into four categories: facilitated group programs; skill-based intensives (certifications, structure, and support with a specific end goal); urban internships (typically abroad and a half-step into the working world); and volunteer options (like disaster relief).
The Center develops a schedule, like this one they devised for Ford Brown, a student from Connecticut now entering college: June to August 2022 — local job; September to December — cultural study and travel in Spain with fellow gap year students. January to March 2023 — technology startup internship in South Africa; June to July — London School of Economics; August — start Harvard University.
Brown says that initially he didn’t consider a gap year, but he was waitlisted from his first-choice college, which then informed him that there would be a spot in the next year’s class. So, he had time he had not expected.
“I am so grateful that this is the way it unfolded, as I wouldn’t have traded this year for anything and I still get to attend my first-choice college,” says Brown.
During the planning, he decided he wanted to be productive but also enjoy a break from school.
“To that end, Holly Bull and her team were invaluable in connecting me to a massive list of high-quality programs that I could talk through with her in order to find exactly what I was looking for,” says Brown. “I started in Spain for a break from traditional work and learning. I did three months of a ‘cultural immersion’ trip where I focused on refining my Spanish and learning about art and history. Then I worked at a Fintech firm in Cape Town, South Africa, for a few months. I learned so much about myself and the world through this year.”
For anyone wavering, Brown’s advice is to go for it: “There are almost no other times in your life where you are presented with an opportunity as amazing as this. Definitely take it. It will be unforgettable. Be honest with yourself on what you are looking for, and go after it. It flies by so fast and you will be wishing you could start over. There is no rush to start college — you will still get a great four years.”
Hoping for a great four years is Robbinsville High School graduate Delaney McEvoy, starting her first year at the University of Miami after a gap year. Her mom first brought up the idea of a gap year as an opportunity to gain independence before college, and the Center for Interim Programs, recommended by a guidance counselor, was helping to finding programs, she says. Also, McEvoy had a “couple of majors in mind” and wanted to narrow her interests.
Deferring her college acceptance, she embarked on a plan that included first spending 10 weeks in Fiji in a shark conservation program, where she gained her Open Water and Advanced SCUBA certifications. She went on survey dives, shark dives, did mangrove reforestation work, and planted seedlings in the community.
Following Fiji she spent four weeks at the New York Film Academy taking classes in acting for film and musical theater, having been in stage productions in high school. She was able to live with relatives, and got to appear in student films.
After New York City she again crossed an ocean, spending 10 weeks in South Africa in a primate rehab center, a game reserve, and a marine conservation program.
“I got trained to lead whale watching boats while I was there, which was fun,” says McEvoy. “I always love being on the water, so I really loved days when we did data collection on the whale watching boats or when I lead tours.”
At college, McEvoy has shifted her marine biology interest to a broader environmental science major, and will minor in cinematic arts.
“I was skeptical at first [of the gap year]. All my friends were going to college, and I would be a year behind,” she says. “But I loved it. I am more excited and interested in college now.”
She says she feels more confident now and feels college will be “less nerve-wracking.”
Off the Career Track
For P.K. Prasanna, who is close to retirement, a 2019 gap year was so gratifying that the technology and marketing executive is considering another one.
Bull is seeing more and more adult gap year clients. She said in the Washington Post in 2021, “It’s a chance for people to discover parts of themselves sidelined by career and family life.”
Prasanna said his objective was “to rediscover other dimensions of myself, travel, and pay attention to all the other things that one usually has no time for in the midst of a hectic always-on world.”
His first gap year was focused on solo travel, and now he is “weaving in slow travel with my wife while I take a more serious stab at becoming a writer.”
Before his first sojourn, he told Bull he wanted the themes of play, spirituality, and writing, with some service. He traveled to Zen monasteries near Kyoto and blogged about his trip for family and friends.
“I would highly recommend a gap year,” says Prasanna, who took a risk because there was a financial impact, as his firm did not offer sabbaticals. “That said, it was super-enriching to rediscover different dimensions of myself and reconnect with family in the process. I had originally expected an epiphany of some sort maybe, but was rewarded with a more gentle contentment.”
He advises thinking carefully about your “guiding themes” and says to “keep the focus on strengthening your non-work areas and that will be rewarding. Also do it sooner rather than later. If I had waited another few months, I would have hit COVID.”
Mid-career gapper Jennifer Markowitz of New York City was introduced to the Center for Interim Programs through her children. Her daughter, who is now 24, did a gap year in 2017-18 before college, and her son took a pre-college gap year as well.
In 2017 Markowitz’s daughter was chronically ill as a high school student and not sure about college. Her counselor suggested a gap year, and when she met Bull, the teen was convinced. She studied art history and photography at the Aegean Center for Fine Arts in Greece and in Pistoia, Italy, outside Florence. Exposed to others with similar interests, she decided to switch from the liberal arts college in Ohio she had planned to attend, to the UCLA School of Art and Architecture.
“It changed her world, and focus,” said Markowitz, whose daughter is now in Los Angeles working as an artist. She also did the National Outdoor Leadership School in New Zealand. “To this day, both were deep and meaningful,” said Marikowitz.
Markowitz’s son graduated high school in 2020, the first year of COVID-19. She suggested a gap year, but he resisted.
“When everything stopped in March, he realized it was not a normal year,” she said. He went to Israel, and the program — which focused on an internship, work experience, and life skills — “was a year of growth.” He is now at Dartmouth College.
For herself, Markowitz said she loves languages, and wanted a French immersion program, but found only programs for “young people, or retirees who wanted to taste wine and cheese. Holly said she counsels people in midlife and for sabbaticals. She had this great program, in the South of France. It was a phenomenal experience for me — age-appropriate and small sessions with museums on weekends.”
She said her classmates ranged in age from college to 70s and 80s, and they all had “tremendous chemistry.”
Although not everyone can take the time (Markowitz used her computer to triage and went during a slow time in her business cycle), she encourages others to do this. “You have this window of freedom between having kids and being grandparents, seize the moment, live big, and do these things,” she says.
And she is not finished, Markowitz says. “Holly has other ideas as long as my life allows for it.”
The Center for Interim Programs offers a free 90-minute brainstorming session without naming specific programs and lays out a possible scenario. For those who sign on, the cost is $2,800, good for a lifetime. The trip costs are borne by the individuals, but the Center works within their budgets, and receives no referral fees from programs.
“We know of many low-cost placements that don’t show up at gap year fair or in the usual online searches,” says Bull. “Students don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a great experience. And we have scholarships for our fee for anyone who may need some assistance.”
The Center for Interim Programs, which previously had a physical office in Princeton, has been remote since the pandemic and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by calling 609.683.4300, or visiting the website at interimprograms.com.