Dear Mom and Dad,
I am writing to you after being with 23,000 Catholic high school youth at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis. From Thursday to Saturday, I had an opportunity to speak with at least five hundred of your children. My impression is that they are fun loving, articulate, faith-filled, hopeful, searching kids who want to make a difference in the world and live a meaningful life. It is obvious you have done a great job raising them! My reason for going to NCYC was to promote a service-based gap year experience called Discovery House, which is a program of 12plus1, Inc. I feel I have a responsibility share with you what I learned about many of your sons and daughters, especially high school seniors. They are scared, stressed, uncertain, feeling pressure and (even still) hopeful about their future. It seems that at age 17 it is difficult to know, with any degree of certainty, what you want to do for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you are the class valedictorian (who I met) or the class clown (who I also met) it is really difficult to make this choice. It seems there are limitless options before them and not quite enough life experience to know which one is for them. Many see this as THE pivotal decision of their life. It is what they have been preparing for since before middle school (ore before) and it is what they perceive, often unfortunately with some parents’ encouragement, will determine the next sixty years of their life. Plus, the exorbitant cost of college makes them feel as though they cannot make a mistake. For many the conversation about taking a gap year to do service, live in community, expand their life experience, meet diverse people, grow in understanding of self and God sounded like a lifeline to many. Only to have them end the conversation disappointingly saying, “my parents will never let me.” This is why I wanted to write to you. A gap year has many benefits and can actually help students have a more academic and professional success. I ask that you consider a gap year as part of the preparation process for and not an alternate to college.
First let’s get this out right away: A gap year is NOT for everyone. At the same time let’s acknowledge that moving directly from high school to college is NOT for everyone either. The destination may be the same, but the route can be as varied as there are people. Let’s also be clear that the gap year is not a replacement for college. Statistics about gap year participants demonstrate that 90% go onto college within a year of their experience. With this in mind here are 4 reasons why I suggest you allow your high school senior to consider a gap year.
DEVELOP SOFT SKILLS OF SUCCESS
In a highly competitive world there are many intelligent individuals. Often what sets individuals apart for success is their ability to communicate, be flexible, resilient and creative in relating to others. There are certain skills that come with finding success and overcoming challenges of independence. Getting up after being knocked down could be the most important life experience. Discovery House participants experience the real world. They have to cook, do laundry, shovel snow, clean, budget and shop all while essentially working full time. Just like real life. People at their service site and in their community will count on them. It is not an option to forgo the responsibilities at home or the service site. Evaluations and feedback will be a regular part of the service and community experience. This gap year experience is not a vacation! It is an organized, structured activity with a purpose and goal. Fortunately, they will have a formation day to learn from their success and failure. It should not be a surprise that gap year participants have a higher degree of academic and professional success because they have additional skills that come from life experience and maturity. College is approached with purpose because it is their choice. They have a plan and are organized more able to cope with stress and loss. They are primed for success.
MORE LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Discovery House provides an experience, which allows them to discern their college and career. If an individual is interested in education, their service site can be placed at an urban school. This placement will provide real experience. Their decision will not be based on reading a brochure. Participants will create a plan for their academic and professional future. Gaining experience, maturity and direction students are more likely to succeed. A survey from the American Gap Year Association cites that “ . . . students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for Gap Year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013).
At NCYC many ADULTS told us they wished 12plus1 existed when they were in college. A story we heard more than once went like this: “I went to college because I thought I had to. I had no idea what I wanted to do so I didn’t go to class, partied a lot and flunked out. It was a waste of $40,000.” A gap year is an investment in your son or daughter that will make it more likely that they will find success at college. One could see this as an insurance policy for college. Of course, a gap year experience has a cost, but the positive impact on communication skills, maturity, organization and emotional intelligence can never be taken away.
THEY HELP OTHERS
As someone who has worked in ministry for over 25 years I have often heard people complain about young people. This is an opportunity for young adults to be their best. Whether they are working at an urban school which serve students living in poverty, reaching out to a person in the criminal justice system, helping someone get out of human trafficking or offering support for an addict, they are doing good! This should be a cause of celebration! The United States Catholic Bishops said, “Action on behalf of justice . . . appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the Gospel.” In other words, action is essential to living the Gospel. One could argue that it is impossible to live the mission of Christ without serving others. It is our belief that Discovery House will encourage participants to make service, kindness, caring for others a part of their character. All one needs to do is look at the world to recognize that our world is broken, and the social fabric is fraying. Your son or daughter has the gifts and talents to bring healing, unify divisions and become an advocate for those most in need. Why wouldn’t we encourage an opportunity for our children to live with purpose and meaning expressing their best selves?
While a gap year might be a new concept for some it should not be met with “My parents will never let me do this.” There are too many benefits for your child and our world. It is my hope you might respond with “Let’s discern if this is the right path for you!”
Joe Nettesheim, Director