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For Community-Driven Global Development

Gap Year: Pre-College Programs Growing in Popularity

Gap Year

Harvard College’s admissions office recently posted an article extolling the merits of a gap year between high school and college. Not only does Harvard encourage students take a Gap Year before beginning their freshman year, but they note that it can lead to balance and prevent burnout among high achieving students.

British students, of course, have done gaps for years. Though not quite as long as you’d think: year-long gap years only began in earnest in the UK in the early ‘70s, then became popular among students throughout Western Europe. Interestingly, the first gap year students served as international volunteers, whereas today an increasing number of British students from prominent secondary schools are choosing to take gap years to intern in the financial sector, whereas those from less-resourced families use the gap year to earn money for university. This said, foreign service and volunteering trips continue to be the most popular gap year choices.

Other British Commonwealth students have also taken to the concept of gap years. For students in Australia and New Zealand, it’s often seen as a way to see the world outside Oceania, as well as to explore professional options, and do internships, or volunteer for the good of others.

Though introduced in the United States in the ‘80s, gap years’ popularity is of recent provenance. No event heralded the concept’s rise with greater fanfare than the gap year of Malia Obama, now a Harvard freshman herself, who volunteered in Bolivia and Peru. Indeed, Newsweek proclaimed that “gap years…are not just for presidents’ daughters.” Most recent figures show that over 40,000 American students took gap years before beginning college in fall 2017. Many elite colleges encourage gap years with formal programs; some, including Tufts University, have instituted programs that help finance under-resourced students’ gap years, allowing them to participate along with those from more privileged families.


Proof positive of this growing trend: the establishment of a Gap Year Association (GYA), which serves as an information clearinghouse for prospective and current gap year students. The Association’s Ethan Knight has said in an NPR interview, that in the day following Malia’s gap year announcement, he saw 2,600 times the average number of daily inquiries on their site! A recent online article from the GYA advised “a passion for learning is your best gap year souvenir”; we agree, but would add that serving others and learning about other cultures—and oneself—are equally key aspects of experiencing a volunteer gap year abroad.

FSD has also seen an increase in the number of gap year applicants, and in 2017, FSD hosted a record number of gap year participants. Mallorie Dennis, a gap year participant in Nicaragua decided to participate in an FSD Gap Year to help her get a better direction of her future career path, noting that a gap year would help her see what her talents and abilities are before beginning college. In Kenya, Jack Westhead embarked on his gap year knowing that learning how to assimilate and work in a new culture would be one of his greatest challenges, but also one of the most rewarding parts of his experience. Kira Rain set out for a gap year in Uganda to gain first-hand experience in a community different from where she grew up. With a passion for public health, Kira completed her senior project on malaria, but it wasn’t until she joined FSD in Uganda that she was able to experience global public health first-hand.

According to International Program Officer Devin Graves, “FSD gap year students participate in a highly educational and immersive program where they are able to work alongside community members and thus have the opportunity to be directly involved in the process of change in a way that few other gap year students do.” Additionally, during a gap year, participants are pushed outside of their comfort zone. They have to confront concepts of race, identity, poverty, and privilege in a way that cannot be constructed in a classroom setting. This allows participants to grow exponentially and in essence, come home transformed and excited to begin their university studies. Gap year alumnus, Alejandro Sutphen said about his experience, “Through FSD, I was able to make my gap year a memorable and influential experience. My internship cemented a drive to learn about international affairs and development, and made me excited to go back to school.”

Parents, students, or educators interested in learning more about FSD’s gap year program may contact our international programs team at