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Here's What All This Criticism of the "Gap Year" Says About Our American Perspective

United States Lifestyle Hiking
by Mary Ellen Dingley May 27, 2016

I NEVER TOOK A GAP YEAR, but I wish I had. I was so burnt out from my senior year of high school — taking college courses, working two jobs waiting tables and scrubbing toilets, and applying to what felt like a hundred colleges and scholarships — that I came into freshman year listless and tired. I ended up transferring and changing my major from English to Anthropology, a profession I didn’t even know existed just a year before. A gap year would have saved me the burnout and allowed me to explore more options.

Malia Obama’s decision to take a gap year before attending Harvard received a flurry of reactions from publications like The Guardian and the New York Times. The Washington Post especially covered it and the headlines went from disparaging to surprised to excited. All that coverage, combined with the comments at the end of each article and those on social media made me think the same thing: gap years make Americans (and others) very angry and confused. The comments ranged from “yeah, a gap year would be nice… if you’re rich” to “all gap year kids are spoiled brats.”

Americans seem to get upset easily if they believe someone has an opportunity that they don’t. We get angry at younger generations for being young, which is nothing new in the history of humanity. A large part of the American population seems to be deeply uncomfortable with the idea that traveling might be a legitimate use of time. We seem to view it as a deviation from the “correct” life path. It’s interesting to think that America, the land of individualism and innovation, dislikes young people traveling their own road, whether that’s on a gap year or not. Everyone should be working hard and working hard in the right way.

I can understand some of the gap year anger, especially the rage directed at the articles making a call to action on how “everyone should take a gap year!” Nah. No one likes to be told what to do, particularly about something that is out of reach for many people financially. That anger isn’t about gap years, it’s about the obliviousness of the rich.

I grew up lower middle class, in a loving, supportive home where money was always a stressful factor. Growing up with money as a bogeyman gives you strong reactions to people who say “money is no factor, just do it!” When something that limits you and stresses you and keeps you up at night is completely and offhandedly dismissed, that can be enraging. Those people live in a bubble and they need to step outside for a bit and breath a less rarified air.

So I get that anger. But I believe it’s misplaced; there are gap year programs and opportunities out there that are accessible to people from many backgrounds, such as AmeriCorps. (Full disclosure: I was an AmeriCorps volunteer after college.) And it’s definitely work, not a vacation.

Explaining that gap years can be affordable didn’t seem to calm any anger though, as my highly scientific research via immersion in the comment sections proved. This is more than just annoyance at spoiled rich kids. America seems to really have a problem with those who deviate from the normal career/study track, and a problem with travel especially. Our nation is deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t sound like “traditional” hard work. “Pay your dues!” is the battle cry. Deviate from the path and everyone on the path gets upset.

And heaven forbid that deviation takes you abroad. How Americans treat travel, in general, is honestly just weird. As this past Matador Network article attests to, traveling for traveling’s sake is seen as lazy, entitled or abnormal. Cultural enrichment, curiosity, and adventure are just not good enough reasons to go somewhere new. My hunch is that this is why voluntourism is so popular — being able to say you will be “helping” the less fortunate gives you a ready made excuse to travel. And we must have an excuse to travel because “I want to” isn’t good enough. (Yet we don’t need an excuse to buy designer handbags?) Americans work long hours and take fewer vacations than the rest of the world and we’re steadily increasing our stress levels. Maybe a little travel for travel’s sake is just what we need.

My own experience proves my theory of the American fear of life-path-deviation and travel, if only anecdotally. I didn’t take a gap year between high school and college, but I still wanted to try out a few different professions and gain international, cross-cultural experience. So as soon as I graduated from college I found a job teaching English that provided a plane ticket, free training, and a fair salary, and I flew across the world to a country where they spoke a language I didn’t know. (It was the country of Georgia, that tiny one between Russia and Turkey.)

After a semester there, I flew to the Dominican Republic with just a few hundred dollars in my pocket and worked for an educational nonprofit. Those 9 months or so working abroad were some of the hardest and best of my life, as I navigated some tense cultural waters and leaned on my job skills. Those experiences forced me to be brave in a way I hadn’t been before. It taught me to be humble and adaptable. I got to meet and work with people from all over the world, pick up new language skills, immerse myself in other cultures and I also spent a lot of late nights doing lesson planning, grading and tutoring struggling students. These were both real, paid jobs and I treated them professionally. I’m a better person and a better employee because of that work.

But even though I was a paid employee, when I returned to the United States people looked askance. I got asked “How did you afford this? Were you volunteering? Was this just backpacking? I don’t understand.” They seemed genuinely concerned that I was “just” traveling for 9 months. I received a lot of skepticism from people even when I explained that I was working. I wanted international experience. I wanted to see if I liked teaching, so I found an affordable way to do it. Simple. But I still get confused questions today and they’re often tinged with a little anger or jealousy.

I certainly wasn’t supported by a wealthy family, so I’m not sure where this anger is coming from. I know teaching abroad isn’t accessible (or interesting for that matter) to everyone, but it is not reserved for the upper echelons of society. Most of my colleagues were like me, middle class and on their own dime. I’m in no way unique — thousands of young Americans choose to teach abroad every year. And many of them face the same reactions I do upon returning. But I don’t think the anger is about money or perceived wealth, because if it is then where are the angry comments toward people driving BMWs?

I would understand critiques of international volunteering (which often does more harm than good), of unprepared and transitory foreign teachers, and of clueless backpackers wreaking havoc, but no one has ever brought those issues up to me. They aren’t upset that I may have been filling some sort of white savior trope. They’re upset because I took a different path, a path that to them, sounds like “not hard enough” work.

We are supposed to be the nation of innovation and newness and “do-it-yourself-ness” but we have become terrified of lives that might look too lazy. Of course, we still love breaking the mold in some ways — our tech culture proves that. But it took a lot of people succeeding in tech before anyone took that seriously. Maybe it will take a lot of people taking alternative career and education routes, and succeeding as adults, before we’re ok with that.

America: we need to get over this fear. I can’t tell you exactly why Americans get so annoyed by anything that smells of “not work,” especially if it comes with a whiff of the international. It could be nationalism, or the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” American dream, the neo-liberal ideals of a can-do nation with anxiety, the continuing recovery from the recession… I don’t know. But we need to let it go.

And when it comes to a gap year specifically, with college so expensive as it is, shouldn’t we be encouraging students who are unsure about their future to step back and think seriously about what they want to do? A gap year, or even just a gap semester, working or volunteering or interning (with a stipend provided) could make all the difference.

Let’s put down our schedules and planners for a second and remember that life paths go all over the map, not just on one highway. Maybe we all need some gap time in our lives.

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