The best teacher
Growing number of high school grads are delaying college for the experience gained from a gap year
When Meley Akpa graduated from St. Paul Academy in 2017, she knew she wouldn’t be heading in September to the University of Minnesota where she had been accepted. Instead, she prepared for a year of travel overseas. Akpa was part of a growing trend of high school graduates postponing their postsecondary education for a semester or two in order to deepen an awareness of their personal strengths.
The opportunities of a gap year are limitless. A student could travel abroad, take an internship, work a local job or pursue an experience from which they could draw in their future education.
Ethan Knight, founder and executive director of the Gap Year Association, believes the benefits of a gap year surpass that of any first-year college experience. “The student who takes a gap year gets better grades, is more engaged in campus activities, more likely to graduate on time, more motivated in most aspects of their academic life and more satisfied once they hit their careers,” Knight said.
Akpa worked hard to raise the money she needed to pay for her gap year. In the months leading up to her departure in December 2017, she worked 60-plus hours per week at Nordstrom in the Mall of America and the I Nonni restaurant in Mendota Heights. “Ever since I was really little, I always wanted to travel,” she said. “I always asked for money for birthday presents and Christmas presents, so I started saving that. Junior year in high school, my mom really encouraged me to take a gap year.”
During her seven months abroad, Akpa visited Ghana, India, Nepal, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and the Ivory Coast. She worked with the Ghana Scholarship Fund in a small village in Senchi Ferry. In Cujma, Nepal, Akpa and fellow SPA grad Mari Knudson volunteered on an organic coffee farm.
“In Ghana, we were educating people in the village on how important school is, especially for girls,” Akpa said. “In Nepal, we stayed with a Nepali family that we had just met and we sorted through coffee berries, separating the pulp from the bean.”
When Akpa was young, her family took a trip to Ghana together and lived for a time in Rishikesh, India. Her mother, Michelle Helly, took a gap year in France before enrolling in college, and Helly believes that year abroad played a significant role in her personal development.
“My gap year completely shaped where I went with my career and the rest of my life in terms of the communities I chose to be a part of,” Helly said. “It influenced my world view and my values and what I was interested in dedicating my life to. I gained more in terms of figuring out what my life mission was from that one year than what I would’ve gotten from four to five years of college.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota and earning a graduate degree at the University of Michigan, Helly spent over 20 years in the field of international public health and working in Washington, D.C., with the United States Agency for International Development.
Back in the United States, Akpa feels refreshed and ready to start college in the fall, “I’m excited to learn,” she said. “Now, since I took a year off of school, it’s exciting to start a new process rather than just going into the same process in a slightly different way.”
Knudson, who will be attending the University of Chicago this fall, spent part of her gap year with Akpa in India and Nepal, but she also set out on her own abroad. “I was more of a high-strung student,” Knudson said. “It was a good idea for me to take a break after four stressful years of high school before going on to another intensive educational environment.:
Knudson left the U.S. for India in January to meet Akpa. Since then, she has been to Nepal, Israel, and Greece. In July she was in Italy working on a farm that produces balsamic vinegar. She planned to meet her father in Norway in August before returning to the U.S.
The gap year has been a long tradition in the United Kingdom, but it is gaining popularity in the United States, according to the Gap Year Association. It estimates that the number of American students taking a year off before college has nearly tripled over the past decade.
At SPA, the number of graduates who took or plan to take a gap year has doubled since 2014, according to the high school’s student newspaper, The Rubicon.
A 2015 study conducted by Temple University, the Gap Year Association and the National Alumni Survey found that 90 percent of students who take a gap year return to college within a year. In that same study, 92 percent of the students who took a gap year reported gaining valuable experience and personal growth.
Knudson counted herself among that 92 percent. “During high school, I felt that things like grades and social events were magnified,” she said. “The gap year broadened my idea of what my life could be. I don’t have so much of a notion that I need to graduate high school, graduate college and maybe go to graduate school and then get a nice, intensive, respectable job. I feel like I have more freedom in what I want to do.”
J.J. Wertkin, who graduated from SPA in May, is planning a gap year and is scheduled to depart this month for Germany. “I think it’s just because right now our country’s a bit in a hole right now. It’s stressful,” he said. “Going to another place, seeing what it’s like, it gets rid of that stress. Knowing what’s out there, it’s a getaway from your home, experiencing what else is out there, what stuff is working in other places and take that back home.”
Leo Bukovsan, a 2017 graduate of SPA, was originally planning to travel to Germany after working as an on-call cook at the Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji last autumn. However, when the time came to leave, he decided to stay home and work at a Target in the Twin Cities and apply for another job at Concordia Language Villages.
“It (Germany) didn’t seem like a right fit anymore,” Bukovsan said, “so I came back to Concordia Language Villages. I realized that I was discovering myself the most there. It was where I was in a happy enough position to learn about myself in a way that was productive.”
This fall Bukovsan will attend New York University in hopes of pursuing a career in phycology. “There’s no wrong way to do (the gap year), Bukovsan said. “As long as you’re doing something. I’m glad that what I did worked out for me.”