Looking to the Future

“Senioritis: noun. A crippling disease that strikes high school seniors. Symptoms include: laziness and an excessive wearing of track pants, old athletic shirts, sweatpants, athletic shorts, and sweatshirts. Also features a lack of motivation, general irritation, and an overwhelming desire to get-the-heck-out. The only known cure is a phenomenon known as Graduation.”

Unfortunately, that glorious phenomenon is still a year away for me — and I’m already experiencing the symptoms. High school is, to put it bluntly, not my thing. It’s not that I don’t have wonderful friends, engaging classes, and great teachers, I do, it’s just…very high school. You know what I mean? Anyway, as summer nears and the desire to escape the frigid hallways and cacophonous classrooms of my school grows, I’ve started looking ahead to what I want to do after my requisite four years are complete. And I don’t just mean college.

I’m taking a gap year!

No, I did not get the idea from Malia Obama.

A gap year, if you don’t know, is when a student decides to take a year between high school and college to work, or just take a break, or, like in my case, travel. They’ve been common in Europe for quite some time and are only now growing in popularity amongst American high schoolers. This is due in part to increased encouragement from universities who have begun to recognize the value a gap year can have in preparing students for the independence and responsibility needed for higher education. Harvard, where Malia Obama will be attending, is just one of many top-tier schools who promote gap years to their incoming students.

My personal decision to take a gap year sprung from the fascination for intercultural exchange which developed when I was a sophomore. I spent much of that year debating whether or not a high school exchange was right for me. I even went as far as starting an application! However, I eventually realized that there were too many things I wanted to accomplish right here in Oregon (plus missing out on junior year makes senior year real nasty). So, after many hours of contemplation, research, and indecisiveness, a gap year emerged as the best option.

The next step was to figure out what type of gap year program was the right fit. Oh, I’m sorry that should be in present tense because I have yet to figure it out. You see, there are COUNTLESS gap year programs available and while many of them can be eliminated right away because they’re only for a few months or consist of traveling around rather than a true cultural immersion with a host family, the list of possibilities remains extensive enough to have me feeling overwhelmed.

Now you may be thinking, “Does she realize how much time she has? What’s with the freak-out?” I am aware. Trying to plan this sort of thing so far in advance is quite unnecessary and also difficult seeing as many programs haven’t even made their 2017-18 application available. And yet, here I am! Spending all of my free time scrolling through the same websites I’ve examined a thousand times, looking up reviews of different programs, and checking my email approximately 583 times a day because I’ve signed up for all of these programs’ mailing lists. But before you click off the page because I sound mildly insane, hear me out. I’m still applying for colleges next year, most of whom don’t make their application available until August 1st. Plus I have a massive senior paper due in December, plus the fall musical, plus normal schoolwork, plus volunteering, and also I would like to sleep. So my theory is, if I get gap year apps in over the summer that’s one less thing to worry about! (Comment below if “The Reynolds Pamphlet” from Hamilton is now playing in your head. You’re welcome). See, perfectly logical. Except I can’t make a decision.

Here are the programs I’m considering (not necessarily in order):

  1. AFS Intercultural Programs
    • YES Abroad Scholarship
    • NSLI-Y Scholarship
    • Community Service Year
    • Academic Year (High School)
  2. CIEE
    • Academic/Community Service Year (University)
  3. Youth For Understanding
    • Academic Year (High School)
    • Academic Year (University)
    • Community Service Year
  4. API
    • Academic Year (University)

Naturally, AFS is my top choice. I’m familiar with the organization (I’m a host sister, returnee, and volunteer!) and I absolutely love it. However, they do focus on high school exchange meaning that many of their programs don’t accept graduates, or have an age cutoff for which I am too old (curse you, February birthday!). More importantly, it would essentially be a fifth year of high school. See paragraphs 1 and 2 to understand why that might be a problem. They do offer community service programs to Paraguay, Thailand, and Denmark but I worry about making friends and truly feeling like a local. AFS also has two scholarship opportunities though the U.S. Department of State which I’m interesting in applying for, something the other programs lack.

CIEE is a program which I had not been familiar with prior to doing research on gap years. It’s been around since 1947 and, as far as I can tell, is quite reputable! The various study abroad review sites rank it well and the few blogs I’ve read speak positively of the organization, plus the website says it’s the best so it must be true.They offer gap year programs in Australia, Chile, China, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, Japan, Jordan, and Spain. The more I look into CIEE, the more appealing it becomes. It focuses on the host family experience the way AFS does, but I would be enrolled in university classes studying language and culture. The biggest drawback I’ve seen so far is that many of my classes would be with other exchange students rather than locals, so the likelihood of spending much of my time with Americans would be higher. There also don’t appear to be any scholarship opportunities.

Youth For Understanding (YFU) is similar to AFS in that they focus on high school exchange. However, they do have community service programs in India and Thailand and university programs in Ecuador and Lithuania, along with high school programs that accept graduates (sadly, the age cutoff strikes again on many of them). Like AFS and CIEE, they are well-respected and have glowing online reviews. No scholarships that I’ve found as of now, but fundraising is always possible! My impression is that a YFU year would be quite similar to an AFS year, they just have slightly different country options.

API is the program I know the least about. While I’m signed up for the mailing list and have perused the online catalogue, I still feel like I don’t have a good understanding of the organization. From what I’ve observed, they take a slightly more touristic approach to their programs, rather than emphasizing full cultural immersion. Much of the catalogue discusses the excursion opportunities and the on-site staff who are there to guide you. On the other hand, some of the student testimonies center around their host family experience, so I’m having a hard time getting a read on where the focus lies. Once life slows down a bit I plan to email them and ask some more specific questions.

As of now, I have opened an application with AFS-USA and YFU (not as huge of a step as it sounds) and have communicated via email with a CIEE representative. I’ve heard from an API representative, but haven’t gotten around to answering her as life is a little crazy right now.

Of course, once I’ve decided which program(s) I’m going to apply for, I have to actually choose where I want to go. That will undoubtably be a whole post unto itself.

So, there you have it. While I’m endlessly excited for my gap year, there’s a lot of planning to do and decisions to be made, not to mention having to apply and get accepted to whatever programs I choose! In writing this post I’ve found my thoughts much more organized, so, if you all don’t mind, I think I’ll continue to update you on this process — if not for your entertainment than for my sanity. If you have experience with any of these programs, or just thoughts you would like to share, please do! I would love to get your input and advice.

Until next time, goodbye!

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