INSTEAD OF BECOMING A COLLEGE FRESHMAN soon after high-school graduation, I took a gap year, living and working for part of that time on the Anastasis, flagship of Mercy Ships, a medical ministry that performs free surgeries for thousands of people in West Africa every year. The next year I started Covenant College more mature and ready to study. I'm glad I took that year off: Others should consider doing it as well.
Here are a few guidelines if you are thinking of taking a gap year. Stocking the shelves at Banana Republic for a year won't cut it. You should serve in an unfamiliar setting, preferably international, and preferably as a volunteer with a Christian organization. One good reason to do this right out of high school is that you have few responsibilities: no children, no job, not much to worry about except where you'll go to college. When college is over, debts must be paid, jobs found, and sometimes, families cared for.
Another good reason is that you might be heading to college simply because it's socially expected-but experience in new places does everything to prove the relevance and vitality of higher education. Why is Africa so poor and full of suffering? Why do you have it so good? You'll experience the uncomfortable tension between what society is and what it ought to be and taste the diversity of the Church. After that, four more years of study will look exciting, pertinent, and personally applicable.
The experience challenged my assumptions about the way people think and live. Here in the United States it's easy to forget that we have cultural baggage. Suddenly finding myself among people who were not like me, my first instinct was to close myself to what they had to say and hang on to my assumptions. After a while, the unfamiliar became familiar. My mind was opened a little wider. I could think more clearly and adapt better to other perspectives.
Taking a year off like this, you will be asked to do new things that will catapult you into adulthood by giving you more responsibility and independence than you've ever had. No matter where you go, you are sure to have some adventures. You may also have a chance to change someone's life or circumstances, or bring encouragement to someone who needs it. God can use you in very different ways from what you are used to, and while this may seem hard at first, it may be an incredible blessing to you and the people with whom you are involved.
You will certainly end up with plenty of good stories to tell, but you will also learn to sacrifice and rely on God more directly. You have probably heard the phrase, "You can be a missionary wherever you are, you don't have to go to a foreign country." But when you are in a foreign place, with language and everything else unfamiliar, your safety net is gone. At that point, access to the Lord seems much more direct and necessary. You will find new sweetness in the Scriptures and prayer as you become more dependent on Him. The sacrifice of doing something completely new will be difficult. But you soon learn to enjoy simple things, and when you serve another person, it becomes a reciprocal relationship in which both are blessed.
You may wonder as I did occasionally, why not "go straight to college, keep the wheels turning, don't slow down." But what's the rush? Life is short, but an opportunity for an experience like this may not be there once you are married, have a job, etc. Or, you might think that if you go away you won't want to go to college. But a year off is the perfect time to reflect on past education and decide if you are really ready to go. The gap year enriched my perspective and made me want to go to college even more.
Many college freshmen are not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually ready for higher education. A gap year after high school sets a different tempo, lets you learn to enjoy new things, see new places, make new friends, and grow in the knowledge and wisdom of God. I have no regrets.
-with insights from Laura and Heidi Kaufmann