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Narrowing the Gap: How Time Off Helps Students Transition from High School to College

When Malia Obama recently announced that she would be attending Harvard, most of the conversation centered not upon where she was furthering her education, but what she would be doing beforehand. While the American public hasn’t been briefed on the specifics of the Malia’s plans – that is a First-Family matter after all – it was recently reported that our Commander In Chief’s eldest daughter will be taking a gap year before matriculating. And by all accounts, this is a very good decision.

While I cannot say I have ever had the pleasure of meeting Malia (or any relative of any US President to my knowledge), I do know many, many people who have taken time off before or during college. And by and large, almost without exception, they were better off for it. The Washington Post recently published an article detailing the specific benefits of the gap year. According to this article, students who take a gap year are 75 percent more likely to be ‘happy’ or ‘extremely-satisfied’ with their careers post-college. Furthermore, a certain liberal arts school in Vermont, one that actually has a gap semester built into its curriculum for about one hundred students per year, found that students who take a gap year also tend to outperform their peers both academically and extracurricularly.

And this makes sense. Students generally complete high school at eighteen years of age after a scholastic lifetime of prescribed courses. They generally have little experience with independent living or independent decision making, a murky idea of their academic interests and passions, and a startling instinct to seize their newfound freedom by acting as recklessly and immaturely as possible. In short, they are eighteen years old. And I understand this, in fact I was eighteen years old too, once. And like many other eighteen year olds, I was simply not as intellectually and socially mature as I would eventually be.

During my Freshman year, I decided that I was going to pursue an English Literature and Art History double major. I liked literature, I liked paintings, and so the choice was clear. Right? Four years later, when I received my diploma, neither of those disciplines were my intended choice of study. In fact, the only reason I never needed to formally change my major was because I never got around to initially filing the required paperwork. I was fortunate enough to attend a liberal arts college that valued academic exploration, and so I was not bound to my eighteen-year-old self’s prosaic, art historical academic determinations. Eventually, I discovered a major that stimulated and challenged me in ways I’d never before encountered. (This major was theatre, much to my parents’ dismay, but that is another story for another day).

And I was not alone in my indecision – according to the Washington Post article referenced above, the average student takes about six years to complete their college education. Many times, this extended foray into higher education is a result of very specific requirements for very specific courses of study – so if a student decides that they might not want to be a doctor after all, their pre-med classes will not contribute to their newfound political science major. And as college tuition figures are continuing to soar, this academic meandering presents a largely inefficient, impractical, and sometimes impossible path to self-discovery. The remedy? A gap year in which students can explore their interests and themselves outside the annual five-figure halls of academia.

And from a social standpoint? Well, I actually attended the aforementioned liberal arts school in Vermont. And when the “Febs” arrived at Middlebury, a half-semester behind their classmates and yet a half-semester wiser, the difference was notable. They were generally comfortable with themselves, and they were often adventurous. While many freshmen were still grappling with the newfound freedom of dorm life, these students had traveled to Southeast Asia or studied in pre-revolutionary Syria. Some had simply stayed home and worked, learning what it was like to earn a day’s wage in an office. Many arrived at school with a sense of self that extended beyond the classroom, the music hall, or the lacrosse field, which is both significant and surprisingly rare. Regardless of how they spent their time, they had almost unanimously undertaken responsibilities that extended well beyond the making of a microwavable macaroni and cheese – in short, their semester off had been time well spent, and many carried this momentum through college.

This isn’t to say that in order to be successful a student needs to take time off. There are many capable students who can navigate the transition to college immediately after high school, who can undergo the process of self-discovery within the world of academia. However, there are a myriad of advantages to taking time off before or during college. A gap experience is a path that should be seriously considered by the students who are prepared to embark on the next stage of their life. And if I could do it all again? I think I’d join Malia.

Necessary Independence: The Power of a Summer Sans-Parents

For many of the thousands of children who will be leaving the familiarity of home to attend overnight camp for the first time this summer, there will be an adjustment to living without many of the comforts that define twenty-first century childhood. For the first time, many of these children will be living without iPads or without cellphones. Perhaps they will experience life without electricity or air conditioning, or without a bathroom comfortably attached to their room. The list goes on, and it is the absence of many of these elements that makes camp such a unique place for child development. However the most notable absence for most (if not all) of these children will also be the most difficult to adjust to, and the most crucial to their development. For the first time, these campers will be living without their parents.

The Washington Post recently published an article detailing six ways in which good and well-intentioned parents contribute to their children’s anxiety. Many parents today are hyper-aware of the needs or wants of their child, and are hyperactive when it comes to doing whatever it takes to cater to those desires. These parents quickly apply a Band-Aid at the sight of any scratch, expeditiously engage a tutor at the first sign of a ‘C’, and promptly prepare an e-mail if a child is the object of bullying or mistreatment at school.

However, an unintended consequence of this love and attention is that it can prevent children from learning how to advocate for themselves. I personally grew up with a mother who was ready to storm into battle at the first sign of injustice, and as a result the easiest course of action when I was displeased was, quite simply, to tell mom. Unfortunately that simple solution was not sustainable – my mother wasn’t going to talk me into already-full classes in college, she wasn’t going to reconcile disputes between myself and my closest friends, and she wasn’t going to confront my bully of a neighbor who perceives the sound of an electric toothbrush as an affront to his peace and tranquility. As I grew older, I needed to learn how to advocate for myself, how to determine when frustration is justified, and how to handle my own disappointments. And my foundational experiences with these lessons were learned out of necessity – they were learned because I was at camp, and my parents were not.

Summer camp is a safe, protected environment. For each child there is a network of staff members and a leadership team determined to ensure that the summer is a positive experience, and a camp director is within easy reach. However, as children adjust to group living, they will inevitably encounter some conflict – perhaps a friend will sit on their bed without asking, or they will not be selected for a baseball tournament, or maybe they’ll just miss home. And there will certainly be an adjustment period for a child who has, thus far, spent a lifetime relying on their parents. However, as a child learns to live without, they will grow within – they will learn to settle disputes, to communicate their disappointments, and to advocate for themselves within a community. They will become more independent and self-assured, and better equipped to handle the pitfalls and problems that life throws their way. They will accomplish all of this simply because they have to – and this is the power of a summer spent without parents.

Insider Advice: How Summers Serve the Pre-College Process

For those families stumbling through the increasingly stressful pre-college process for the very first time (or perhaps the second, third, or fourth), a little insider information could go a very long way. However, while we can’t all be born into the admissions office, the New York Times recently published a wonderful article consisting of the advice that College Admissions Officers give to their own children.

At Everything Summer, our goal is to take kids from camp to college to career – and we truly believe that summer is a vital time that, utilized well, can rejuvenate students, and set them up for the self-discovery that is crucial during the college admissions process. While reading the New York Times article, it was refreshing to see common themes, echoed by various admissions officers, that we have been using to inform families when choosing summer programs with an eye to the future.

For example, one point of emphasis that was espoused by all the admissions officers interviewed by the Times is that it is important to find a college that is a right fit, and not the other way around. However, how can a student with limited exposure to academia beyond high school know what kind of school will be a good fit? Summer programs, particularly those at college campuses, can give a high-school student perspective. Perhaps the student will discover that they prefer a smaller class size, an expansive campus, or that they might not want to enroll in an undergraduate engineering program after all. This information is hugely helpful to the largely uninformed swarms of young students who might otherwise be making decisions about their futures without any real understanding of what these decisions entail.

Similarly, another salient point in the article came in the form of this quote by Stuart Schmill, the Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “M.I.T., and other highly selective colleges, want students who prioritize quality over quantity.” This is a truth we have heard echoed time and time again by college advisors and admissions officers throughout the country. But in a school with a limited curriculum, or in a town with limited extracurricular options, where can a student generate the depth and quality of immersion that these competitive colleges seek?
A variety of summer programs offer students the opportunity to step beyond the high-school curriculum, to explore and immerse themselves in their interests in a way that simply isn’t possible during the jam-packed school year. Whether a student is mesmerized by meteorites, captivated by creative writing, or contented by community service, there likely exists a program that will enable him or her to truly be immersed. This immersion allows for a unique type of experience, which is invaluable both when evaluating colleges that might be a good fit, and when demonstrating interests and passions to these selective schools.

On a personal level, my own journey through the college process was certainly influenced by how I spent the summers leading up to the application process. For two years I was convinced that I wanted to play college lacrosse. However, as deep as I thought this desire might run, after spending the summer after my freshman year travelling the country attending lacrosse camps, I realized that, rather than invigorated, I was merely burnt out and bruised. I played one more season, and ultimately hung up my cleats in favor of theatre – a pursuit which ultimately became my college major and led to my first working experience.

And where did I discover this newfound thespianism? On a pre-college program, of course.

The Empowerment of a Child In-Charge: Establishing Yourself in the Crosswalk

I will never forget the exhilaration I felt when, at age twenty, I stepped into a chaotic Roman intersection, extended one arm in my best imitation of a Heisman pose, and – shouting over my shoulder at my thoroughly dismayed family – explained, “You have to establish yourself in the crosswalk”.

Of course, I knew that traffic would stop, and my exhilaration was not the adrenaline rush of a high-stakes game of pedestrian Russian roulette. Instead, this moment – which occurred while my family was visiting me towards the end of my semester abroad in Italy – was exciting precisely because I knew what would happen. The Fiats would stop, my family would cross. And my certainty was significant.

For the very first time in my life-long relationship with my parents, I had acted as the resident expert.

Ralph Gardner Jr. recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he discusses, in relation to his own daughter’s study abroad experience, how rewarding it can be as a parent to let your children call the shots. As a happily childless twenty-something, I cannot speak to that. However, I have been on the other side, most notably in that Italian crosswalk, and I can absolutely attest to the fact that there is something uniquely fulfilling, empowering even, about being able to teach something to those people who taught you everything.

During that ten day Tour d’Italia, I had the opportunity to truly demonstrate to my parents that their child was able to function in the world. I made our meal reservations, navigated our train travel, and guided us through the convoluted streets of Italian cities. Of course, I had not earned total trust – when the van we rented broke down, my father and I walked into a gas station where he blurted “¿habla usted español?” before I had a chance to explain our issue in my near-fluent Italian. However, all in all, this trip enabled me to take huge strides as a person and as a son, and the agency I was given positively impacted my relationship with my family in a way that I continue to build upon today.

And, as a seasoned camp counselor, I have witnessed firsthand the positive impact of empowering children. The essence of independence that camp provides – in the form of elective activities that allow children to pursue their own interests, or the sense of ownership over social interactions that defines a summer away from home – is instrumental to the development of confidence and competence that occurs in so many children at so many camps across the country. Even in an incredibly structured environment, the idea of empowerment and personal agency has an incredible, tangible effect on personal development.

Similarly, my experience traveling to Europe with a teen program enabled me to take crucial steps towards independence, and during that trip I built upon the foundation I had laid during my own summers at camp. Suddenly I was taking buses, haggling in markets, and making decisions regarding how to spend my free time in a totally foreign environment – small steps to be sure, (and well-supervised steps at that), but nonetheless crucial advancements in my personal journey towards self-sufficient adulthood.

And so, to the parents of the world, I would encourage you to let your children take charge now and again. Give them small steps to take, to accomplish things independently. If your child is forced to confront obstacles without your complete assistance at each step, they will be empowered to do even more on their own. You may be surprised to find that the confidence and resourcefulness you hoped to instill in your children has transformed them into confident and resourceful teens and adults. And for the sons and daughters, those individuals passively watching as your family struggles to cross the street in a foreign l

An Eye to the Future: Raising a Healthy Generation

For those who have children, or those who were children not-so-long ago, it comes as no surprise that a culture of competitiveness and pre-professionalization has become a pervasive part of growing up. As early as elementary school future success is linked to the ability to perform in an increasingly demanding scholastic environment, and extracurricular activities become vital resume boosters that will improve college prospects.

However, as this New York Times article details, this adolescent arms race can be significantly detrimental to the mental and physical wellbeing of children, teenagers, and college students. Anxiety and depression levels among high-school students are unprecedented – at a California high school 54 percent of students exhibited moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety – and children as young as 5, 6, and 7 years old are developing the migraines and ulcers that used to be reserved for the stress of adult life.

At Everything Summer, we recognize there is a necessary balance between preparing your child for the future and fostering an emotionally healthy atmosphere in which they can thrive and develop as people. Summer vacation, that two month sanctuary from school, can provide an invaluable opportunity for your child to step away from the very real stress of their everyday life and simply enjoy what it is to grow up. Whether a child spends summers at a sleepaway camp making forays into lifelong friendships, or uses the season to pursue genuine academic or artistic interests beyond what’s available during the school year, we believe that a summer well spent is crucial to the development of a well-rounded, healthy generation.

And so, as you schedule your child’s summer months – perhaps with an eye towards the future – we urge you to pause, take a deep breath, and remember that building in pure vacation time truly is productive.

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