How to Become a World Citizen, Before Going to College

How to Become a World Citizen, Before Going to
Caitlin Thurrell, 18, at work at Rick Dawgs Ice Cream and Deli in Center Harbor, N.H. She was
saving money to spend much of a year in India before attending Brown.
Published: September 3, 2006
FOUR jobs. Seventy hours a week. All summer. That has been Erin Sullivan’s schedule since
graduating from high school. (Dinner was often in her car, driving from lifeguarding to babysitting.)
But it has been worth it, said Ms. Sullivan, 18, of Lawrenceville, N.J., who was to leave this
weekend for Latin America on a mostly self-financed “gap year” of volunteering, home stays and
Spanish lessons before attending college in fall 2007. “I want a better idea what I’m going for
before I go,” said Ms. Sullivan, who is deferring admission to American University.
Many of this year’s high school graduates are now settling into college dorms, but an increasing
number of middle-class students, like Ms. Sullivan, are opting to take a gap year before or during
college. Such a transition was once considered the province of the well heeled, but many students
of various financial backgrounds now pay all or part of the cost. And as college costs soar, more
families see the moves as good investments, because their children often return more focused.
As it is, many freshmen don’t stay in college for long. “About 30 percent of freshmen don’t see
sophomore year. It’s like World War I trench warfare,” said Brian R. Hopewell, a college
consultant on Cape Cod. “That’s the dirty little secret many don’t take into account.”
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that only 35 percent of students
graduate in four years. Many take as long as five or six.
“Parents are thinking twice before writing hefty tuition checks,” said Holly Bull, president of the
Center for Interim Programs, in Princeton, N.J., which helps students plan gap years. Despite
increased pressure to have their children attend good colleges, many boomer-generation parents
seem more open to gap-year options than their predecessors were.
It makes economic sense for students to explore their interests before college, advocates of gap
years say; freshmen who do so are less likely to party too much, fail courses or change majors
repeatedly — all of which can result in more time needed to graduate, and more expense.
And gap years can help build résumés: students who are interested in medicine have more
contact with patients volunteering in clinics in Costa Rica, for example, than they can in the
United States, Ms. Bull said. And, on various foreign trips, they can attain a level of fluency in a
new language.
Many students learn valuable life skills by earning and handling money during gap years, said
Gail Reardon, founding director of Taking Off, a Boston consulting firm that also helps students
plan gap years.
“One mother said to me: ‘I don’t know what you did to her, but before she wouldn’t use an
A.T.M. Now she’ll go anywhere, often taking the cheapest way to get place to place,’ ” Ms.
Reardon said. “We spoon-feed our kids and they don’t develop any sense that they can do things.
And once they do it, it changes everything.”
Many families do not view a gap year as an extravagance.
“It was the best investment we could have made in her life,” said Dale B. Krieger, a financial
adviser, who estimated the cost for his daughter’s year at $30,000 for a semester in India, a
month in Italy and a semester in New York, taking art classes and serving as an intern at a
museum. Mr. Krieger, citing her month living in one room with a Tibetan family in exile in India,
said his daughter transformed from a “limo liberal” to a “responsible worldly citizen.”
“That’s definitely well put,” said his daughter, Casey J. Krieger, 19. “The experience was
definitely an eye-opener, and fascinating. And it really changed my life.” She is now a freshman
at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Average costs for a gap year run about $10,000 to $12,000, which includes any consultants’ fees
you might pay.
Foreign trips, of course, can mean expenses beyond air fare, program fees and spending money.
Among the possible extras are health and medical evacuation insurance (about $350),
inoculations and other predeparture medical costs (about $150), and expenses for specialty gear
and documents like passports and visas.
Students often combine a costly overseas group program in the fall with a cheaper one in the
spring. Among the least expensive are service programs or internships.
But some programs are free, except for travel expenses. A recent internship at a school for the
deaf in Vermont offered room and board in exchange for work and the chance to learn American
Sign Language.
Some students may initially have unrealistic expectations.
“Some guy told me a year in a tent in the wilderness would cost $1,000” in New Zealand, said
Sam Coggeshall, 20, of Princeton, about a New Zealander he had met. His parents knew better.
“He thought he’d get to the airport and ask somebody for a job or find work online,” said Susan
Henoch, his mother. “I don’t think so.” They hired a consultant.
After graduating from high school in 2004, her son headed to New Zealand, where he spent the
year tending sheep, working in conservation and “wwoofing” (as part of a program called Willing
Workers on Organic Farms — going from farm to farm to work for room and board). The year
cost roughly $7,000, including air fare. But one year wasn’t enough, said Mr. Coggeshall, who
went back to New Zealand and spent his second year volunteering at an elementary school in
Wellington and living in a rented apartment. The cost was about $5,000, including air fare.
Both years, he bought an international student identity card through STA Travel, which offers
discounted air fares and flexible return policies. This month, he begins his freshman year at the
University of Oregon in Eugene.
“If you do your research, there are a wide variety of financial opportunities,” said Rae Nelson,
who with her husband, Karl Haigler, wrote “The Gap-Year Advantage” (St. Martin’s Griffin,
2005). The book describes resources for low-cost programs, student discounts and other moneysaving tips.
“Financial obstacles remain the No. 1 barrier of at least 50 percent of students who apply,” said
John Eastman, executive director of Global Learning Across Borders, a nonprofit group based in
New York that focuses on international programs.
The group recently started a pilot after-school program to reach out to low-income students, who
have historically been underrepresented in study-abroad programs.
“It can’t be viewed as a luxury,” Mr. Eastman said, adding that overseas travel was important for
helping young Americans become “culturally competent and globally aware.” Mr. Krieger
became chairman of this organization after his daughter’s positive overseas experience.
Caitlin Thurrell, 18, of Meredith, N.H., received a scholarship for half the $8,950 program fee for
a semester in India, offered by Global Learning Across Borders, by agreeing to be a student
ambassador when she returns, visiting schools to talk about her experiences. She also sought
backing from local organizations, like the Rotary Club and the town newspaper, offering to serve
as a foreign correspondent.
“I’ve worked very hard, over 60 hours a week,” said Ms. Thurrell, who will spend additional time
in India with an uncle who lives there. She had two summer jobs — including one making
sandwiches and scooping ice cream in Center Harbor, N.H., by Lake Winnipesaukee.
She was concerned about the financial-aid implications of deferring admission to college. Shortly
after Brown University granted her request to wait a year, she learned that she would have to
reapply for aid. “But they said I can definitely count on the same package I was offered this year,”
she said, “provided there are no substantial changes in my family’s financial situation.”
Some people have reservations about even the lower-cost service programs.
“It’s an important service, but the way it is set up, with some volunteer programs asking steep
fees, it prevents the experience from being broadly accessible,” said Abigail Falik, who worked in
the global education field for 10 years and is now in an M.B.A. program at Harvard.
ONE morning last month, Dalit Gulak, 23, who grew up in Harpswell, Me., was on her way to
Estelí, Nicaragua, with 400 pounds of donated medical equipment to apprentice with a midwife
before attending Georgetown in January to work on a master’s degree in women’s health and
nurse midwifery.
Ms. Gulak also completed a service-based gap year in Latin America four years ago. She agrees
that volunteer fees should be less, but credits her experience in an oncology ward in Peru with
prompting her interest in health care.
“It makes you grow up,” she said. “It makes you completely responsible, especially financially.
It’s life-changing. It makes you want college even more.”