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By Ben Ray, AmeriCorps Member Serving at Hallsville Elementary School.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others.”

- Mahatma Ghandi

So You Want to Take a Gap Year: a Guide.
Hi. My name is Benjamin Ray and I am proudly serving at Hallsville Elementary school this year, in a third grade classroom. I am also 18 years old, a high school graduate, and will be attending Bowdoin College as a member of the class of 2020. I chose to take a gap year to serve with City Year, and you can too. You’ve heard the buzz at this point. It’s sweeping the nation. The Obama family is even jumping on board. Want in? Read on.

What? A gap year?
Yes! It’s a real option, no matter how presidential it seems. Many of your peers will likely be continuing to a university or college right after high school. This is great! College is great! But: Reflect on how prepared for college you feel. Now, imagine having another year of real-world experience, building perspective, leadership skills and passion before you go to school. Gap years are becoming quite popular because they do not deduct from years in college and therefore your college experience. And, 9-months into the most dramatic perspective shift I’ve ever experienced, these months have shaped my vision for my future more than any other time in my life. 

Why a gap year?
So, yeah, I’ve been hyping it up. But, I realize that it’s hard to get a real sense of why a gap-year is important, just by talking about soft skills like character-building and leadership development. So, I’ll do my best to explain in concrete terms how you may benefit from a year before college. 

  1. Give a Year. Change the world. This may be one of the only opportunities you’ll have in your life to fully dedicate yourself to giving back and serving others.
  2. World view. Traveling anywhere other than your hometown and living a year independently is going to drastically change how you see the world and your place in society. 
  3. Live independently - you’ve got to learn sometime. Pay rent! Shop for groceries! Clean your bathroom! There is no better way to learn than to fully immerse yourself in it. This will help you feel comfortable during and after college, and you’ll be one step ahead in learning these valuable skills. 
  4. Leadership development. City Year is for the kids. But, City Year is also very much for the AmeriCorps Members. You’ll be coached and given opportunities to become a powerful leader - very useful experience to have in college and beyond. 
  5. Work on a powerful team of young people. Strong teamwork is an extremely valuable skill, and is very much emphasized at City Year. 
  6. Money for college a worry? The Segal Education Award is given to every AmeriCorps member committing to a year of service. You’ll get around $5700 toward your future education.
  7. Money for life a worry? You’ll get a modest bi-weekly stipend of around $570 toward rent, living expenses, etc. 
  8. Learn from old people. Many people doing City Year and other service programs have graduated college. They have life experience and wisdom to share - soak it up.
  9. See what a really well-run nonprofit looks like. Want to work with other organizations like City Year/AmeriCorps non-profits? By serving, you can have an inside look at how they are structured and what makes them well-run and efficient. 

Where a gap year?
There are sites to serve all over the country! City Year has 26 sites from California to New Hampshire, and AmeriCorps volunteers are serving in many different locations as well. If you want global perspective, there are some programs that let you travel/serve across the world, as well! 

I personally chose to serve in the Northeast USA because I wanted to help my local(ish) community, and because I wanted to be close enough to home.

So: How a gap year?
Honestly, it’s pretty simple. But, you have to know your plan and do some work and research upfront to make it possible. 

1. First: Look at Colleges and Gap Year Programs (Mid-End of Junior Year through Mid-Senior Year)
Like any high-schooler planning on attending college, you should be exploring colleges and universities at the peak of your academic involvement: The end of high school. Having a good sense of what you value in a college is going to not only give you confidence when you apply to a gap-year program in the fall, but it will also help you find a program that might align with those values. Check out colleges during the same time-frame as your friends - having peers going through similar experiences is exciting, and meaningful discussions with them can help you narrow down what you value in a school.

At the same time, though, also be looking for gap-year programs that interest you. There are many out there - I personally believe very strongly in the power of City Year, especially if you want to learn more about education, or how to help close the opportunity gap in our society. It’s a demanding, tough job, but it is absolutely eye-opening, particularly for those right after high school. Other service programs are out there, though. For volunteer opportunities that will likely offer a stipend (aka independentish living), AmeriCorps programs are wonderful. Check out National Civilian Community Corps, doing hands-on service for local communities. For you, it “develops leaders through direct, team-based national and community service.” Other AmeriCorps programs include FEMA Corps, tackling disaster relief and preparedness, and Food Corps, which is focused on the local food movement. I’ll include a larger list of opportunities at the end. I am a huge advocate of doing a year with a service program. It is work that benefits others, and allows you to step into the lives of citizens needing help, furthering your understanding of the world around you and how you can make a real difference. 

2. Apply to College and Gap Year Programs.
Hey! You’ve found a college you like! It has really cool dining halls I bet! It isn’t too expensive I hope! Once you’ve decided on a few schools, apply for the same deadlines as your peers. I recommend this because college resources will be very accessible for you at this time. Guidance counselors, teachers, etc, will all be ready and willing to chat about schools and the college process. Take advantage of this while you can, and focus on getting admitted early on; deferring your acceptance comes later. When you’ve decided on a few schools, call and confirm that they’ll be receptive to a gap-year. Most schools will be delighted. 

Also be applying to your gap-year programs around the same time, if you are confident that you are interested in them. Often, they will ask you to accept a position soon after an offer, so be prepared to take a leap, if you apply in the fall. Early applicants are also more likely to be considered for a position; if you are confident, apply as soon as possible! 

Thoughts on the gap-year application process: You’ve heard enough about the college process - how can you find the right gap-year for you, and be sure that you’ll be offered a position? 

— Find the right kind of program! If it’s service, awesome! If not, that’s cool too! Find a program that will allow you to make the impact that you want to make. 

— Do your research! Learn about the mission of the programs. Learn about the history and the vision. If the vision and purpose of a program makes sense to you - there’s a good chance you’ll find work there meaningful.

— Be comfortable and genuine in the interview. Service programs are looking for applicants that are excited, willing to work extremely hard, and genuinely care about the program. Show them that you are ready to fully immerse yourself in this year.  

3. Get accepted for a Gap Year!
So you’ve decided, applied, and interviewed - Hopefully, you’ll get an offer. Before you defer from school, accept a position. Get excited! You’ve made a decision to help change the world!

4. Get accepted for college! (Or don’t, maybe.)
Woo! You’re into college too! You'll have to confirm your acceptance/put down a deposit as if you were entering in the fall. 

If you don’t get accepted, or if you are not completely sure about your schools, you may want to consider applying again in the fall of your gap year. This will be tough to navigate at the beginning of a new program, but it might be the right option if you are not happy with any college offering you admission.

5. Contact your school: Defer your class placement. 
Gap years are all the rage! They’ll probably be so excited for you! Give the Dean of Admissions a call, or write them an email, and explain what you’re doing with your year. Most (if not all) colleges should be very receptive, and will gladly defer your admission. Expect them to restart correspondence in January-ish of your gap year. 

6. Wow! You’re in! Find an apartment and get ready to learn a heck of a lot. 
Talk to the admission personnel of your gap-year program - they will give you information to help you sort out your housing situation. You may be added to a Facebook group; post and say you’re looking for a roommate. Try to talk to people already in the program, and if possible visit a service site for a shadow day. Learn more, and get excited about the difference you will be making! 

The process can seem daunting, especially if everybody around you is on a path to college. But, the program you choose is there to work with you. Any college you've been accepted to will help you go to their school. Use your resources, and this process can be very smooth. I’ve had an incredible experience with City Year so far, one that hopefully many more high school graduates after me will also be able to have.  

PITW #75: Learn to Recognize and Resolve “False Choices.”

One of the hallmarks of good leaders is that they easily recognize and resolve “false choices.” A choice is a “false” one if, in fact, we do not have to choose at all, or if there is a totally different way of looking at the situation.

It is possible to serve for a year and have an excellent college experience - Those with a desire, are able to. 


Disclaimer: City Year is a rugged, emotionally taxing program. To do the job with excellence, be prepared to work for long hours in stressful conditions. If you can do this, though, it will also be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have. 


Other Resources:


AmeriCorps Programs - Available to High School Graduates

City Year - Education based, working in classroom with other community involvement. 

NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) - Partner with non-profits to help struggling communities.

SCA (Student Conservation Association) - Inspire lifelong stewardship of the environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land. 

FoodCorps - Serving alongside educators and community leaders, FoodCorps members partner with schools to put in place a three-ingredient recipe for healthy kids, creating a nourishing environment for all students. 

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) - Devoted to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. 

Ben Ray in service.

Ben and his Hallsville Elementary City Year Team!

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