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Putting your college education on hold

By Erica Silverstein

DO YOU EVER FEEL as if your life has been planned out for the next 10 years and you can't do anything about it? Finish high school, go to college, choose a major, study for another four years, get a job in the real world, and hole up in a small apartment. Guess what? It doesn't have to be that way.

But I thought it did during my senior year of college. While my friends were planning for grad school or interviewing for the perfect job, I couldn't bear to think about my next step. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I didn't feel ready to make that decision. I wanted time off to travel, to meet new people, to learn more about myself. I wanted independence and a chance to live by my rules.

Most students feel the same way I did a few years ago, says Robert Gilpin, founder of Time Out Associates (a company that offers consultations for teens wishing to take time off from school). "Many high school and college students reach a point where they realize that another year of school or work is not the right way for them," Gilpin says. My case was different because I waited till my college graduation to take time off. Most students do it right after graduation from high school or in the middle of their college career, according to Gilpin.

Close to 2 million teens will graduate from high school this year, and very few have considered alternatives to going to college. But plunging back into academic life isn't the best route for everybody, for a variety of reasons.

Some girls have lived in the shadow of their male classmates and want to taste achievement, independence, and adventure. "Other students need a chance to collect [themselves], refocus, and find a better sense of [themselves]," Gilpin says.

Your teen years are about discovering who you are and what you want out of life. If school can't give you those answers, maybe a different kind of experience can. College is expensive, so there's no use in enrolling when it's not the right time for you to be there. Besides, unhappy students are more likely to fail school.

Once you decide that you're ready to tromp off to Asia or do community service in South America, you might run into an obstacle--your parents. Gilpin offers the following logical arguments to convince Mom and Dad that taking time off is a smart thing to do.

Colleges Love It

TAKING A YEAR to discover something new about the world and yourself looks great on college applications. Learning Spanish in Peru or building houses for the poor in Arkansas will shine brighter than great SAT scores and piano lessons, which so many other applicants have. A mature student with real-life experiences has a clearer idea of what she wants to get out of her education, and people in the admissions office know it.

It's Cheap

YOUR PARENTS might fear that they'll have to pay for another year of tuition if you go abroad for a year. While some programs do cost a hefty amount, most are on the lower end. Some community service programs are paid for by governments, and work-abroad programs allow you to earn money while you're there. Tuition at foreign universities is often lower than tuition in the United States, so Mom and Dad can let you explore and still make their next house payment.

You'll Be More Focused

MANY PARENTS worry that their kids won't return to their studies after taking a break from them. But students who take a break often come back more focused on their studies, Gilpin says. If all else fails, you can always negotiate a summer adventure between school years.

Pick a Program

NOW THAT YOUR parents are on your side, you can figure out how to spend the year and when the application is due. If you want to take time off before college, plan on asking the admissions office if you can wait a year to attend after being accepted. Colleges are usually happy to let you start a year late, as long as you give them a good reason.

Finding a program can be easy, given the large number of opportunities available. Check out Transitions Abroad, the Time Out Associates website, and Peterson's to find a range of study, work, travel, and community service program ideas.

Some programs, like Sojourn Nepal and Cultural Homestays International, allow you to get into another culture while you study abroad. Career- focused girls can try programs like Dynamy, which offers internships in various fields. Do-gooders flock to City Year to do community service in the United States or to Involvement Volunteers to help out in Australia and other countries around the world.

I worked in Scotland, thanks to the British Universities North America Club, an organization that provides work permits and job-hunting assistance to Americans in the United Kingdom. I showed up in Edinburgh with no more than a suitcase and a hostel reservation and soon had a job and a house-sitting gig. I traveled and made friends from Australia, Scotland, and England, and even learned to drive on the left side of the road. Best of all, I gained confidence and learned that taking risks can be fun.

Three months after I graduated from college in the United States, I stood on the craggy hills of Arthur's Seat looking down on Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, and the waters of the Firth of Forth leading out to the North Sea. I knew that for six months this land would be my home. I would become a person who belonged here, and I was looking forward to meeting that person.


This article originally appeared on Chickclick's teen channel, Missclick. Erica Silverstein is an editor at a travel website based in San Francisco.

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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