Stepping Off The Conveyor Belt
Taking a gap year between high school and college has become more common in the United States in recent years, yet little research attempts to describe or analyze the experience of the students who arrive on college campuses after such a year out. This qualitative study followed 12 first-year students attending highly-selective private institutions in the northeastern U.S. as they experienced the transitions from high school to gap year to college. With varying levels of family support and high levels of personal motivation, the students participated in a wide range of gap-year endeavors. The findings indicate that students were heavily influenced by their encounters during the gap year, leading to strong evidence of self-authorship among the participants, which in turn shaped the way students pursued their goals when they arrived at college. Particularly influential were encounters that involved independent problem-solving, participating in multigenerational relationships, and immersion in new cultural settings. The students' transitions to college during the first year were marked by patterns of Sovereign Engagement with regard to learning, relationships, and decision-making. Commonly marked by internalized goals, authenticity in relationships, and greater individual agency, "Sovereign Engagement" captures the self-authored perspective that these students brought to their college experience. Contrary to suggestions in the popular media, not all gap-year students found the transition to be seamless; nor were they uniformly motivated to earn good grades. As a summary of the findings, the Gap Year Impact Model provides an important frame of reference for understanding the experiences, needs, and sovereign decision-making patterns of gap-year students. The results offer students, parents, colleges and universities an introduction to the lived experiences of gap-year students, who are arriving on campus in increasing numbers each year.