Learning, then college

March 19, 2002|By Meg Gifford

AS MY younger friends receive their college acceptance letters this time of year, I think about my senior year at Western High School in Baltimore City and the decision I made that changed my life forever: taking time off before college.

In Britain, it's called a gap year - the sabbatical that most students take between high school and college.

This is a time for young people to discover themselves before their devotion to another four years of intensive schoolwork. Not a bad idea, considering that a good number of college freshmen flunk out because of the overwhelming temptations of extracurricular college life.

Most gap year students take a job or an internship to get a better grasp on the real world and pick up some life skills along the way. Some students understand that they are just not ready for college.

I chose to take a gap year for this very reason. I knew I wasn't ready to settle down and work. And because college is so expensive, I wanted to be sure that I would take that investment seriously.

I acknowledge that postponing college is not easy. Few people supported my decision, telling me that once I stopped my education I'd never get back on track. My classmates were especially doubtful, thinking that my time off was just an excuse for being lazy. It was infuriating to think that people could and would not associate my travels or internship as an extension of my education.

I learned more in my gap year than I have in two years of college. I discovered life skills that continue to help me through the hardest of times. I found independence and a new self-esteem. I learned the value of a dollar, and then I learned the value of not having a dollar. I learned that eggs are cheap and easy to cook.

Being 18 is wonderful. There's a whole world waiting to be discovered with a lifetime to do it. The average person doesn't retire until he is well into his 60s, and he probably has been working since he graduated from college. As I see my friends now settling down with careers and families, many of them express regrets at not having seen the world before taking on such unyielding responsibilities.

My advice to high school seniors is this: Now is your chance to explore. Do it before you have devoted your life to something else.

By the age of 20, I delivered three babies as part of my midwifery internship in Hyden, Ky., and learned how to cook a fine Kentucky rattlesnake. After teaching a 90-year-old-man the alphabet, he showed me how to make furniture.

I also have attended two years of college so far, making the dean's list every semester. What story will you be able to tell?

Meg Gifford attends the University of Maryland, College Park.

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