Bridging the Gap: Tam Students Explore the Road Less Traveled


By Markita Schulman & Aidan Hersh and Markita Schulman & Aidan Hersh

“The Global Hobo” is a blog kept by 2012 Tam graduate Ania Boryslawska detailing her year off from traditional education. “I’m eighteen years old and have an insatiable hunger for something. Something that I felt college couldn’t deliver. Not yet at least,” Boryslawska writes in an introduction to the blog. “So I am taking a gap year before college to perhaps find whatever it is I’m looking for and hopefully everything I never thought I’d discover.”

Of Tam’s class of 2012, 68 percent went on to immediately attend a four-year college and 27 percent went to a two-year school, while the remaining five percent classified their plans as “other,” according to the Senior Survey conducted by Tam’s College and Career Center. The prior year, 10 percent of students went down this unspecified “other” path. This is reflective of the growing trend among high school students throughout the United States to choose a “gap year” or another option besides attending traditional four-year university immediately following graduation.

“There are many different kinds of students. Not everyone goes to college, not everyone goes to a four-year school, not everyone goes to a two-year school,” college and career specialist Susan Gertman said. “[Students graduating] is like ships leaving the harbor. Sometimes they come back and check in and say what they’ve done, seen, and experienced, but often I just don’t know.”

The specifics of this undefined path vary from student to student.

“A couple of students each year join the military, some just don’t know, some get involved in vocational programs, and some take gap years,” Gertman said.

Despite the variety of options open to students, the large majority of our community immediately attends college after graduating from high school.When faced with a wealth of “opportunities,” how does one decide whether or not to take advantage of them?

According to Gertman, if the College and Career Center were to have a mission statement, it would be to “introduce students to possibilities,” a cause well-served by the wealth of college pamphlets, application-writing workshops and lunchtime visits from various universities and military groups. However, “we do not recommend gap year programs, because we don’t know them well enough,” Gertman said. The counseling department offers a single stack of a goldenrod one-pager titled, “Some Gap Year Programs,” amidst more than twenty other informational handouts regarding, almost exclusively, college. The sheet is a bulleted list of 17 gap year programs and their websites. Upon further inquiry into non-college information or guidance, a student is advised to check out options online, where “some graduates have found really great programs,” counselor Evelyn Dorsett said.

Boryslawska is one such student. “I found out about the orphanage through a non-profit organization I volunteer at in San Francisco called Curry Without Worry. Starting at the end of January, I will be volunteering in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand), contributing to the rescue and rehabilitation of elephants. I found out about that [program] through a lot of online research,” she said. “I am currently in Nepal… spending my last day at a home for under-privileged children… where I have been volunteering for the past month and a half.”

Boryslawska has also decided to leave some room for her plans to change. “For the next three weeks I will be trekking in the Everest Region,” she said. “I will be spending the month of December in Bali, where I do not have any concrete plans except to explore the beautiful place I have heard it is. Next I’m going to Thailand. I don’t have any concrete plans for the first few weeks in Thailand either. Then I will make my way to Australia, starting in Melbourne. I will probably travel around Australia… no concrete plans for that either. Then in May, I will spend a few weeks in New Zealand before returning home.”

Gertman points out that “people use the term ‘gap year’ loosely. Colleges would rather see time spent doing something… I want to say ‘productive.’”

Some students feel this balance between choosing an alternative direction and being presentable to a traditional system is hard to find, and sometimes not worth trying to achieve.

“If there wasn’t all that pressure, I’d probably explore different things. I’d travel,” junior Brissa Teodoro said. “I keep being like, oh right, I have to go to college…”

Junior Paul Fuchs expressed a similar sentiment. “[Going] to college is basically the extent of my plan. And I don’t know what I’m doing after that. Or even while I’m at college. College is kind of what everyone, at least here, does. That’s the next step. Going to college would basically allow me to live a better life. That’s just what I’ve been told.”

Boryslawska is exploring the unknown “other” and overcame the pressures that many describe experiencing.

“In the culture we live in, from the time you start school, everyone seems to be on a next-step track,” said Boryslawska, who deferred her admission to Western Washington University in favor of embarking on her gap year.

“As far as education goes, that includes graduating high school and going to college,” she said. “Of course, being raised in said culture I felt pressure to continue on that path, to keep climbing the steps even though I couldn’t see exactly where they led to. To be honest, I didn’t really think about where I was going because everyone else seemed to be going there, too.”

Only after sending in her letter of confirmation to Western Washington University did Boryslawska have second thoughts about pursuing a traditional college education immediately after high school.

“I felt a new kind of pressure manifesting itself within the deepest corners of my being. I saw what until that point I hadn’t, that there was more than one set of steps; in fact there was an infinite quantity of them, the destination of each as unknown as the rest,” she said. “The track that I was heading down seemed more secure than any other because it was the one I knew best, but I realized that it held no more the guarantee of safety than any other. In a simpler, less poetic way, going to college right after high school doesn’t hold any guarantees of a successful future—at least no more than taking a gap year.”

Junior Paula Venables felt similar pressure. “[I don’t have a plan, but] I have other peoples’ plans,” Venables said. “There are lots of things that other people are planning for me to do after high school that I may or may not want to [do].”

Some students felt that they hadn’t experienced these same pressures.

“[My parents] would prefer [me not to immediately go to a four-year college] actually, because it’s going to be difficult to pay for it. I would actually rather go immediately to college if I could,” junior Chelsey Meyer said. “No one in my family has been to college before, and most of my friends—I mean, not most of—but a good number of them are also thinking, oh, you know, I’ll just go to College of Marin, or they’re not even planning to. So I don’t feel pressure. I just want to [go to college], to get an education.”

Others decide not to take a gap year simply because they are looking forward to going to college.

“I am extremely excited about college because I’ve been working very hard in high school to be able to go to a good college,” said senior Erin Savino. “I’m really looking forward to taking political science courses and being able to learn about things that really interest me. I’m looking forward to being independent and meeting new people.”

The sometimes astronomical cost of gap years is another deterrent for students.

“If I were to take a year off of school and travel, I would be in serious debt and my chances on being able to pay for law school would be slim,” said sophomore and aspiring lawyer Russell Wirth.

Counselor Sarah Gordon reflected on the cost as a drawback of gap years for many students. “You could spend as much for a gap year as you would for a year of college,” Gordon said.

But the counselor points out that there are a variety of lower priced options as well. “There are hundreds of free programs,” Gordon said. “You do not have to have a lot of money to do this.”

One such program is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which sends volunteers to various countries around the world to work on organic farms. The only money needed is for the airfare and vaccinations, if necessary.

“If you plan for it, and give yourself six months to fundraise, work, figure out how you are going to manage it, you will have a lot of time and money in the bank,” Gordon said. “It’s worth the effort.”

Another option is to forgo the often expensive travel aspect of gap years altogether. “You don’t have to go outside of California. You don’t have to go outside of Marin County,” Gordon said. “There are plenty of opportunities to do internships, to volunteer in elementary schools, to teach kids how to read.” However, sitting around and not doing anything is not a good use of time, Gordon said.

In the end, awareness of the possible stigmas, assumptions, and stereotypes that exist in our community could be what allows us to make the right decisions for ourselves as individuals.

“People in Mill Valley would probably judge [someone] for not going to college. They think that’s a bad thing,” said junior Zara Blackstone.

“I don’t really mind what other people do. I mean, it’s their business. Go ahead and do it.”