Submitted by Joe O'Shea on January 16, 2014 - 3:00am
Over the next few weeks, students around the country will receive offers of admission to colleges and universities. But before students jump online and accept an offer, I have one piece of advice for them: They might be better off not going to college next year.
Instead, they should think about taking a gap year, to defer college for a year to live and volunteer in a developing country.
In the traditional sort of gap year, students immerse themselves in a developing community to volunteer with a nonprofit organization by teaching, working with local youth, or assuming some other community role.
Gap years have been rising in popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. I’ve spent the last few years researching what happens to young people when they have such an immersive experience in a community radically different from their own.
The answer, in short, is that gap years can help change students in ways the world needs.
The challenges of our time demand an educational system that can help young people to become citizens of the world. We need our students to be smart, critical and innovative thinkers but also people of character who use their talents to help others. Gap years help young adults understand themselves, their relationships, and the world around them, which deepens capacities and perspectives crucial for effective citizenship. They help students become better thinkers and scholars, filled with passion, purpose, and perspective.
How do people learn from gap years?
One principal lesson is clear: We often develop most when our understandings of ourselves and the world around us are challenged -- when we engage with people and ideas that are different. Despite this insight, we often prioritize comfort and self-segregate into groups of sameness. We tend to surround ourselves with people who think, talk, and look similar to us.
Taking a gap year speeds our development by upsetting these patterns. Trying to occupy another's way of life in a different culture -- living with a new family, speaking the language, integrating into a community, perhaps working with local youth, for instance -- these are valuable experiences that help young people understand themselves, develop empathy and virtue, and expand their capacity to see the world from others' perspectives.
Traditionally, U.S. higher education has championed the idea of liberal arts as a way of getting students to engage with difference, to expand their worldview beyond their known universe by (in the words of a Harvard research committee on education) “questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection... by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations.”
However, formal classroom education alone cannot accomplish this aim. The classroom is limited in its ability to engage students with difference and contribute to their development as able citizens. We also need new experiences that inspire critical self-reflection to cultivate the right moral feelings and dispositions.
What’s important here is the productive dissonance that these long-term, immersive gap year experiences provide. It's unlikely that a young person staying in America -- or even traveling overseas for a short time -- would have assumptions about herself and the world around her challenged with the same intensity, frequency, and breadth as in a gap year in a developing community.
It's interesting that spending time in developing communities can help young people appreciate ways of living that we need more of -- such as a more active and intimate sense of community. Going overseas also helps to cultivate a type of independence and self-confidence that staying close to home in a familiar environment probably does not.
Furthermore, taking the traditional kind of gap year after high school helps students to take full advantage of their time in college. One telling observation is that many students who take gap years end up changing their intended major after returning. During college, their gap year experiences enrich their courses, strengthen co-curricular endeavors, and animate undergraduate research and creative projects.
To be clear: Though these gap year students are working in partnership with a community organization and aim to make some positive impact, the students typically, at least in the short term, gain more than they are able to give. But this empowers them to bring new perspectives to bear in other personal, professional, and civic efforts. Gap years, borrowing a line from the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, can help create leaders for the world’s future.
Despite the benefits of these kinds of gap year experiences, too few Americans take gap years and too few colleges encourage them. The treadmill from high school to college makes it hard for students to see alternative paths. But that is changing. More people and organizations are beginning to see gap years for the formative experiences they can be, given with the proper training, support, and community work. In fact, all the Ivy League universities now endorse gap years for interested students. And they’re right to do so.
Many parents and students are nervous about the idea of spending an extended period in a developing country. But these experiences, especially through structured gap year programs like Global Citizen Year, are generally very safe and supported. Are there some risks? Of course, there are risks with any travel or change -- but the risks are worth taking. The investment in taking a gap year will pay dividends throughout one’s college career and beyond as one’s life and society is enriched.
However, one central challenge that remains is how to finance gap years for students from lower-income families. This is also beginning to change. The University of North Carolina and Princeton University, for instance, have both begun to subsidize gap years for incoming students. Other organizations, such as Omprakash, now offer low-cost volunteer placements as well as scholarships to those with need. And with the help of crowdfunding sites, students are able to fund-raise for these experiences with greater ease. Despite these efforts, if gap years are to really expand, we’ll need more institutions or governments to offset the costs.
Higher education is society’s last mass effort to really shape the character and trajectories of our young people. Let’s help them take more advantage of the precious time in college by taking a gap year before.
Joe O’Shea is director of Florida State University's Office of Undergraduate Research and author of Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs (Johns Hopkins University Press).
To: President Barack H. Obama Subject: Missing from Your College Plan: 45 Million Peanut Butter Sandwiches. Per Week.
Forty-five million peanut butter sandwiches a week?
This 45 million idea came to me the other day, at a sink. I was washing peanut butter from the wooden paddle hungry students use every day to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the Boston community college where I work. Bread donated via Panera and the Minute Man High School Parents Association. PB&J bought with donor funds.
Why not, I thought, one peanut butter sandwich per school day for each of the nine million students (source) on a Pell Grant? How many of these are the same students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch in high school? No one knows and no one is counting. How many are from households on food stamps? No one’s asking, either.
Why not, then, 45 million peanut butter sandwiches at colleges each week? Until we come up with a better idea.
In your proposed evaluations and rankings of colleges, where’s hunger? Or poverty? Is hunger an obstacle to college completion?
We don’t know. Hot lunches are better, but let’s start simple. Just give the nine million on Pell Grants a peanut butter sandwich at school every day.
Most? Many of these students, Mr. President, received federal free and reduced lunch in high school, didn’t they? Why? Because their families cannot afford enough food for the family. Why have we, the people, snatched lunch from these low-income students going on to college?
“Why?” Students are arriving on college campuses without having eaten that day. Or even the day before.
Where? My office and others at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts (12 electoral votes). I have credible reports of college hunger in Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Florida (27 EVs), New York (31 EVs), California (55 EVs), Louisiana (9 EVs), New Jersey (15 EVs), and New Mexico (5 EVs).
Peanut butter? Let’s take a page, a few tablespoons from public health and acute hunger. Public health has long known of the astonishing effects from this simple dose of peanut butter, plumpy’nut, nourimandba.
My late discovery, the peanut butter solution, beyond that sink, arrived in the new book, To Repair the World, by the public health leader Paul Farmer. Listen: “One remedy for acute malnutrition is known as ready-to-use therapeutic food – RUTF for short. Colleagues from Medicins Sans Frontieres showed in Niger that a miraculous and tasty peanut paste could save the lives of most children with moderate and acute malnutrition.” Click here for more on RUTF. (Yes, sounds like, but not the same as, the AUMF that has been dogging you so, Mr. President.)
Acute malnutrition? In the U.S.? In colleges? Quibble over semantics as you wish, Mr. President. I’m talking about, say, the mother of two who showed up in my office late one afternoon this summer. She told me she and her children had had nothing to eat that day. Or the day before.
Exaggeration? Let’s compare these two statements, one from U.S. public higher education, one from global public health.
Listen: To President Madeline Pumariega of the Miami Dade College (total seven-campus enrollment 175,000) Wolfson campus: “When a student is hungry, he does not feel safe, and it is hard to help him synthesize class material. We have to meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.” That’s in a report: Clearing the Path to a Brighter Future: Addressing Barriers to College Access and Success, published this summer by Single Stop USA and the Association of Community College Trustees, authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katherine Broton, and Christin Gates of the University of Wisconsin.
Listen: To Medicins sans Frontieres, from the Farmer book: “An example: one of the lessons we’ve learned since the early days is that it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat patients who don’t get enough food to eat.” (Emphasis added.)
Mr. President, let’s connect some dots.
Wouldn’t the same go if we rephrased: “It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to educate students who don’t get enough to eat.”
Another dot: Don’t the same students eligible for federal free and reduced lunch through high school need lunch at college, too?
I mean even me, a sometime English professor and an obscure columnist, can see the overlap across Pell Grants, free and reduced K-12 lunch, and food stamps. Aren’t all these programs synonyms for poverty for many of the same people?
Any critics? “But if people are on food stamps, then they aren’t hungry, right?” A knuckleheaded Hill staffer, happy to tell me which prep school he had attended, said this to me last spring. Reply: Food stamps seldom last the whole month. Hummus can counter peanut butter allergies.
Listen: To the national anti-poverty NGO Single Stop USA. “So far Single Stop has sites on 17 community college campuses across the country. In 2012, Single Stop USA and its community college partners helped over 2,300 students nationwide access more than $6 million in food stamps. Roughly half of the people who received a public benefit through Single Stop in 2012 received food stamps. These numbers help illustrate how widespread the issue of hunger and poverty is on community college campuses.”
Listen: To Sadhana Dharmapuri, M.D., Medical College of Wisconsin, Adolescent Medicine: "Food insecurity and its complex effect on the individual, such as, increase in psychological stress, the physiological changes due to starvation, as well as, other financial hardship due to lack of food is not clearly defined for individuals pursuing a post-secondary education. Although there is data identifying the association of starvation with cognitive functioning, little is known how these changes affect college retention and completion rates, and whether lack of food and/or access to food, has a long term effect on potential learning, earning, and health outcomes.”
Listen: To the April 2011 Study Food Insecurity at CUNY (City University of New York): Results from a Survey of CUNY Undergraduate Students. The study invited a random sample of 6,883 students to participate, of whom 1,086 responded to USDA-validated survey questions.
39.2 percent of students sampled reported experiencing food insecurity during the previous 12 months. About twice as many (45.1 percent) reported that they worried they would not have enough money for food as reported they often or sometimes went hungry for lack of money (22.7 percent).
In addition, 19.1 percent reported that they knew of other students who had food or hunger problems.
Listen: To me? Bunker Hill Community College this week will have its 20th Mobile Market/Food Pantry in as many months. The Greater Boston Food Bank brings a truckload of food that nearly 200 students each time have collected for themselves and their families. Bunker Hill receives and distributes each weekday several cases of leftover but fresh bread from Panera. I shall persist and admit that I have again keep failed to persuade the American Association of Community Colleges to count how many of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges have services to address student hunger. The American Council on Education is helping raise these questions.
My proposal? Nourimandba, peanut butter, as 45 million peanut butter sandwiches that we, the people, provide each week. Estimate: Nine million times five days a week. Some distributed Saturdays and Sundays. As a start, I’m willing to assume that the Pell students would be grateful for some food. (Oh, have you seen the Weekend Backpack Program in Cambridge, Mass., where you and Secretary Duncan went to school? This sends a backpack of food home so that eligible public school students can eat during the weekends.)
Listen: To me? Another peanut butter, plumpy’nut story. I was closing up one evening last summer. We hadn’t been able to find a shelter for a homeless student. The student kept telephoning shelters. Bread and peanut butter I had. I made him five more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the weekend. I put them into a bag for him. What the heck? I put the jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and a plastic knife into the bag, too. "All this?" he asked me. "Sure. Just finish your education, run for president, and make sure no one in the U.S. is ever homeless again," I said.
"My dream is to have no homelessness for students in college or any young people," he said.
"What's your plan?"
"I'd have shelters by age. There should be shelters for middle school students, then for high school, then for college," he told me.
We just never know. I gave him paper, pens and a folder. "Come back Monday with your plan, and we'll send it to Senator Elizabeth Warren,” I said.
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