Maddie Grap '12 was featured on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for making the choice to take a gap year before college.
Maddie Grap and Erica Mendel are bright, motivated, trend-setting members of the high school Class of 2012.
Come this fall though, they won't be bright, motivated, trend-setting college freshmen.
Unlike most of their peers, the friends are putting their formal studies on hold so they can take a gap year.
They'll be in southeastern Asia during the fall semester, working with refugees and endangered animals and learning about indigenous cultures. In the spring, Mendel will stay in Asia while Grap heads to Central or South America.
"It's not an opportunity I can pass up," said Mendel, who just graduated from Manchester High School in Chesterfield County. She was accepted at the University of Virginia, where she plans to study chemistry and foreign affairs but has been given permission to put off enrollment for a year.
"It's how I'm going to find out if what I think I want to do is what I want to do," said Grap, a Richmond resident who graduated from St. Catherine's School. She was accepted at James Madison University, where she plans to study nursing, but she was also allowed to delay her enrollment.
Gap years have been a big part of the culture in Europe for years, but the idea of taking a year between high school and college to become more worldly has been slow to catch on in the United States. Interest is increasing though, with one group claiming a 25 percent increase in interest in each of the past four years, based on participation at the nearly three dozen fairs it hosts around the country every year.
"There's clearly an expansion in the number of options," said Robin Pendoley, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Thinking Beyond Borders, a Fairfield, Conn.-based company that does gap year programs and helps run USA Gap Year Fairs.
"College is a huge investment," he said. "Even high-achieving students are looking at college and asking, 'Why am I going?' Students are finding that the learning process is about outcomes rather than connections with the real world. In a gap year, there are no tests, no grades, no essays. It's really about learning."
Grap was one of those students who wondered why she should go to college immediately. After years of studying, including four at the academically strenuous St. Catherine's, she wasn't convinced she wanted to jump right back into school.
"I really had no motivation to study anymore," she said. "I felt obligated to go to college."
Her parents suggested she take a gap year. She quickly rejected the idea.
"I wasn't in favor of it at all," she said. "I was worried I'd fall behind my friends."
Then she found out Mendel was taking a gap year, and she began reconsidering her plans.
Mendel also was opposed to the idea at first, but then her father, who works for a chemical company, was transferred to Singapore. With the whole family going, she suddenly had a base of comfort.
But the young women aren't headed off for a year of backpacking or goofing off. They signed up for a specific course of study through a New Zealand company called Pacific Discovery. They'll spend time in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
Learning is the thing that separates a true gap year from a year off, said Mary Jane Greene, director of college counseling at St. Catherine's.
"This is for the student who wants, for one year, to think out of the box," she said. "They want to step back for a short period of time and set their own schedule."
After spending their fall together, Grap and Mendel plan to split up. Mendel will stay in Asia, near her mother, father and two brothers, while Grap hopes to find an opportunity to work with children in Central or South America.
"Hopefully, I'll come back a more valuable student," she said. "And hopefully, I'll know that nursing is what I really want to do."
Greene said they are likely to come back better students.
"A lot of students leave worried that they'll fall behind their peers," she said. "But when they come back, they're usually ahead. In my experience, these students relate better to upperclassmen than they do to freshmen."
And with college costs soaring, that type of maturity and focus can help students make better use of their time.
"A gap year is a No. 1 best investment," Pendoley said. "A quarter to a third of students who go to four-year colleges drop out. This allows students to better focus and lessen the chance of wasting college."