“I had met this kid the night before in a hostel that I was staying in," says Jasper Liu, an Engineering junior. "And the next morning we were there, went to the general store, bought a pack of bacon and pancake mix and made breakfast outside underneath the mountains."
Jasper is one of many Penn students who chose to take time off before beginning his undergraduate years. After participating in a coordinated semester program in Tecomán, Colima, Mexico, Jasper decided to drive cross–country solo. He spent the fall following his acceptance to Penn with Projects Abroad, the largest volunteer service program in the world. During his time in Mexico, Jasper lived on the beach and participated in projects involving sea turtle and coastal conservation.
“My favorite place was Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Snow still on mountains, weather turning to spring—beautiful.”
The concept of a gap year is relatively new, originating in the United Kingdom only decades ago. Still, gap years remain more common in Europe; recent statistics show that over five percent of accepted students take time off before starting at a university. Meanwhile, only 1.2 percent of American college freshmen choose to pursue a gap year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.
Gap years at Penn are somewhat of an enigma. The school's gap year procedures and possibilities are unclear compared to peer institutions. Princeton’s Bridge Program offers a select number of incoming freshmen nine months of tuition–free sponsored service work. Tufts’ 1+4 Bridge–Year Service Learning Program provides a structured year of full–time national or international service before the more traditional four years of undergraduate study. While Penn lists resources online, the University sponsors little of its own gap year programming.
In email correspondence, one Penn Student Registration and Financial Aid representative wrote, “I am not familiar with the term 'gap years'.”
For George Beall, who’s taking time off after finishing his first year at Wharton, the decision to take a gap year “definitely wasn’t a course of action I expected to take. It sort of just happened.”
This past November, George kick–started his company Touch Tiles, which uses Lego–like technologies to create a touchscreen device of any size. “It reached a point in the spring where I realized if I wanted it to be successful, I needed to work on it full time.”
George says the gap year provided him a better opportunity to take charge of his company. “Entrepreneurship, in my opinion, is not something you can really do while in school, simply because you do not know desperation until you break the cycle of education we all live. Overall, though, I wouldn't say it was as much of a choice of company over college as it was just that I could, so why not?”
“I loved being at Penn and chose Penn for its pre–professional culture, but ultimately there is a lot we don't know and cannot be taught in a classroom. My decision didn't come from hating Penn or being dissatisfied with the curriculum, but just from having an opportunity to do something that I normally wouldn't have had.”
Some students capitalize on the chance to seek out experiences they wouldn’t ordinarily find at Penn. Jason Tangson, a senior in the College, used his gap year for global travel, visiting Norway, Israel, Palestine, England, France and Iceland. In an interview with The Prospect, he explained, “I had anxiety over the pace of my life, and I didn’t feel quite ready transitioning from high school.”
Over the course of his travels, Jason found himself in a diverse set of experiences, which included working as a lumberjack in Norway, visiting the Silk Road, shepherding while exploring Hebrew and Judaism in Israel and backpacking through Iceland.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of his travels, though, centered more on his perceptions regarding identity and race outside of the United States.
Over the time he spent in Jordan, the Muslim Quarter, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Jason compiled a list of what he describes as racially–based micro–agressions. Locals labeled him Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Banana, China, Yapun and Kungfu. A Palestinian asked him, “We have many cats in Palestine. Chinese eat cat?” He estimated between six and nine strangers asked to touch his hair.
“I was set apart from this American mélange,” he said. “And I kinda wanted to be treated like a privileged little American, while instead, I got kicked out of a store once in the Old City because of the way I looked.”
Jason, though, found comfort and enjoyment in the anonymity of his travels.
“The lack of repeat social interactions of foreign country make it easier to socialize,” he said. “For example, I love talking to taxi drivers, because I’ll never see them again.”
Alternatively, a year away from education allowed College junior Samuel Byers to cultivate familial bonds. For half of his year off, Samuel thru–hiked across the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Maine to Georgia. By the end of high school, after spending weekends backpacking and dreaming about taking a more ambitious hike, Samuel decided to delay coming to Penn.
Samuel believes he has found a family.
“The more important thing is that they're the kind of people who I never would meet in a 'traditional' college career. One of my friends is a bartender and a stagehand in NYC. Another is an artist from West Virginia. I know a retired railroad conductor and a volunteer forest fire fighter and dozens more. Knowing these people has been immensely enriching to my life, but I never would have met them at Penn. More importantly, all of these people are decades older than me, but we met on terms of complete equality.”
Hiking the trail was both empowering and isolating, separating Samuel from the outside world while putting him on equal terms with his older travel companions.
“We had all hiked the same miles and climbed the same mountains, so I could look them in the eye without feeling like a child, and I was a child when I started hiking. It doesn't really matter who you are in the real world so long as you do the miles.”
Samuel's hiking cost less than $4,000, and he was able to subsidize the trip by working after his return.
Despite the altruistic nature of these gap year programs, many come at a high cost. Projects Abroad, for instance, costs almost $20,000 for a semester–long trip, similar to the cost of full–priced college tuition.
Jasper acknowledges how money can serve as a barrier to taking a gap year. “I was really blessed to financially have the opportunity. Not everyone has the same flexibility that I did.”
Kivunim, a Jewish travel experience marketed as a “full experiential program including all international travel” charges a cool $50,000 for its annual tuition.
Celeste Marcus, a freshman interested in studying intellectual history and Arabic, admits that her gap year was expensive. However, for Celeste's Orthodox Jewish community, traveling to Israel is the norm before attending college.
She notes that her high school actively encourages gap years, offering application and scholarship counseling during the gap year program search process, which often parallels the timeline of college admissions season.
“It would have been the departure from the past [traditions] had I not gone.”
Celeste spent eight months studying in the suburbs of Jerusalem, an opportunity at what she calls one of the most “serious places a girl can go to study Jewish texts.”
Celeste saw her gap year as a vital opportunity to explore and engage with her religious identity. Her experience strongly shaped her approach to the Jewish community at Penn, motivating her to join Shira Chadasha, a Hillel community which provides prayer space for Penn’s diverse Jewish life.
For Celeste, the trip was an opportunity to find intellectual independence.
“I realized I didn’t need a teacher to hand me the materials that I wanted to learn.”
Hannah Noyes is junior from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, studying classical studies and political science.