The next year of Maya Martin’s life is not only all planned out — week by week — but it sounds like a dream come true.
Martin, who left the country in early June to start working a gig as an art guard for Art Basel in Switzerland, also plans to travel to Germany, England, Scotland, Cuba and China before starting her studies at the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2017.
“I feel like this is my time to adventure and see the world because who knows when, or if, I will be able to (travel) like this later in life,” says Martin, an 18-year-old Wauwatosa native who is taking something called a “gap year” between graduating high school and starting college.
Defined as a structured period during which students opt to take a break from formal education, experts describe the gap year as a chance to learn in a different, more practical environment the rest of us know as the “real world.”
For Martin, who coincidentally also graduated from Wauwatosa East High School the same day she left for Switzerland, those learning opportunities include first exploring the world and then making a difference in it.
In addition to traveling to various countries with her sister, Martin plans to obtain her wilderness emergency medical training certification prior to heading to Bejing, China to volunteer.
“I know it sounds like a lot, but to me that is sort of the point,” says Martin, whose parents also both took gap years prior to starting college. “The way I see it, there is so much pressure in our society to know what you’re going to do, but also to have to make that decision without having ample opportunities to get the information necessary to do so.”
That pressure may be facing what some call a positive change, however, as more students are carefully considering their options for their next steps after walking across the stage in their cap and gown.
At least that’s the opinion of Ethan Knight, founder and executive director for the American Gap Year Association.
“I think it’s important to ask ourselves how we could ever be successful living someone else’s dreams without ever taking the time to dream for ourselves about what success looks like for us,” says Knight, whose organization has done extensive research in support of the gap year concept. “We find ourselves instead following the herd despite knowing there’s more to life than being a doctor, lawyer or professional athlete.”
Knight speaks of gap years as a unique and necessary chance for the country’s future leaders to better understand what lies ahead for them professionally, academically and personally.
“It really gives students the chance to hit the pause button and figure out what they want to be when they ‘grow up,’ instead of being expected to magically just know it somehow the day they move into the dorm,” says Knight.
The practice of taking a gap year has been in the spotlight recently due to President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia’s announcement she would be taking a gap year prior to starting her studies at Harvard University.
“It’s definitely picked up in popularity recently,” Knight says, “but it is something people have been doing for years … that’s part of what our organization is about — spreading awareness and being an advocate for students in the future.”
Popularized in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, Knight added that the concept is one that has gradually gained recognition in the United States.
While it is more common in other states, representatives from organizations that partner with the American Gap Year Association said it is less common in Wisconsin than in other areas of the country.
For example, Brent Bellamy, managing director at Carpe Diem Education, says that in the eight years his organization has been running gap year programs, only 13 students, or about one percent of their student population, have been from Wisconsin.
Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit social enterprise that offers a variety of options for students taking what Vice President David Omenn called a bridge year, has also seen 13 Wisconsinites through its program, another relatively low percentage considering they have more than 450 alumni.
“While we are seeing more students across the nation talking about gap years, we haven’t seen too many students take one at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,” says Katie Miota, associate director in the office of undergraduate admissions at UWM.
“Gap year students that I have worked with have spent their time traveling and engaging in service to others around the world,” she says. “As an admissions office, our focus remains on the individual student and their success … It’s our job to help make the transition to college as seamless and supportive as possible, helping students accomplish what they can prior to the gap year and connecting with them and walking them through how to enroll when they return.”
Keeping things organized is the key to the success of the gap year concept, at least as far as local mental health professionals are concerned.
“From my experience, what some might see as a temporary break is likely to become a permanent one,” says psychotherapist Deb Rayburn. “Most times it’s not about money, it’s about motivation.”
While Rayburn says she believes a gap year can be beneficial to certain students, her opinion is that the success depends greatly on the support system and mindset of the student at the time.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea for the select few who have the dedication and drive to just take the year and make something valuable of it, which I feel happens more when they have the right support system and proper plan in place,” says Rayburn, who has been in the mental health field for almost 30 years. “I’ve just seen a lot of people who don’t have the motivation and end up never going back.”
Structure is a key component to making a gap year successful, Rayburn says, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be as intense as what Martin has planned for the year ahead.
That was the case for Jill Seiberlich of Greenfield, who spent her gap year working hard to save money for her future.
Looking back, Seiberlich said she is thankful for the chance to take a step back and assess things, and jokes that, at the age of 30, she still doesn’t necessarily know what she wants to be when she “grows up.”
“I’m good with being a momma, but besides that, I’m not 100-percent certain (what I want to be when I grow up) myself,” says Seiberlich, who spent her gap year saving up money working for a daycare and at a pharmacy store. “It was definitely a smart financial decision (to take a gap year).”
Seiberlich, who right now stays at home with her son Owen, says her time in what she referred to as “the real world” helped her figure herself out before launching into the college realm.
“I knew that if I really did want to go to college, I would just do it even if it was a year later,” says Seiberlich. “I know taking a year off after high school really helped me value school … I was excited to get back in class.”
That is among the things Martin said she is most looking forward to as well, that is after her year of excitement and world travel.
“I just know this is going to be one of the best years of my life,” she says. “I can’t wait.”