What’s a Gap Year?

Most people meet me with blank stares when I evoke the year I spent abroad in Europe Jet d'eau, Genèveas an eighteen-year-old.  “You did what!?”  I try to grin and not take offense, for after all, there are a lot more exotic things to do with one’s time than attend high school in Geneva, Switzerland.  Such as bungee-jumping in Africa. Or touring the world via sailboat.  But for those of you less-enlightened, I thought it might be worth explaining what exactly is a Gap Year.

I was fifteen years old when I first heard the term and quickly became obsessed with the concept.  My older cousin had just graduated high school and was planning on spending a year studying in Denmark, living with a host family, through a high school exchange program called AFS (American Field Service).  Apparently, my aunt – her mother – was chosen when she was her daughter’s age to spend a year in Denmark through the same program, back when sending your daughter to live with strangers involved little more than long-distance communication via letter-writing.  What made this different from your average high school exchange program?  The timing.  Instead of entering university directly after high school, as so many Americans do, my cousin differed admission à l’anglaise in order to attend a fifth year of high school – in a Danish school, in a Danish town, with all classes taught in Danish.

Fellow AFS-ers in Geneva, SwitzerlandAFS-ers

I did some research on the subject and discovered that Gap Years are actually quite common in Europe, especially in England, where beginning university at age eighteen isn’t as ubiquitous as it appears to be in the United States.  After completing A-levels, the French baccalauréat, or the Swiss maturité, many prefer to have more life experience – travel, learn a foreign language, volunteer abroad, earn some money – before going to college.  Far removed from the “campus culture” of American universities, this was both practical and well-received.  Sadly, as costs are rising and programs become more and more competitive in foreign universities, the “Gap-ers” are dwindling in number as utilitarian-based thinking predominates:  “Get a degree.  Get a job.”

After two previous stays in France, I was intoxicated by the idea of living in Europe.  By age sixteen, I plotted my attack.  I attended a private high school and planned on applying to a prestigious undergraduate university, so my junior and senior years of high school were out of the question.  A gap year was my only option.  I figured I could convince my mother of the merits of becoming fluent in French before beginning a university degree, so I strayed away from Finland and Hungary, whose languages I had little chance of continuing at my university of choice.  Finally, my birthdate decided for me which French-speaking European country I would apply for – as AFS at the time had no officially sanctioned “gap year” programs, only Switzerland allowed me to attend a full year of high school if I was born after April 1, 1990.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.  My mother, who went to high school in Canada, had spent the then commonplace “year thirteen” at a Canadian school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, at the exact same age.  My plan of attack was complete.


My parents were entirely unprepared for my carefully thought out email that I sent one morning from my high school.  I had calculated expenses, thought through my decision, evaluated the importance of having life experience and becoming immersed in a foreign language.  I planned to apply to universities my senior year of high school like everyone else and defer admission for a year.  My parents were defenseless in the face of my unabashed longing to live in Europe, my realistic planning to make it a reality.  Who could resist a sixteen-year-old girl dreaming for an adventure in one of the safest countries in the world?

Everyone I knew was shocked by my plans: high school guidance counselors, close friends, parents.  It’s been a constant refrain as an undergraduate, explaining why I was a year behind, why I didn’t mind graduating in three years.  Very few people could comprehend the magnitude of what I was undertaking at age eighteen.

Geneva, Switzerland, eventually became a land of fairy tales, but my gap year was the hardest, most challenging thing I have ever done.  Upon arrival, I realized to my dismay that there was a big difference between being the best French student in my high school French class and speaking a living language.  I experienced culture shock as I was placed into the last year of high school with Swiss students who had known each other their whole lives, as the only foreign exchange student.  I experienced difficulties with my temporary host family, frustrations that my British-born host “father” refused to speak French with me.  And I felt lonely, isolated, but determined not to regret my decision to go off the beaten track.

Switzerland warmed up to me after coaxing the embers for a good three months, blazing into a roar by the time I left in May.  A few friends among my Swiss classmates was all I needed to find a new Swiss host family, the most generous and loving people I have ever known.  Native Genevans (a rarity in a city that is over 50% foreign nationals), they spoke only French and were interested in discovering more about my culture.  From the first of November, when I was permitted to switch host families, my love of Genevan culture and the French language stemmed from the careful pruning and enthusiastic and patient care taking of my Swiss parents and two host sisters.  I sampled fondues, raclettes, muesli, soufflé, spätzle – each meal was a culinary education.  I went skiing in the French alps, toured the secret Swiss-only travel destinations.  My linguistic abilities improved as we talked about politics amid the 2008 financial meltdown and the “fiscal paradise” debate in Switzerland.  I witnessed Genevan holidays, attended both Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with the extended family.  I was invited to a cousin’s wedding, adopted as the “American daughter” of the family.  And – although my grades didn’t really matter – I excelled at school as I became more and more confident in such a foreign system.

Cortège for the Genevan holiday, EscaladeCortège

Did I regret taking a Gap Year? I missed out on a typical rite of passage for American teenagers.  I was clearly outside of my comfort zone, whether ordering train tickets in a foreign language or becoming the ultimate New Kid in a world alien to my own.  But even the tangible benefits of such an experience – incredible proficiency if not fluency in a foreign language, insider knowledge of a foreign culture, an education very different from the American model – could never express the intangibles I gained from living abroad.  My sense of confidence in my own abilities, my identity as an American in a wider world, my passion for foreign languages, the enduring love of my Swiss family.  It was a catalyst for all my future endeavors, and it has created a longing for a return to Europe that has yet to be fully satisfied.

“What’s a Gap Year?”  It’s many things, but to me, it was the gateway to another world.

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