Thursday, November 1, 2012

In Favor of a Gap Year

I'm posting an article here that I found on the Challenge Success website written by a high school student. Leave a comment at the end of the post if you have a minute...

by Alex McNeil

Decked out in robes and hats, my 200-something graduating classmates were arranged in rows on the lawn below the stage. Beyond them their family and friends sat waiting for the joint speech that was to be delivered by the salutatorian and me.

It was not to be delivered by the salutatorian and me because I was the valedictorian. I was not. My GPA put me soundly in the lower-most quartile of my graduating class, and it was only a coincidence that my best friend—Andrew—was the salutatorian. We were speaking together because we wanted to and because my school didn’t care about grades when it came to graduation speeches. Anyone who cared to perform was welcome to audition—academic standings be damned.

Our speech was probably as unmemorable as your average student-delivered graduations speech: full of stammers and stutters, creatively bankrupt. But I remember it clearly for two reasons. One, I gave it (and I was nervous as hell). Two, I didn’t think I really deserved to speak at all.

The way I saw it, I didn’t belong behind the podium because I did terribly in high school. I never understood why I was in school, nor for whom I was there, and it reflected in my transcript. By senior year I found myself with a 2.4 GPA and no college acceptances. But there I was, speaking to my peers like I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was saying “I will strike out on the path that lies before me with cool, excited confidence. You should, too.”

I was neither cool nor confident—I was college-less and confused.

School had been hard for me, and I wasn’t eager to jump into another four years of it. But the idea of college was tempting. Maybe I would be good at it, I thought. Maybe it would just magically click. Maybe.

But wistful thinking couldn’t erase bad grades. So, not really knowing what else to do, I came up with a plan. It went something like this: take a gap year; attend a junior college; do well; transfer to a good school. I figured that a break from school might be what I needed. After all, I had no idea what I was genuinely passionate about or what I was interested in doing with the rest of my life.

This was a decent plan. But I was still embarrassed that it was the only plan available. Insecure, I did everything I could to hide my GPA from my friends. I lied, omitted truths, and built up a well-articulated fortress of reasons as to why I wouldn’t be attending a four-year college in the fall. I downplayed my academic track record and focused instead on money: “Honestly, it’s economical to go to community college. I don’t want to pay tuition for my GEs! I could go to a community college and get the same education for a fraction of the cost.” It wasn’t the worst argument, but it wasn’t one I wanted to be making. The contrarian in me doesn’t like to admit it, but I just wanted what everyone else did—a little liberal arts college to call my own.

But, thanks to my ridiculously low GPA, that wasn’t an option for me. My application was too weak to get me into the schools where I wanted to be, and I had no desire to attend the schools that would have accepted me.

Summer vacation came and went. My friends went off to school, and I found myself stumbling headfirst onto an India-bound plane and into the unknown. My gap year had begun.

My trip to India was steeped in new experiences—filled with revelatory moments of both joy and disgust. I saw the nauseating wealth of Mumbai’s upper class, experienced the destitution that slept in the louse-ridden corridors of an Indian orphanage, and got rocked by a magnitude-6.9 earthquake. During a two-week stint in Nepal I met the founder of a non-profit school-building initiative.

The prospect of building a school in a country as beautiful as Nepal was too much to pass up. I asked if I could come build with him. He said yes. I joined him two months later.

I left high school as a set of numbers: my GPA, my class rank, my SAT score. I returned from my gap year as more than that. I returned as a person.

My gap year rebuilt my sense of self-worth. By the end of it—for the first time in my life—I felt comfortable and happy in my own skin. I’m attending a community college now, but I’m doing it with purpose, direction, and confidence. My gap year showed me that I am lucky to have been born in a country where education is compulsory, of high quality, and free. My gap year convinced me that it is not just my duty, but also my privilege to spend my life helping those less fortunate than I am.

Everyone should take a gap year at some point in their life—student or otherwise. It gave me time to figure out who I am, who I am not, and who I want to be. My gap year was a year of introspection and self-exploration—one that changed the trajectory of my entire life.

In retrospect, I’m glad I failed high school. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t.

-Alex McNeil is an intern for Challenge Success


  1. Thanks for sharing this story. It is important to broaden experience. School is so narrow and unfulfilling for so many students. Bravo to you!

  2. Kerry, thank you so much for the time you spend on this blog. I've been meaning to thank you for a long time! I have two kids - one who fits every teacher's ideal for the perfect pupil, and one who struggles to find purpose every day at school, and who's constantly reminded that his efforts aren't quite good enough. It's good to be reminded of these stories often, especially when it's easy to get caught up in the idea that I should be doing more to make one kid like the other. You can tell just by reading this article that Alex will go far in life, and I'm insired anew. I'm glad we have a champion in you. Keep up the good fight!

    1. Hi Bridget,
      Thank you for your kind words! Perhaps you could give the teachers of your struggling student a copy of one of the homework books I list on my sidebar? The latest one I blogged about was, "Simply Too Much Homework" by Vera Goodman.

  3. Good article! I will print it out and keep it for when my children go from WCI to Los Lomas (maybe) and beyond. I too have one student who is every teacher's dream, and another who is struggling, due to epilepsy and the medication side effects. She is only 11 and yet already crying over her homework, which sometimes lasts uttil 10 PM. She says her life is over. "When you're an adult all you do is work at a boring job." (We are already planning DVC and perhaps a good art school for her.) But a GAP year sounds like a plan. Over break I'm going to take her to the art school and maybe Lucas Arts show her how much fun college and work can be.

  4. Bravo to this young man to take the time and figure out what direction life should lead him. Too many people are concerned with the "numbers", and not the people behind them. Thanks for sharing Kerri!!

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