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I Believe in The Gap Year

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

In less than seven months, my oldest son will graduate high school. I am both tremendously proud of him and a bit saddened. He's a few months shy of turning 18, and some days I have a hard time coming to terms with his imminent adulthood.

Since he started high school, he knew he wanted to go to college to study computer and hardware design. At 15, he built his own PC from parts ordered independently on the internet. In fact, he still uses that computer today. He has big goals and a bright future, and there is nothing I want more for him than to succeed and achieve those dreams.

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That's why, since the beginning of his senior year of high school, I've encouraged him to take a gap year before starting college. You read that right. I have told my son to delay college because I believe it will benefit him more than immediately enrolling in a degree program.

While some parents may read this and think "she's crazy!" I believe that taking a year off school and pursuing an interest, preferably abroad, might actually do more to prepare him for college and life as an adult.

Pew research shows that since 1996, college enrollment for Latinos has increased 240 percent, making them the largest percentage of the population to enroll in secondary education. However, they still fall short when it comes to obtaining a baccalaureate degree.

The reason? Many Latinos do not enroll in four-year universities, opting instead for two-year or certificate programs which are traditionally less expensive and more flexible. Also, due to differences in wage-earning potential, many Latinos don't have the ability to go to college full-time in part because they still need to work and help contribute to their family finances.

While all the odds seem stacked against us, it may seem counterintuitive to some that I am suggesting my son delay going to college after high school. The truth is, I believe the rewards will far outweigh the risks.

Earlier this year I read an article in the New York Times which detailed a young woman's personal experience deferring her college enrollment for a year to travel abroad, first to Costa Rica, then Ecuador followed by India, Ghana and Uganda.

The experience, she said, was scary but enabled her to grow both mentally and emotionally in ways a classroom setting simply could not replicate. She had to plan her own itinerary, create a budget and save money, and map out a journey that took her to some of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. When things went wrong, she had to use her wit and resolve to find a solution.

Over the summer our family took our very first trip abroad, stopping first in Tokyo and later, in Northern India. The experience opened both of our sons' eyes to the uniqueness of our world and has already inspired them to imagine the possibilities for their own trips abroad.

Outside of the safe bubble of her own culture, she found the experience abroad not only transformed her worldview, but it also led her to discover her true passion for journalism.

New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof also advocates for students to take a gap year. He chose to travel to France and work on a peach farm during his year off, and in 2011 he shared a beautifully written article by his son Gregory who journeyed to China, and talked about his experience living with Tibetan monks that taught him more than a textbook ever could.

These stories aren't just about adventures in new lands, they are also about opportunities to gain new perspectives, a more defined sense of self and maturity that is hard to come by sitting in a desk, staring at a professor.

Independent research from Middlebury College shows that students who take a gap year have higher GPAs than those who don't, and a study by The Gap Year Advantage points to graduates who took gap years having higher job satisfaction.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that having an independent adventure between high school and college can lead to greater happiness, knowledge and personal satisfaction. More than just checking a box, I want my son to have a great life. I believe a gap year is a small but important way to achieve that.

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Together we've researched a few of his options, and he's decided he wants to explore Japan. Over the summer our family took our very first trip abroad, stopping first in Tokyo and later, in Northern India. The experience opened both of our sons' eyes to the uniqueness of our world and has already inspired them to imagine the possibilities for their own trips abroad.

Since starting his senior year, my oldest son is now working, saving money, and learning more about how he can turn an idea into a reality. This is the kind of thinking we need from our next generation, where problem-solvers seem to be far and few between. I'm proud of him and excited for the experiences he will have. I hope that more minority students make similar decisions to defer their college education and embark on journeys that will open their minds and teach them about the world, and themselves, in ways they couldn't imagine.

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Photograph by Bryanne Salazar
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