Going For The Gap

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Emma Cohen of West Bloomfield participated in Young Judaea Year Course, a gap year program in Israel that included many volunteer opportunities. Here she is with young Israelis at a preschool in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv.

High school seniors are increasingly choosing gap year programs over starting college.

Halfway through the first semester of her freshman year at Michigan State University, Freya Gothelf realized something was not right. Less than a month later, she was in Israel, participating in the Kivunim gap year program.

Despite the hasty decision and application process, Freya’s father, Ron Gothelf of Huntington Woods, is happy with the outcome, as is his daughter.

“She didn’t really know what she wanted; now she’s getting a clearer idea of what she wants to learn, what kinds of classes she wants to take,” he said.

Some of Freya’s classmates from Frankel Jewish Academy, including Polina Fradkin of West Bloomfield and Josh Sider of Huntington Woods, were already enrolled in the Kivunim program, and Freya received frequent updates on their studies and travels via Facebook and email.

“She’s always had a desire to travel and see things,” her father said. “Once she started school, those feelings became more intense. She really felt like she was missing out.”

Some of Freya’s classmates from Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) in West Bloomfield, including Josh Sider of Huntington Woods and Polina Fradkin of West Bloomfield, were already enrolled in the Kivunim program, and Freya received frequent updates on their studies and travels via Facebook and email.

“She’s always had a desire to travel and see things,” her father said. “Once she started school, those feelings became more intense. She really felt like she was missing out.”

Gothelf said the travel and the Jewish-focused studies were big selling points. The program is based in Israel, with trips to 13 countries. Learning Arabic has been a highlight for Freya, who has an interest in Middle East reporting. She was able to defer her admission to MSU’s College of Communications Arts and Sciences, where she plans to study journalism after she returns.

She appreciates the time she spent at MSU because it solidified her decision regarding the gap year.

“I think I needed to prove to myself that if I was extremely dedicated, I could excel in all of my classes, and I did,” she said. “It assured me that taking a gap year wasn’t an escape, but a necessary time to see what was out there.”

Josh Sider deferred his admission to University of Michigan to participate in the Kivunim program.

“I wanted to spend a year where I would be learning and getting some experience that will benefit me for the rest of my life,” he said. “Kivunim is meant for those who want to spend some serious time learning about Israel and other cultures, not necessarily for those who are looking for a year to mess around before college.”

Once the last exam is over and the graduation caps have sailed into the air, a growing number of graduates from public, private and religious schools are forgoing the automatic route from high school to college. Instead they are taking an increasingly popular detour on the path to higher education: the gap year.

These post-high school, pre-college programs offer students a chance to travel, study, volunteer and experience the world in real time before settling into a more traditional track.

“It’s a time in their lives before they get started on an academic or career treadmill,” said Nathaniel Warshay of Oak Park, whose daughter Madeleine is planning a gap year after her graduation from Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield this June. “It’s harder to take a year off later. Also, I think it helps kids become more mature. When they start college, they will have already accomplished something.”

The benefits of a gap year are being recognized by more and more educators, and high school college counselors are encouraging students to explore these alternative programs. Warshay said his daughter was encouraged by Rabbi Jeff Ney, rabbinic dean and Israel guidance counselor at Akiva.

Polina Fradkin, Freya Gothelf and Josh Sider, recent Frankel Jewish Academy graduates, are on the Kivunim gap year program this year, which includes much travel. This photo is from Greece.

“He [Ney] said it should not be described as a ‘gap’ but a productive year of growth and learning,” said Warshay.

Although the term “gap” may imply otherwise, many of these programs are far more rigorous than a typical freshman year at a traditional college or university in terms of academics, travel and community service.

“I love my program,” said Freya Gothelf. “We are exposed to tons of different and often clashing perspectives, and it really gets your brain working.”

Other students agree intellectual benefits and opportunities exist that would not be possible within a traditional college setting.

“One of the most incredible things for me has been the opportunity to spend time having great conversations with some very intelligent and interesting people, whether it be teachers on the program or people we have met in Israel or abroad,” said Sider. “It has definitely helped me decide on how I want to spend my future.”

Ella Dunajsky, FJA career and college counselor, has seen a growing interest in gap year programs over the past few years.

“There’s a sense of maturity that occurs during a gap year,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to set aside the traditional progression from high school to college that gives students a chance to enrich themselves, gain confidence and acquire various life skills.”

While some parents and students fear that deferring college may hurt their future chance for success, Dunajsky said those fears are unfounded. In fact, the opposite is true: Most colleges realize the benefits of a gap year and encourage students who want to pursue that avenue.

“Colleges see students come back and become better contributors,” said Dunajsky.

Many of the Ivy League schools, including Harvard and Yale, have sections on their websites devoted to gap years.

About 12 of the 56 FJA seniors who graduated in 2012 are currently enrolled in gap year programs, and many students who will graduate this spring are considering the option. Madeleine Warshay estimates the majority of the 20 students in her graduating class will be taking gap years. Public school students also are attracted to the option.

In addition to popular Israel programs such as Kivunim and Young Judaea Year Course, BBYO has introduced Beyond, a new travel/study program offering five- and nine-month options. Gap year programs exist in practically any country as well.

In The Gap Year Advantage, authors Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson found student burnout to be the reason most often cited for deferring college in favor of a gap year.

“Some students have had it with academic pressure,” said Dunajsky. “A gap year helps renew their enthusiasm for their studies and get some real life experience before returning to a classroom setting.”

Planning, Research Are Key
There are a wide variety of gap year programs, both Jewish and secular, so finding the right program requires a fair amount of research and planning.

Madeleine Warshay gathered information from websites and also talked to several people who had participated in some of the programs she was considering. Ney also provided materials and brought speakers to Akiva from gap year organizations.

Madeleine narrowed her choices down to three seminary-based programs and is currently waiting to hear whether her applications will be accepted.

Jordana Eisenberg of Baltimore, Hannah Alexander of Ann Arbor and Emma Cohen of West Bloomfield with other Young Judaea Year Course participants in Israel. Alexander has since made aliyah and is serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

“I wanted to take time to strengthen my religious identity and broaden my knowledge,” said Madeleine, who would eventually like to study psychology or social work. “For me, it was mostly about studying and learning.”

As the time grew closer for North Farmington High School graduate Emma Cohen to start her freshman year at Oakland University, she began to have doubts about her choice.

“I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Cohen of West Bloomfield, now 21. “I wasn’t necessarily ready for college; I was going because it was ‘my time’ to go.”

After some hasty soul-searching and research, she decided to defer college and enroll in a gap year program — Young Judaea Year Course. It turned out to be the right decision for Cohen, who had considered a gap year but balked at the idea of being so far from her family and familiar surroundings.

“I decided to push myself to do something out of my comfort zone and see how it went,” she said. “I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Cohen chose the Young Judaea program because of its Zionist bent, and because her father had had such a good experience on the program when he was 18. Also, she had spent her childhood summers at Camp Young Judaea in Wisconsin.

The nine-month program, based in Israel, consisted of three segments. The first three months, Cohen took classes and helped in a local preschool in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv. Then her group moved to Arad, a small town in the Negev, where she volunteered at an end-of-life facility. During the last three months, they stayed in Jerusalem, taking courses and volunteering at a Hadassah hospital.

“I knew college would always be there, and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” she said.

Cohen found the courses, sponsored through the California-based American Jewish University, stimulating.

“There was a really cool course, Christian Encounters, where we visited mosques, churches and synagogues,” she said. Other courses included Israeli film, Zionism, history and “a lot of Hebrew.”

While many Year Course students traveled outside of Israel during winter and spring breaks, Cohen chose to stay, hiking and camping through the northern part of the country with her newfound friends. When her older sister, Hannah, visited during a Birthright Israel trip, Cohen was able to serve as a guide.

Cohen now is a junior at Grand Valley State University, where she is majoring in psychology; she plans to get a master’s degree in occupational therapy.

“I think everyone should do a gap year,” she said. “I became more independent. It changed me a lot, made me grow up and appreciate the things I have here.”

Because many gap year programs include an academic component, transferring credits may be an issue. Dunajsky said this is one area where advance planning can help.

“If you’re deferring your enrollment, the college has to be aware of your plans if you want your credits to transfer,” she said. Even then, there is no guarantee that every college or university will accept every academic credit earned during a gap year.

Madeleine Warshay has ascertained that Stern College in New York, where she has been accepted, will accept the credits from the gap year programs she is considering. So far, Cohen has succeeded in transferring 19 of the 27 credits she earned during her gap year and is working on receiving the rest.

“I had to push; it’s a little bit of a process,” she said.

Word Of Caution
Parents need to know that it is legal for 18 year olds to drink alcohol in Israel and in some other countries. Alcohol is off limits on campuses or in program housing, but teens on gap year programs have been known to drink. In Israel, it’s popular to hit the bars after Shabbat.

Marijuana and other drugs are another matter. Most programs have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs. This means teens can be sent home immediately and fees are usually forfeited. Some programs do random drug testing.

“Drugs are absolutely prohibited on my program,” Freya Gothelf said. “If they catch you with them, you go home. End of story. Alcohol is also not allowed on campus, but it is not off limits outside of campus. It is legal and not a crime to drink it. There are some problems with it, but very few. But the problems are equal or fewer than on a college campus.”

A Look at Finances
According to Dunajsky, budgeting for a gap year should be included in a family’s overall college financial plan. The non-discounted cost of some of the programs can range from $20,000-$50,000, but the good news is there are many scholarships available.

Cohen received assistance from Masa Israel Journey (www.masaisrael.org), an organization that provides guidance and scholarships for a variety of gap year programs, from Hadassah (a sponsor of Young Judaea) and from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Scholarships may also be available from organizations sponsoring the gap year programs as well as from local synagogues or youth groups.

“I told Freya I would fund four years of college,” said Gothelf. “Theoretically, she could earn up to 32 credits in the program.”

Dunajsky said there are some programs, such as the U.S. government-sponsored AmeriCorps, that offer money toward college tuition after the gap year is completed. She added that MET (Michigan Education Trust) funds cannot usually be used for gap year programs.

“That’s another reason why planning is so important,” she said.

For some teens, homesickness can be a factor. Many families make travel plans to visit their children during holiday breaks. Cohen, who was a little homesick at the beginning, made use of technology, such as Skype and Facebook, to stay in touch.

“And I had family and friends in Israel, so I got invited for holidays,” she said.

For Cohen, making the transition back to home and college life was somewhat difficult, but the skills and confidence she gained more than made up for the brief period of discomfort.

“You want to compare everything with Israel, and you can’t,” she said. “It took a while to get back to reality, but it prepared me for college and gave me lifelong friends.” 

By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer

Gap Year Resources

Israel:
www.masaisrael.org (comprehensive list)
www.beyondyear.org (BBYO)
www.kivunim.org
www.yearcourse.org

Secular:
www.goabroad.com
www.gapyear.com
www.studyabroad.com
www.projects-abroad.com
www.cityyear.org
www.americorps.gov

Israel Programs Fair
Attend a program to learn more about Israel student programs — summer, gap year, semester and university — from 12:30-2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, 2935 Birch Hollow Drive. Meet program representatives, enjoy Israeli snacks and music. For details, call Eileen Freed, (734) 677-0100.

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