As we all know, no one is given a handbook when they leave the hospital with their newborn baby. And if you have more than one child, you know they can be very different. I’ve found that it is good to be creative and open to new ideas when it comes to raising kids and getting them through life and the college process.
Three years ago, my oldest child had As, Bs, Ds and an F his senior year of high school. He took the ACT several times and went through the college application process. My husband and I fretted over him. Many parents just want to get a kid like this into college and think things will fix themselves and maybe they would. I felt my kid had a good chance of not making it through that first semester. My husband thought a year at the community college while he worked was a good option. We met with the head of college counseling at our local high school. She said community colleges are for motivated kids not our kid. She said our son would go to classes for a few weeks and then stop. He won’t have the support of roommates and the traditional college community to keep him on track. I envisioned the worst case scenario: him working at a local restaurant, getting a girlfriend, getting her pregnant and we end up supporting three people instead of one.
Fortunately, I’m open to new ideas and my sister-in-law mentioned the gap year concept. I did some research and I discovered that there was a USA Gap Year Fair each January at New Trier High School. I was surprised to discover that they also have a gap year coordinator. I told my son that I didn’t think we could send him to college, so he agreed to go to the event. He chatted with a young man at the Carpe Diem Education booth. This kid’s story was how I envisioned my son’s first semester of college: too much partying, had to go home, his parents twenty-five grand in the hole. Peter listened to this guy’s story and said he wanted to go.
Fast forward one year later: My son is that kid at the Gap Year Fair, sitting on the panel, in front of an auditorium full of interested high school kids. He spoke eloquently about his bad grades, lack of motivation and begrudgingly coming to the gap year fair a year ago. He told the group that he signed up for the Carpe Diem Latitudes Program. He described his travels through four different countries, how he was nearly fluent in Spanish and was looking forward to going back to Guatemala in a week to help build a school. He said he felt ready and excited to go to college in the fall.
The college he now attends rejected him when he first applied. He called them and told them he was doing a gap year and really wanted to go there. They asked him to come at Christmas for another interview. They were surprised and clearly impressed that he flew from Honduras directly to Baltimore and arrived at the interview with no parents in tow.
After the winter break he headed to the second half of his gap year to Comalapa, Guatelmala where he lived with a family and worked building a sustainable school. We were only in contact with him through Facebook messaging and an occasional email. Shortly after his arrival he mentioned in a message that he was having a tough time adjusting. It broke my heart. He sent me this message, “I realized I am fine with the work, but I have never felt so alone. So that’s kind of tough. But I will be okay. I will find out about packages. I miss you and love you.” I filled a box with Oreos, books and cereal and sent it off. He never got it. I couldn’t believe I had done this to my kid.
But he toughed it out and made some friends and reconnected with some of the students from the first half of his program who were also working in different parts of Guatemala. When he got home in the spring, I was so glad to see him. He ended up working two jobs that summer and went off to the college that had initially rejected him, excited and ready. He has maintained excellent grades and works a couple of jobs.
Is a gap year an upper middle class solution to an immature student and helicopter parenting? Yes, it is. But it is also the solution for an overachieving, burnt out child? Yes, it is. There are gap year programs that don’t cost the $15,000 that my son’s cost. There are programs that are on United States soil. There are organizations that will pay your kid. You just need to do your research and discover what’s best for your son or daughter. Do I think it is one of the best things my husband and I have done for our son? Yes I do.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a teaching studio, art gallery and retailer of its signature art kits in Western Springs. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. Check out the Doodle Art website at www.doodleartanddesign.com.