Gap Year Programs Without a Backpack

Yes, it is College Application Season… but, as I have written in the past, a Gap Year is

Yes, it is College Application Season… but, as I have written in the past, a Gap Year is a great option for all students. While students are working on applications right now, a Gap Year is something to think about. No one ever said that ‘18’ is the magic age to enter university. As a matter of fact, no one would ever know anyone’s age as they step foot on a campus. I know plenty of 19 and 20  year old students stepping foot on campuses as first year students. What I do know, is that the more mature a student is, the more likely these students will complete their education within four years rather than the average of five to six. Generally speaking, students complete their college applications, then defer (there are some exceptions), then take their Gap Year. A bit more complicated, but, contact World Student Support for details. 

Gap Years are gaining in popularity in the US. Historically, this is the norm in the UK, Australia and New Zealand where the concept was launched. A Gap Year is a terrific option and truly, there are advantages. Parents often ask, will my child ever go to university? The research out there says a resounding yes. As a matter of fact, many students who have returned from Gap Years often are more focused on their university experience and end up graduating within four years of matriculation. In addition, these students are more apt to choose a major rather than jump majors. For more details on this, go to the Gap Year Association’s website:

Some Gap Years are very adventurous, as a matter of fact, many have the backpackers feel. At one point in my life, that would have been the perfect avenue for me. However, I realize that is not the route for many other students. So, I will focus on a couple of programs that are not heavy duty on the backpack, wilderness model. 

I have had the good fortune to visit several gap year programs. The most recent was Irish Gap Year in the county of Donegal, Ireland. This program offers one semester, community based programs focusing on independence and character building, cultural immersion and developing confidence in young people. Irish Gap Year Programs offer  high level of support and structure in a real world setting that see students managing their own households with peers in modern Irish communities. I was able to spend two days with the group, with a household of ten students living in a historical home across from the Irish Sea, the setting could not be lovelier and more inspiring. Students are responsible for upkeep of the house and most meals. 

The founders are Ryan Allen and Killian O’Kelley. Both native to Donegal, Ireland, have extensive outdoor education background as well as extensive travel experience, and both have lived abroad. In addition, these two understand what students need to feel comfortable and supported while immersed at Irish Gap Year. 

Ryan and Killian offer several options at Irish Gap Year: 

Adventure and Leadership: Located in County Donegal of Fering, excursions to a variety of Ireland’s extraordinary iconic locales as well as areas tourists may not venture to. There are two sessions: Fall and Spring. Students live in a remarkable 18th century manor house on the Atlantic coast… trust me when I say views are incredible. Students will experience a variety of leadership skills, experience Ireland’s extraordinary landscapes via surfing, hiking, kayaking… to mention a few. In addition, there is a variety of community service options. The one I saw the Gappers in the midst of organizing was cleaning the trash of the iconic beaches. Of course, the students are immersed in local culture. 

There is so much more to this Adventure and Leadership. I just scratched the surface.

Irish Arts and Culture: this program is designed to give students the opportunity to cultivate creativity, build independence and understand and develop an appreciation of Irish arts and culture. Gappers will work with local artists and perhaps try new arts they may have never been exposed to before. No prior experience is necessary. This program is housed in Donegal, down the road from the Adventure and Leadership program. Students will leave this program with  a portfolio, exploration of Irish arts, understanding of Ireland’s cultural heritage, just to name a few. 

Internships/Dublin:  Students can participate in a 4, 8 or 12 week internship with with Irish Gap Year Internship. I don’t need to tell anyone that Dublin has become one of the hub spots these days, businesses are eyeing Dublin and some have moved second headquarters to this iconic city. Needless to say, Dublin is abuzz with a tremendous amount of history. Variety of internships are available to Gappers from Accounting to environment, sales IT, Hospitality, non profit… the sky is the limit. 

Enrichment:  Sligo IT Study Abroad is for students who want to take a reduced course load of 3-4 courses of any discipline. Choice is up to the student whether or not to transfer the credits to their home school (also students need to check their school to see if courses are transferrable). Students are with freshman in student housing, eating and attending classes regularly. Sligo is located in the Republic of Ireland, home to the Yeats Memorial Building.

Irish Gap Year is a great balance of outdoor life, culture, and self awareness lead by two extraordinary local young men with a competent staff. 

Art History Abroad (AHA)

Art History Abroad is a unique Gap Year program that has been taking students for Europe for over 30 years to study art, culture and history. Their educational philosophy is to get students out of the classroom and train their eye to understand and appreciate art. Without the pressure of essays, exams and grades students have a chance to enjoy learning in a mindful way rather than see this process as a means to an end. A typical Gap Year course is 6 weeks long and students weave their way through cities and history history of Italian art. They also offer a 3 month Semester course, taking time to discuss politics in London (hot topic now), modernism in Paris and Nice, cuisine, architecture, and of course, art. 

Another Gap Year program that does not focus on outdoor living is Art History Abroad. This program obviously focuses on the arts. 

Art History Abroad has a variety of programs of the cultural kind. Courses are focused on art, culture and appreciation of beauty. The goal of the program is to walk away with the confidence to talk about the arts and architecture in a way that is not presented in a traditional manner. Trust me when I say, this is not the way I was taught Art History as a high school student, or Art History 101. There is no memorization of artists, no ‘time frame’ to look at and memorize, just the nurturing of observation, self reflection and cultural awareness. I spent a morning with Art History Abroad a few years ago at the Tate Modern in London. I met some alumni and saw just how the art appreciation is taught. The tutor, rather than have students study the art and artist, asked probing questions drawing out in each of us, our individual voice and interpretation in a manner allowing the group to contribute collaboratively, reflectively, thoughtfully and without fear of being off base. Truth be told, there were no wrong answers. As an adult, becoming a student of art once again was a bit intimidating, and this mini course was a change from Art History 101 from days of yore. 

Sheela Gowda’s Behold

One of our many in depth discussions took place in front of Sheela Gowda’s Behold, made of car bumpers and what looked like 4000 meters of what we all thought was black rope. Before we knew that this rope draped around the room was really made of human hair, we were all asked to discuss what we thought it meant. Exchanging comments included a massive spider web, why were there car bumpers, was the weaving random and just end up with this? Once we worked out the the unusual material, we started to ask why? What did the human hair signify and how did the artist attain so much. Steve explained the process Gowda went through to collect the hair from temples in Bengalaru, India and the possible significance for using such material… is this a show of strength? We all thought of various stories like Gift of the Magi. We continued to discuss the possibility of strength and the car bumpers (see this site for complete explanation: It was a lovely exchange to be able to discuss art rather than to spout facts and figures. 

This is the basis for tutorials at Art History Abroad, making students become confident in a field they may or may not major in at university once they return to academia. Not all students are focused on returning to post secondary options in the field art. One of the alumni was a student of Computer Technology, who has probably since graduated from University of Exeter. He actually pointed out to our group how interconnected technology and photography have become (our instructor had just pointed out how photography is becoming a first rate coveted an expensive art form). This drives home the idea that Art History Abroad is not just for Art Historians or Fine Artists. Any one from any discipline can gain knowledge and perhaps utilize their knowledge in their day to day life, in their academic studies and to enhance their personal knowledge. 

In addition, there are some academic type Gap Years. One can look at Oxford Advanced Studies, in Oxford, England if students wish to ‘buff’ up their academic profile or just to experience the ambience of Oxford and experience some independent living before embarking upon university. This program has entertained students from all over the world. 

So, Gap Years don’t necessarily have to involve throwing on a backpack, or roughing it in the wild. Those programs are fabulous, they test the waters for sure. But, there are other options out there as well offering the same benefits of The Gap Year:  constructive time off. 

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