Harvard can wait

Considering the benefits of a postgraduate year

By Glen Herbert

In the spring of 2016, the White House published a release, saying “The President and Mrs. Obama announced today that their daughter Malia will attend Harvard University in the fall of 2017 as a member of the Class of 2021.” For anyone who might have missed it, the next phrase underscored what they were really saying: “Malia will take a gap year.”

Malia Obama had been accepted to Harvard, one of just 5 percent of applicants that year, and had a distinguished high school career. In every way, she had clearly earned her place. Still, she decided to defer, sparking an international conversation about the concept of the gap year. The Chicago Tribune reported that her decision “reflects a growing trend among high-achieving teenagers to pursue other interests and get a respite from the academic grind that has come to define high school.” The New York Times helpfully noted that the idea, generally, is “to do something meaningful and, if all goes to plan, [to] arrive at campus a year later more mature, focused and attuned to their goals.”

A break is as good as a rest

All true. But perhaps Malia also knew that she’d only be 18 once, she had a life to live, wings to stretch, and that Harvard could wait. Which, indeed, it did, and happily so. The Times noted that taking a year is something that “Harvard actively encourages admitted students to do.”

Of course, the idea of a tweener wasn’t new. Steve Jobs went to India to meditate. Between Eton and St. Andrews, Prince William went to learn how to survive in the Amazon jungle. For her year, Malia took a vacation with her family, she went on an educational trek in Bolivia, and she completed an internship with a film production company, something directly related to what she’d be studying in university.

For all, the goal was the same: to hit the pause button for a minute before continuing on. William Fitzsimmons, a past dean of admissions for Harvard, says that “most fundamentally, it is a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one's accustomed pressures and expectations."

For teens, those pressures and expectations are particularly acute. By the time they walk across the dais and accept their diploma they have spent essentially the entirety of their lives going from one grade to the next, one after school program to the next, one expectation to the next. Post-secondary studies, depending on the programs they enter, will likely add at least another four years, though often more.

The bulk of that time is spent living transactionally: doing this in order to do that. They take classes so they can take other classes. They gain accreditations so that they can get the summer job, or the internship, or to make money to do the next thing, whatever it is. Throughout, the focus tends to be on the horizon, though the risk is that they don’t take enough time to look to the side. They rarely have an opportunity to savour where they are and to enjoy the company of those that they’re sharing the moment with. Which is too bad, because when we think back on our teen years, those are the things we’d return to if we could: the people, the moment, the feeling of being there.  For so many of us, if we had to do it again, we’d slow down and take the year. And that’s exactly a regret that Malia will never have. Harvard acceptance in hand, she chose to look to the side.

Knowing your options

What has changed, as far as gap years go—this was thanks in part to the experience of the pandemic, though not only that—is intentionality. In the 90s and 00s, students taking a gap year largely followed their noses. They travelled, worked a bit, and felt their way through. Maybe it was backpacking around Europe, or meditating, or taking a job with a landscaping company (that’s what Elon Musk did) or, worst case, just hanging out.

That’s great for some people, though others benefit from something more social, more directed and, per the Times report, more meaningful and focused. The postgraduate program at Rosseau Lake College has been crafted with that desire in mind. “It provides structure,” says Graham Vogt, Assistant Head of School, Academics. “It’s not stepping into the abyss. [Rather] it’s providing a widespread opportunity for students to step into who they are and also push themselves beyond who they are.”

Context is part of it. At RLC students spend the year in the company of true peers, namely those we are academically inclined and intending unequivocally to go on to post-secondary studies. There are travel options—both an international trip and an extended outtrip are requirements—allowing participants to expand horizons, to learn about the world and their relationship with others. But there are academic requirements as well. Classes allow for students to build out their transcripts, to recover credits, or add prerequisites. The RLC Postgraduate Program includes AP courses, allowing students to get a jump on their post-secondary degree requirements.

The access to academic counselling is an important piece. As students clarify their goals, they can tailor their academic work with the help of Jane Audet, who is frankly one of the best, most experienced academic counsellors in independent schooling in Canada. As Vogt says, this isn’t stepping into the abyss, but into a deeper period of reflection. The goal is to allow participants to acquire confidence and independence, to begin further develop a sense of purpose, and to grow into an understanding that there’s life outside of school.

The risk of moving on

“For some parents there’s the fear that the kid’s going to drift away from education and never come back,” says Vogt, “though I think that’s a fallacy.” The bigger risk, he feels, is moving into a post-secondary program too quickly, or move into a program without really considering who they are, and what they want to bring to it.

The reality, per the US National Center for Education Statistics, is that in some disciplines—math is one—more than half of students change their major within the first year. The rate over the first three years is up around 70 percent. Some, of course, drop out entirely. Says Vogt, “Those tend to be larger impacts on life, financially and often emotionally. They can take a lot longer to recover from.” (A alumni speaking with current Grade 12 students recently said, "switching or having doubts once you get [to university] is one of the worst feelings you can have.") Often it speaks to a lack of preparation. “They’ve jumped into something that they aren’t prepared to take on yet, because they’re jumping in for many of the wrong reasons.” William Fitzsimmons writes that, “Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work.”

A postgraduate year is an antidote to all of that. Writes Fitzsimmons, those who have taken a break tend to arrive “with new visions of their academic plans, their extracurricular pursuits, the intangibles they hoped to gain in college, and the many career possibilities they observed in their year away. Virtually all would do it again.”

That could easily be the mission statement of the RLC Postgraduate Program. It was formulated in part by the experience of the pandemic. Vogt has said that “we feel deeply for some of our graduating students whose healing is compounded and limited by a sense of urgency, and who are feeling rushed into the next phase of their lives.” But it’s not only that. Given that so many students deferred through the pandemic, the experience of a gap year has become normalized. Prior to the pandemic it’s estimated that almost 20% of students took a break year, though the rate has increased. Were Malia to be starting her tweener today, it likely wouldn’t gain as much attention, if only because we know better what the experience can be, and what it can mean in both the long and the short term.

For more on the RLC Postgraduate program, to launch with the 2023-24 academic year, click here.