February 26, 2011
Gap year sharpens perspective
Students take year off after high school to live in foreign countries
Cortland High School seniors James Williams and Greg Masler are thinking about life in another country next year, not life in college.
Williams will spend the year in Germany, to better prepare for international relations studies in college. Masler will live in Brazil and has been taking a Portuguese class at Cornell University to get ready.
They will be Rotary International exchange students, following a tradition for area students who spend a “gap year” before college soaking up another culture and living with a host family.
The gap year, common for teenagers in England and Australia, has been a growing trend in the U.S. Some students spend the year in community service, others enroll in high schools in foreign countries.
Most colleges allow deferment if a student wants to study abroad.
School life is far different in other countries, confined to education only while clubs and sports are tied to the community. Students stay in one classroom and teachers come to them, so students do not have lockers.
A European school year ends in the summer, with longer breaks than U.S. schools have.
Williams and Masler said they are ready for whatever they find next year and knew for some time that they wanted to try this.
Williams has traveled in Germany and plans to study international relations in college.
Masler’s older sister Erica was an exchange student in Mexico, and his family has hosted students from Peru, Mexico and Slovakia. He is unsure what he wants to study in college.
There are many foreign exchange programs for such students, with Rotary International and American Field Service among the oldest.
The Rotary program is also one of the less expensive ones. The costs include several hundred dollars in registration fees, insurance and air fare. The host Rotary Club provides the student with spending money, and the host family covers room and board.
The students go through an interview process to gauge their social adaptability. After being chosen, they have three orientation meetings, one involving their parents.
Masler will arrive for the second half of a Brazilian school year and stay for the first half of the next. He thinks he will begin in 11th grade and possibly stay there.
Williams thinks he will be placed in 11th grade as well. Both of them accept the idea.
The 12th year in French, Italian, German and Brazilian schools focuses on terminal exams, leading to the equivalent of a community college degree, so it is more serious and not suited to an American entering the system. A U.S. student also might not have the language skills to keep up.
The district Rotary plans to phase out having high school graduates in the program after this, partly because of the awkwardness of placing an 18-year-old in a lower grade. Host nations are starting to say they do not want students that old.
The intent is also to have sophomores or juniors go abroad, then return to their American school, where they can add to other students’ global view.
European high schools are more like colleges, said Max Hoeschele and Eleanor Polley, who graduated last June from Cortland High School and are spending this year in France and Italy, respectively.
“It’s more like a university class system, where students have different classes each day at varying lengths, at different times,” Hoeschele said. “Students pick a specialty, kind of like a major, and classes are based around that. I was placed in Premiere ES2, the equivalent of 11th grade, with a specialty in economic sciences. I would have been in Terminale, 12th grade, but students are usually too preoccupied with work to do much socializing.”
Hoeschele said he wanted a deeper view of the world.
“I feel it’s essential for teenagers to get a better feel for the rest of the world before they enter it,” he said via e-mail from Lannion, the Ithaca-sized city where he lives. “In high school, we have a limited view of what the rest of the world really is but are still expected to function in an increasingly global society. So I figured that one of the best ways to mature myself and get away from my limited world view was to take a year and explore a little.”
His mother, Lisa, said Max had traveled to France with the family, so he felt at home there. She said he was not really focused on what he wanted in a college, as a high school senior.
“This year, he got very serious and got his applications done early,” she said.
Max Hoeschele said he plans to enroll at SUNY Plattsburgh to study French.
“Students here spend a lot of time outside of school studying, especially during the fifth year,” said Polley, who is living in Sicily. “In fact, it is not common to hear of kids having an ‘after school job.’ At age 16, students can start driving mopeds or smart cars, but cannot get their license to drive a normal-sized vehicle until 18.”
Polley said she plans to study international relations at Penn State.
Another Cortland graduate, Gerrit Wissink, spent last year in France after deferring college. He is now a Cornell freshman.
Wissink said he spent two weeks in France as a high school sophomore and loved the food, music and people.
Wissink’s mother, Jennifer, said her son saw how much college consumed his two older siblings and decided to travel while he could.
The family had traveled extensively and knew other families in Cortland and nearby whose children had gone abroad through Rotary.
Gerrit Wissink said his year in France, meeting not just French people but other people his own age who were in exchange programs, changed him.
“I gained a second family, I gained too many friends, and even if I don’t keep in the best contact with them now, we had our moments together and they were unreal,” he said. “It may sound stupid, but I gained life. People ask me what I did there for a year and my short answer is ‘Lived.’ ... I miss everything about it all the time.”
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