Take a year to get to know yourself before going to college

A few weeks ago, I told you about a young couple who sold nearly every earthly possession they had and set off on a trip around the world.

They called it a gap year, sort of like that time before going to college, but instead Jessica Baumgart, formerly of Peachtree Corners, and her husband, Nate, had decided to take some time off before starting a family.

Turns out that a lot of people do it, including a growing number of high school students like Claire Griffin of Marietta.

The idea of taking a year to learn experientially after high school is gaining in popularity for several reasons.

One, the process of getting into college is enormously stressful, and students have to juggle a full load of academic and extracurricular activities to differentiate themselves. Two, the year between high school and college is one of the only times in a person’s life when a gap year experience is possible. And three, if a student is not ready to take full advantage of the college experience or doesn’t know what they want to study, taking a gap year is a great way to gain perspective.

Griffin falls into that latter group.

She graduated last year from Pope High School, and even though she knew she wanted to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to go immediately after high school.

The jump was just too big, too soon.

It was her mom, Chris Griffin, who suggested she take a gap year.

“I wanted Claire to experience life outside the small area that is Atlanta, to realize it’s a huge world out there that needs exploring,” Chris Griffin said.

Claire, 19, is the youngest of Griffin’s three children. After graduating from high school, both of her sons went directly to college and not even she could’ve persuaded them to do otherwise.

But after attending a fair on gap years in 2014, Griffin knew that was the best course for Claire. It would give her time to take a breath and get some perspective.

“I’d read so many articles about the benefit of a gap year,” Griffin said.

But she had questions, too. What could a 19-year-old do for a year that would be worth the time? What would she get in return for the delay?

Griffin Googled gap year and kept coming across TeenLife.com, a website listing of opportunities and advice for families and educators of teens. The website lists nearly 15,000 summer and gap programs, schools, colleges, and community service opportunities. It also publishes guides, e-books and blogs on related topics of interest.

For Claire, Griffin zeroed in on the National Outdoor Leadership School based in Lander, Wyo.

“It was nationally recognized and had great reviews,” Claire said. “Every person I’d talked to said they loved it, that it changed their lives.”

And so last fall, Claire was off to the Rocky Mountains, where she was on her own for the first time. Over the next three months, she learned to rock climb, navigate rugged terrain with a compass, respond to emergency medical situations in the wilderness, and make tough decisions designed to develop leadership skills. She discovered a passion for the wilderness.

“I think people feel they have to go directly into college because that’s what their friends and family have done and if you don’t go directly to college, you are doing something wrong,” Claire said. “You’re either lazy or not smart, but really you could just not be ready. I think it’s smarter to take some time and make sure you know what you want to do before you start.”

Marie Schwartz is founder and CEO of TeenLife and a mother of two. When she had trouble finding engaging summer programs for her sons in Boston, where she’d recently moved, Schwartz created a “Guide to Summer in Boston.”

That was the beginning of TeenLife.

To navigate the free site, Schwartz recommends parents enter a particular interest — robotics, theater, Spanish, for instance — in the search bar and browse the results.

Visitors can fill out a “Request Information” form to get more information directly from programs. They can also join TeenLife to receive via email its monthly newsletters, guide announcements and partner news.

Last year, Schwartz said TeenLife had more than 1.1 million unique visitors to the website, more than double the number in 2014.

“Thousands more read our digital and online guides,” she said.

Although there are several sites that help students search for colleges, summer camps, and gap programs, TeenLife is said to be the only one that actually aggregates all of these listings in one place.

A free TeenLife LIVE Virtual Fair geared toward middle and high school students, their parents, counselors and advisers will be held from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

On Saturday, Claire is embarking on the second half of her adventure, which consists of EMT and Wilderness-EMT training in Costa Rica and Montana. She plans to major in psychology at UC and use her outdoor experiences to pursue a career as a wilderness therapist.

The gap year helped fine-tune her focus and broaden her horizons.

“She came back a more mature, reflective person,” her mother said.

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