Why Do A Gap Year

We strongly encourage high school students to consider doing a “gap year” in China before college.  They are much more likely to be treated like a member of a family and subject to many of the same cultural expectations as the host family’s children.  As in probably any culture, they sense a great deal of responsibility towards minors, whom they seem to see as having the obligation and ability to conform to them.  When students have lived with a Chinese or Taiwanese family for 6-12 months before joining us, they typically have a much broader vocabulary than a high school graduate who learned mostly from a textbook.  They also have intuitions about the culture that can take years for an adult to develop.  Among these intuitions are adaptive abilities that allow them to interpret language less literally and behaviors less prescriptively.  When their host mother, for example, tells them to come home early, eat exotic vegetables and go to bed early because the liver needs to rest between 10pm and midnight, their first response can be, “she cares about me just like her own child.”  They can do so immediately and often on a subconscious level.  For the rest of us of course, our first reaction is, “who does she think she is to dictate my schedule, and where is she getting her medical advice?!”  If we keep our wits about us and exercise some restraint, we can process that consciously and hopefully come to the same conclusion, but our response will be much less automatic and with a less nuance.  When students go to school every day, they typically make much stronger friendships and learn much more about how to relate to their peers.  Teenagers and college students in the U.S. and China have more in common than they did 20 years ago, but they still think and talk about very different things.  Acquiring an appreciation for their counterparts’ interests is by no means automatic.  Prolonged, up-close exposure helps immensely.  Also, in high school, students are in close proximity all day long, and the physical and social environment create a backdrop for interaction.
The mood is, “we’re all here, so we might as well make the most of it.”  In a university setting, when class is out, people disperse.  Social interactions require a lot more proactive effort, and they are less likely to occur without more common ground to start from.
Needless to say, students who have these experiences maintain a marked advantage over their peers while in our program.  They have “expert” status amongst their classmates, who look to them for advice about both language, culture, travel, etc.  With their teachers, they know how to show respect and to play appropriate social roles, which emotionally and socially, creates an continuous positive feedback loop.  Meanwhile, their classmates are undergoing the painful process of learning how NOT to come across as rude (appropriate cultural behavior is something that we teach emphatically here because it doesn’t come automatically and has a major influence on their success by the time they reach Capstone).  These students also have more in common with international students from all over East Asia.  This gives them easy access to more learning opportunities and gives them the option, if they want it, of playing an important role in helping other Flagship students to get involved with the international community.
When looking for a gap year program, then, the best programs are those that provide students with the environments described above.  The most important are these:
Placement in a host family that has time and and a genuine interest in providing regular cultural interaction.  Like any of us, Chinese parents have mainly their children’s interest in mind, and a strong command of English opens a lot of doors for them.  Whether they are thinking it consciously or not, they will be hopeful that their own children will benefit from speaking English regularly with a native speaker.
Red Flag: An agreement with a host family that promises that there will be a 30-60 minute window to “hang out” with the family’s child.  Many Chinese students study practically all evening.  A typical study break might be practicing an instrument (cello, piano, etc.).  If “hanging out” is scheduled so precisely, it could be a very thinly veiled English lesson.  Needless to say, the situation won’t likely foster a very balanced “language exchange.”
Placement in a high school, where the majority of the courses for Westerners are in Chinese.  The above problem is alleviated when students go to school every day.  Then there is less pressure on the host family and less risk of an unsatisfactory arrangement.  When students are in an English-speaking environment for most of the day, perhaps just taking Mandarin as their only course in Chinese, the results are spotty.  But when they are in a Chinese environment, even if it is initially difficult, there’s a very high chance they will return very satisfied with what they have accomplished.  They will also have more friends and probably end up with a “Chinese alter ego” that is defined by the common interests they develop.  For some, this may be Asian pop culture and media.  For others, it might be sports with an international appeal: basketball, skateboarding, ultimate frisbee, etc.  Whatever it is, it will result in much more linguistic development and the potential for an ever-growing social network on both sides of the ocean.
We often recommend NSLI-Y, as their participants seem to have very positive experiences and come back with high levels of language, which allow them so skip to higher levels in our program, giving them more flexibility on when they complete their Capstone year and more room to take on additional majors, minors, etc. (understand that the majority of them will be double majors, often is 3 or more special programs, such as Honors & Croft, Honors & CME, etc., but some add on another foreign language, or develop a very strong set of marketable skills.  One student, for example completed Honors, Croft, Chinese Flagship, Intelligence and Security Studies, and Air Force ROTC).   Rotary Exchanges can also be quite good, although not always as focused on language gains.
Keep in mind that we are always happy to allow an accepted student to defer for a year in order to do a gap year like this.
Two caveats:
1) If you are considering a career in intelligence or in any role that would require a security clearance, a year abroad at this stage could make it very difficult to complete a background check.  When students go abroad for Capstone, it does increase the amount of time it takes to complete one, but they are able to avoid developing the kinds of relationships with locals that can make it difficult if not impossible to vet them.
2) You may want to consider if and when you want to take the ACT/SAT again.  If you are deferring for a year to go abroad, and if you don’t already have a 33 on the ACT or the SAT equiv.), then raising your score would increase your automatic UM scholarship.  You have until the June test date before your fall start date, so deferring gives you another year (admittedly, testing while abroad is no easy task).