Published on 2020/08/12

The EvoLLLution | Growth Year vs Gap Year: The Catalyst for Change
Upon entering higher education, many students take a gap year or semester to clarify their goals, gain insight into themselves and figure out their next steps. But it should be re-framed as taking a “growth year” –a year during which students enroll in self-actualization modules while pursuing their education to better get to know themselves and what they want.

“What now? What’s next?”

Surveys show that 16% of high school seniors (The Hechinger Report) and 20% of college students (American Council of Education) plan to take a gap year when the 2020 fall semester begins. Given that over 50% of college students change their major at least once and that 70% require career counseling to figure out what to pursue, how would they know what to do with their time during a gap year?

The Gap Year Association defines the gap year as “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.” Students often take a semester or year off in thehopes that it will fill the gaps missing from their education. However, students don’t realize that most two- and four-year institutions are primed to help them construct learning experiences during what we describe as a “growth year.” Students need to reframe their thinking and be educated on their options; instead of focusing on what’s missing from their life (gap year), they need to focus on what can be added to their life (growth year).

To assist students in creating a meaningful and enriching growth year experience, regardless of whether or not they choose to enroll in college, it’s imperative that we help them answer two simple questions:

  • Who do I want to be?
  • What am I here to do?

If their learning and experiences cannot be tied to their answers to these two questions, they won’t have the direction they need to fuel and sustain their growth year endeavors.

What are the main components of a growth year?  We follow these three simple rules for success:

  1. Know yourself.
  2. Serve profoundly.
  3. Find your right pond.

“Know yourself” is about maintaining self-awareness, “serve profoundly” is about finding meaningful work that solves problems  and “find your right pond” is about discovering one’s place in the world– professionally and personally. Deepen your knowledge and experiences in these three areas and your chances of having a successful growth year–and arguably a more fulfilling life–improve significantly!

Although many gap tear programs exist outside higher education, very few exist within it–and only ONE growth year program serves our students (our program at UNCG). At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Life Design Institute, we’ve created the Life Design Catalyst Program (in-person) and the Life Design Catalyst Project (online) as structured programs to develop a growth year plan. The in-person, campus-based Life Design Catalyst Program consists of two first-year, one-credit courses: “HHS125 – What Could I Do with My Life in the Fall Semester” and “HHS135 – Redesign a Life You’ll Love in the Spring Semester.” These content-based group coaching courses are facilitated by trained Life Design Catalyst facilitators.  The Life Design Catalyst Project consists of “modules that combine many of the tools andactivities that are provided in the in-person classes.  Although the online modules can be completed without assistance, trained facilitators provide clarity to students and hold them accountable to completing their work. Student feedback clearly demonstrates that students want a course focused on planning a growth year experience rather than a typical college success course that focuses on study skills, note-taking, time management, etc.  We have seen hundreds of students create their plans, seek resources, make decisions, and carry out their growth years.

We have been facilitating the growth year curriculum since 2014; this summer, we’ve created an online curriculum to expand our impact.  Similar to the in-person program, the online curriculum was constructed based on the three simple rules for success. Over the course of a student’s growth year (their first year of college), they complete lessons in these three different modules.

  • Module 1 – Know Yourself: a set of lessons in which students will learn about themselves, their personality, values, strengths, personal motivators and “superpowers.”By the end, students will be able to clearly state and demonstrate an increased awareness of themselves.
  • Module 2 – Serve Profoundly: lessons to define how to meaningfully serve others.Self-reflection activities include an examination of past helping experiences, the construction of a meaningful work statement and a one-liner describing a problem to solve.  These reflections are valuable tools to develop a plan that encompasses educational, experiential, employable and entrepreneurial pursuits.
  • Module 3 – Build a Better You: provides additional self-assessments for students to identify their present states of to create practices that lead to a better, more improved state. The last portion of this module will be devoted to creating a compelling vision for the future.

By preparing our students to create growth year plans, not only have we seen an increase in retention and graduation rates, but we have heard from students that they are now able to define how they want to serve the world, understand their place in the world and have a clear vision for their future. It has been an absolute joy to watch students take control of their education, create opportunities aligned with intrinsically motivated factors that lead to academic, career and personal success.

As we prepare students for a different kind of educational experience over the next decade, it’s imperative that we provide them with the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to craft a plan that allows and encourages them to grow. The difference is that they own their growth year plan and are empowered to generate experiential learning and hands-on experiences aligned with the characteristics that matter most to them. And they’ll be able to answer the questions:

“What now? What’s next?”

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