The Gap Year Concept
Last week I was lucky to be at an Infectious Disease conference sponsored by Harvard in Boston. One of the main draws for me was Dr Paul Farmer who was the keynote speaker. Farmer is the subject of the book Montains Beyond Mountains and the founder of Partners in Health, a non governmental organization that delivers medical care, education, health systems and practical idealism in Haiti and Rwanda. To be honest, his speech was badly constructed, but inspiring nonetheless.
But what was really the exciting part was standing around Farmer for the opportunity to shake his hand and let him know that I have not given up on Haiti even after the recent hurricane's devastation, the perennial postponement of elections, the cholera outbreak, the looking the other way by many otherwise generous contributors, and the incomplete reconstruction following the earthquake of 2010 (called "the event" by Haitians).
As I stood waiting my turn an earnest young physician asked Farmer how he was raised to be such an idealist and to have the values he does. The young man made it clear that he was thinking about his own children and how to parent a potential idealist. After a thoughtful pause, Farmer said that he wasn't sure it was anything specific about how his parents raised him but it was really his gap time before studying medicine when he was galvanized by a trip to Haiti. It was this experience that turned him to "the man who would cure the world," the subtitle of Mountains Beyond Mountains.
The day after returning home the New York Times ran a large article entitled "How Taking a Gap Year Can Shape Your Life." As the New York Times money columnist, teh author of the story, Ron Lieber, takes a financial perspective on the idea of a gap year. Why waste $70,000 especially if an 18 year old is not ready to profit from college. In addition, Lieber and his friend Colin Hall sought out several of the people who took gap years that they had profiled when they were students 20 years ago. Many of these folks attribute their current paths, successes and happiness to that gap time. Very much like Paul Farmer.
This all makes sense. We now know that the adolescent brain is strongly influenced by the ideas, feelings, experiences, sights, sounds and languages that it "sees" during these formative years, If gap year experiences arouse joy, intensity, fear, a sense of accomplishment, fun, and all sorts of other strong feelings, they are likely to be sought later by a more adult person who may be seeking to replicate what the brain knows is fulfilling and meaningful.