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Malia Obama's College Decision Brings Attention to 'Gap Year'

President Barack Obama jokes with his daughter Malia Obama as they walk to board Air Force One from the Marine One helicopter Thursday, April 7, 2016. The White House announced Sunday that Malia will wait a year to begin college at Harvard University. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Malia Obama’s decision to wait a year before going to college is bringing new attention to “Gap Years.”

A gap year is when a student takes a year off after high school to do volunteer service, travel, or work before starting college.

The White House announced on Sunday that President Barack Obama’s oldest daughter will wait until the fall of 2017 to start classes at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

The announcement led to lots of news stories about “gap years.” Some observers think her decision might lead other high school graduates to wait a year before continuing their studies.

“It is going to be the biggest thing ever for gap year programs in the United States,” said Joe O’Shea, director of undergraduate research at Florida State University.

Harvard University urges students to consider taking a gap year to get some much-needed rest before entering college.

“Many of us are concerned that the pressure on today’s students seems far more intense than those placed on previous generations,” said a message on Harvard’s website.

President Obama said that he and his wife Michelle are facing up to the day when their daughter Malia leaves for college.

The president said he decided not to speak at Malia’s high school graduation because it would be too emotional.

“I’m going to be sitting there with dark glasses, sobbing,” Obama recently told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Obama has said his family will remain in Washington, D.C., after his presidency ends in January so his youngest daughter, Sasha, 14, can finish high school. Both Obama daughters attend Sidwell Friends, a private school in the city.

The White House did not provide details of what Malia, 17, will do during her gap year.

Harvard said many students divide up their gap year with work, travel, study and volunteering.

Joe O’Shea wrote the book “How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs.” He said that delaying college is generally a good thing.

He said the year off give students a chance to get a better sense of what they want to study when they begin college.

But a gap year is not for everyone, noted Sally Rubenstone, a former admissions counselor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

For many, she said, it is a way to “explore activities near home or afar that you never had time to experience before.” Her comments appeared on the website

But Rubenstone said some have been known to spend their gap year watching television shows or cooking French fries at the local McDonalds restaurant.

The American Gap Association estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. students a year are taking a gap year.

According to O’Shea, gap years started in Britain during the 1960s and spread to other European nations, Australia and New Zealand. There are also “gap year programs’’ in Japan and, recently, wealthy Chinese started signing up for them.

But taking a gap year can be costly.

A group called “Where There Be Dragons” offers international gap year programs. It lists a price of $14,900, not including airfare, for a three-month gap year program in Nepal, for example.

Chris Yager is the group’s founder. He admits families that do not “have the resources” might find some programs out of reach. He says his and other programs offer some financial aid.

“We’re finding that students completing high school are looking for a really big adventure, doing something they know that they may never have a chance to do again,” Yager said.

I’m Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or share your views on our Facebook Page. Do you think it’s a good idea to wait a year before starting college?


Words in This Story

graduate – n. a person who has completed a study program at a high school, college or university

previous adj. existing or happening before the present time

sobv. to cry noisily

activityn. things people do for work or pleasure

resources n. a supply of something, such as money, that someone has and can use when it is needed

adventuren. an exciting or dangerous experience