We have high-schoolers in our home, and there are plenty of friends around town who have high-schoolers too. One thing that we talk about with our friends is the idea of taking a “gap year” between high school and college. Every student is different, so the gap year makes sense for some but not for others.
I took a “gap decade” between my undergraduate and graduate studies (my wife and I had ten wonderful years serving with Campus Crusade for Christ, in the U.S. and in East Asia). A gap decade isn’t the best choice for everyone, but it was perfect for me. Here’s why:
1) Believe it or not, I was not very mature personally or intellectually when I was 22 years old. Shocking.
My kids are known to choose store-bought, processed “desserts” over sumptuous home-made creations at pot-luck dinners or dessert carry-ins. I just smile when they do: one, because it leaves the better desserts for me, but two because I recognize that tastes change and improve over time. At age 22 I was not ready for the fine food that graduate studies had to offer.
2) The gap decade allowed me to develop in some areas of weakness instead of focusing prematurely on areas of strength. I have always been comfortable in an academic setting – taking tests, writing papers, exploring and discussing ideas – these all come fairly naturally for me. My ten years in between undergraduate and graduate studies gave me the chance to cultivate areas in which I was not as naturally gifted – public speaking, leadership, strategic planning, and being intentional about reaching out to a wide variety of people. I’m so grateful for the mentors and experiences that challenged and stretched me in those areas during my gap decade.
3) My gap-decade helped me to appreciate the practical in addition to the theoretical. Theology is rich and complex and significant. But that theology needs to be communicated in ways that connect with people, beginning with where they are in life. I learned this fairly quickly in ministry. There were times when I thought I had developed fascinating Bible studies or teaching material to share with others about God, salvation, and the like, only to find out that they needed something more concrete and practical first.
4) Here’s what may be an eye-opening point: nothing stops us from learning when we are not in school! I read and wrote and thought and learned a lot during my ten years outside of school. I remember pouring through the history of the New Testament canon and other church history highlights, digging into commentaries on various biblical books, and examining systematic theologies on God’s sovereignty, the Holy Spirit, the nature of Scripture, missions, spiritual formation, and other substantive topics. I recall the fun times engaging in detailed studies of books of the Bible with my friends and co-workers. And I wasn’t reading and studying because of an assignment or grade, which made the learning all the more sweet!
5) When I finally returned to the academic arena and began graduate studies, I brought a sense of focus and motivation with me that would have been absent a decade earlier. I knew my need for what I was learning, and my appetite for structured and challenging learning had increased exponentially in my life. A key to success in graduate studies is to sustain momentum throughout the program – from the classwork to the comprehensive exams and all the way to the completion of the thesis or dissertation. I was glad that my motivation level was high at the beginning of the long journey that was ahead of me, so that I could have some energy in reserve for the challenging stretches along the way.
The gap decade – that idea might not catch on like the gap year has, but for some recent college graduates it might be just what the doctor ordered, like it was for me.