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The Daily Tar Heel

Colleges begin to increasingly support gap years for students

Colleges across the country are starting to support new students spending a year doing service or traveling internationally. Tufts University recently introduced an optional gap year, now referred to as a “bridge year,” before students begin their degrees.

The Tufts 1+4 program will allow students to spend a year volunteering abroad or within the United States before beginning college. Tufts hopes the program will attract lower income students.

Still, Tufts emphasized that it is not paying students to take a gap year, said Kimberly Thurler, a spokeswoman for Tufts.

UNC offers a similar program, called the Global Gap Year Fellowship, through the Campus Y. The competitive $7,500 grant is given to seven incoming students to fund international volunteering.

“The traditional idea of the gap year comes from students who have the economic means to spend a year out of education,” said Jakelin Bonilla, the Global Gap Year Fellowship director.

“The aim of the fellowship is to democratize the concept of the gap year.”

Bonilla said gap years can change the course of a student’s career goals and interests — or even their desired major.

“A gap year gives students an opportunity to step off of the higher education treadmill and join an international community,” she said.

Laura Catherine Limarzi, a freshman at UNC who is from Canada, has fond memories of her gap year, which she spent traveling to California, Alaska and Mozambique. She said it changed the focus of her education from finance to public health and HIV prevention.

“I cannot recommend other students enough to spend time abroad as part of their education. It really changes your outlook on things,” she said.

Some experts recommend gap years, but advise students to research their international community before going abroad to prepare for their experience.

“If (students) don’t recognize their status as guests in these communities, then they can risk offending these cultures,” said Virginia Tech professor Nancy McGehee, a contributor to the online newsletter The VolunTourist.

“One of the criticisms of ‘voluntourism’ is that tourists can siphon resources from the local area, and could also be taking jobs away from the local people.”

“The best examples of NGOs doing work abroad are when they work with and alongside the local communities.”

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