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Along the Road to College, More Teens Take a Detour

A rigorous academic program was one reason Marisa Astiz decided to take time off from attending the University of Maryland. Among the jobs she held during her break was lifeguard at the Tilden Woods Pool in Rockville.
A rigorous academic program was one reason Marisa Astiz decided to take time off from attending the University of Maryland. Among the jobs she held during her break was lifeguard at the Tilden Woods Pool in Rockville. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The exhaustion felled Marisa Astiz in her first year of college.

Astiz started her long streak of overachieving with straight A's in the second grade. She worked hard in middle school and spent four years at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda on the run, every minute scheduled. Tough courses, swim team, cross-country running.

Next was the rigorous honors program at the University of Maryland, where she earned a full scholarship. That was also where the accumulated burdens of school, pressure from family and peers, and her own relentless drive for perfection crashed down on her. Wishing that she had taken a break before going to college, she decided she had to get away and decompress.

Astiz did what more students across the country are doing, and what many educators and college administrators are urging young people to do: She took time off from school, at the risk of losing her scholarship, to catch her breath and mature.

It is not clear how many students are taking time out, but officials at several schools across the country say the number of students who apply but then ask for a deferment is increasing, including at the University of Maryland.

Students are taking time out of the classroom to travel, reflect, participate in community service jobs or, in many cases, work so they can pay for college. Some use the time to beef up their résumés to help them gain admittance to elite schools that rejected them during the first go-round. Others are telling counselors that they simply want to decompress from the unrelenting pace and structure of their lives.

"We see more and more kids showing up in college who are just not ready to learn," said Adam Weinberg, vice president and dean at Colgate University in New York. "They are showing up with all sorts of stress-related disorders -- cutting, eating and others. It is a generation of young kids who have been pushed from birth . . . and who probably need another year or two to be mature enough to be prepared."

Weinberg called for a national conversation about instituting a year of national service for all students between high school graduation and college enrollment, saying it would be valuable in helping young people develop and understand the value of work and service.

Students who take time off and return to school within a year report that it helped them appreciate school more. Thorne Rintel spent last year teaching students in South America and in Belize before entering McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., this fall, an experience she said helped her "grow up fast."

David Lesesne, dean of admission at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., said students who have taken so-called gap years there have hiked the Appalachian Trail, herded sheep in Crete, played in a rock band, attended school in Guatemala, worked at an orphanage in Russia and done relief work in Africa.

A 2003 poll by the Princeton Review, a for-profit provider of education services, reported that of 350 students surveyed, 55 percent of those who had taken time off said the experience improved their grades when they returned to school. Fifty-seven percent said their experiences away from the classroom benefited their job search.

Taking time off between high school and college is more common in other countries, especially England, where more than 10 percent of students take a gap year. Even the royal princes follow the tradition: William spent a year in the Army in Belize and volunteering in southern Chile. His brother, Harry, spent his gap year in Australia and then in Africa, where he worked in an orphanage.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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