Dear Straight Talk: I'm slated to head off to college in August, but I want to take a gap year in South America first. I have savings and will work as I go. I think immersing in a different culture is good for Americans. My parents agree in principle, but will freak out if I don't go to college right away. They worry that I'll never go to college -- or that I'll get mugged or something. I DEFINITELY will go to college after this. I want a college education. How can I make my parents agreeable? -- Jeff, Perrysburg
Jessie, 20: These days, many upper-division colleges actually encourage a gap year or a year studying abroad. It gives you real-world experience and looks good to future employers. I wish I had taken one.
Nicole, 22: I have traveled, solo, to 10-plus countries between semesters of college. It can be done. Tell your parents you can't fully immerse in college and are worried about poor grades.
Gregg, 21: Lots of kids in my college went through this argument with their parents. I recommend doing what they want. South America will always be there, but your parent's funding may not. I'm taking a gap year now, after two years of college. You'll be surprised how much you learn in a year or two of college that will make you much more prepared for South America.
Leif, 23: After my first three semesters in college, I felt trapped in academia. I took an official leave and spent 10 months in Argentina, Chile, and Peru -- five of them working for a nonprofit in Peru. The experience was eye-opening and surprisingly easy. By staying in hostels and on the well-trodden "backpacker trail," I met other backpackers and was rarely in a situation where I didn't know what to do. There were many opportunities to work for nonprofits and organic farms. I met many solo travelers (including girls), and the only incidents were petty theft. I was happy to begin school again and am now traveling/working in China before starting a PhD.
Kira, 20: My mom makes us research our proposals. Bring your parents a plan of what you'll be doing and where you'll stay. As for college, tell them what you told us: "I want a college education."
Lara, 21: In Europe, it's common to take a year or two to travel or work and establish interests before starting college. This contrasts with the United States where you are pushed to graduate in four years so you can make money -- and be in debt. Don't burn out doing what society prescribes. Check out wwoof.org (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and couchsurfing.org.
There are also many study-abroad programs. I just returned from Semester at Sea where I visited 11 different countries. I did it free with grants and scholarships. I do recommend deferring college officially, though, so you have something to come back to.
Dear Jeff: I highly recommend gap years. I took several and benefited greatly. When to take them is an individual decision -- and if your parents are helping to fund college, that warrants some weight.
On the bright side, having a year of lower-division transfer units under your belt and being a year older is advantageous both for solo travel and for thawing parents.
If they still balk after this, follow your instincts anyway. Most parents will still help you once you return and are serious about school.
With cultures more and more dependent on getting along in a global economy, gap years are more important than ever. There is something about visiting other cultures when one is young and parent-free that has a lifelong impact.
Most American youth are experiencing a crisis of meaning -- in essence, a spiritual crisis resulting from excess materialism and digitization.
Living and working in cultures more connected with family and Earth is important. --Lauren