Gap Years for the Few, True Transition Years for the Rest of Us
[I wrote this (it’s part of a memo-comment I shared with the ISU administration in general and Dean of the Arts and Science, Joe Weixleman in particular) in 2007. It’s not specifically about the “gap year” programs getting so much attention today. It’s about students who could never afford a year tramping around Europe’s museums, copies of “Lonely Planet” guides and credit cards readily available. Most Indiana State University students could still use a gap year of sorts. This “True Transition Year” proposal was fashioned with them in mind.]
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The reality of the retention problem at ISU is that many of our students arrive on campus immature, unmotivated, and woefully undercapitalized. Our efforts, given these realities, are something akin to triage. We are acting responsibly in making these efforts, however, have we really thought through the problem to its origins and its complexities? Isn’t much of what we do really aimed at making us, the institution, feel good, responsible, aware, caring, but really avoiding the hard choices and actions necessary to be effective?
When Is a Transition Not a Transition?
I support an approach to this problem that creates choices and a support system for nontraditional students that will provide a “True Transition" for prospective ISU students as they pass from high school and community environments to the university.
At present our nontraditional students do not have the luxury of what a real transition entails. They have just finished a twelve-year long distance run through primary and secondary school. Their summer after graduating rushes by and they find themselves facing four or five more years of institutionalized life. Understandably they cannot see this prospect as a step into the future. After an early positive rush created by new surroundings and people, college life and studies are viewed as more of the same.
All of this happens at a point in the student’s psycho-physical development that is urging them toward independence from family, institutions, authority and imposed structure. None of what they are thrown into during the first semester at ISU constitutes a "transition": orientation programs, mentors, validating feedback, advisement with a human face, involved teachers, none of this can bridge the abyss, fill the vacuum, that so many nontraditional students feel and face on campus.
The transition they truly need, but that is denied to them by the forces that sweep them into the institution, is a transition consisting of time outside of the educational institution and its imperatives. They need to mature and think about the next step to be taken in their lives, not be thrust into that next step by others because they have no alternatives they themselves can formulate. Only a position outside of the whirl of school abetted by the perspective of time can provide conditions for making the independent and mature decisions that are a part of a meaningful transition. Many graduating high school students need something we are all familiar with, they need a version of what we in academia call a sabbatical.
Proposal–Creating a "True Transition Year"
The university can aid prospective students during this difficult transition. In doing so we may very well recruit more students ready to do college work as well as increase the retention rate of many who opt for this program.
We can create a "True Transition Year" (TTY) program which would enroll students at ISU, but offer them the opportunity to sit out at least one semester, and preferably one year, before taking on formal course work on campus.
The work/life experience gained by students during this TTY would be credited as part of their degree requirements. (Completion of specified readings and a personal journal being the only formal elements required to receive this credit.) Programs presently in place or proposed to aid students and families of students in the transition process would be modified or created to support the TTY students as they wrestled with life decisions, one being the part to be played by higher education. Periodic visits to campus for workshops, advisement, class visitations, would be a part of this program. Selected university social, cultural, and athletic events would be made available to these students.
This is only the kernel of the TTY concept. As is too often said in recent times, the devil is in the details. However, there are some angels in the details as well. I conclude by presenting in brief form merits of this proposal:
1. Students, all students, but especially nontraditional students, need a true transition period prior to entering full time study at ISU. This proposal provides for such a period.
2. A full time work experience prior to entering the university can give students an appreciation of what life without a college education can mean in terms of job opportunities and advancement. (Here our other nontraditional students, the over-thirty students we all admire and appreciate in our classes, might serve as a valuable resource in workshop/advisement sessions.)
3. A TTY sabbatical from school can serve as a time to save money for school. A financial stake in one's education can in many cases help to focus attention on what is and is not important.
4. Families of students are an important part of this program. They must be fully in tune with its rationale and benefits. During the TTY, they should be called on regularly, asked to contribute to the program with their ideas, have access to a human being at ISU through a hot line, have the option of visitations with advisors on campus. This means they will be active participants in the TTY program. We must help parents move away from the limiting role of paying the bills and hauling personal effects to and from the dorms. Parents are more than providers and porters. The nontraditional student is not the only one who is denied a true transition in our lock step system of education.
5. Finally, time, and the maturity which can only come with time passing and being lived in, is the major contribution this program would provide. Time and maturity allows students to make decisions about their lives that, at present, are being made by forces beyond their understanding and control. We must help put these young people in the position to make crucial personal decisions in a mature and thoughtful manner. If this can be achieved, the benefits will encompass not just these young women and men, but their families, Indiana State University and society as well.