In England, it is called the "gap year" or a "year out." Young people, typically between high school and college, take a year off.
They may volunteer to take care of baby chimps in Uganda. Lead wilderness trips for the disabled in Greenland. Work as an au pair in Italy. Learn Russian in Moscow.
The idea is to explore the world, learn, meet people, discover oneself.
We heard about the "gap year" recently as we talked to people about the idea of youth travel. Some of the discussion was sparked by our story, published last Saturday, on Lodi teens going to Hawaii to celebrate their high school graduations.
On our message boards, we heard varying comments from readers, some feeling the Hawaii trips were a great experience for deserving young people, some opining that such travel can be an extravagance.
Whether a vacation to Hawaii or an extended overseas journey, one thing is clear: Young people in Lodi today love to travel, and are doing it more than ever.
Are youthful ramblings inherently enriching or simply indulgent?
Our take: It all depends.
We found, in our talks with teens, 20-somethings, and their parents, some compelling points:
• A career plus?
One middle-aged Lodi dad, who travelled extensively through Europe in his teens, felt it gave him a broader view of life and world affairs that has resonated ever since. He suggested that young people with international cultural fluency will be better positioned to take advantage of an ever-globalizing world economy.
• Building confidence
Traveling solo or with a group of young friends, whether to Hawaii or Helsinki, can instill a sense of independence - and confidence. A young woman who travelled and worked in Europe extensively between her junior and senior years in college said she emerged stronger and more self-reliant. "I knew I couldn't just call mom and dad to handle something. It was up to me."
• Picking up real skills
Travel can build real skills, such as language or leadership. More and more high schoolers are invited to enrichment conferences, often during the summer months, and usually held in urban centers. A 17-year-old who spends a few weeks in Washington, D.C., to hear political leaders, tour sites such as Arlington cemetery and engage in discourse on politics and public policy is no doubt enriched by the experience. Many colleges offer a semester of study overseas, where students can accrue academic credits while visiting museums or palaces in their off-hours.
• Helping others
Compassion and caring can very well be part of the journey. Many of the "gap year" opportunities pursued by young Europeans include volunteering for the less fortunate. One example: Helping out for six weeks at an orphanage in Haiti. American youth have the options of the Peace Corps and Americorps.
• The clock is ticking
Many young people say if they don't travel now, they never will. That may chafe some middle-aged parents, who have yet to set foot in the Louvre themselves. Even so, young travelers can in fact find ways to roam at relatively modest expense. And they insist that staying in hostels, searching out cheap eats, and stretching a minimal travel budget can offer up a more meaningful cultural experience.
• America in perspective
The world is ever more interconnected, and travel offers a wider look at how the United States is viewed by others. Many youngsters travel to regions where they are up and close and personal with real poverty for the first time. Many discover what a privilege it is to be an American.
• Stretching a dollar
Young travelers can find ways to roam at relatively modest expense. Staying is hostels, searching out cheap eats and stretching a minimal travel budget enhances the cultural experience.
There are tricky issues here.
Earning some or all of the money for a big trip teaches an important American ethic - the value of hard work. But the freedom of youth can be fleeting and a lengthy job commitment can turn a young person from original goals, whether they are completing college or making the trip of a lifetime.
How much will the trip or "gap year" cost? Is it wise for a parent to pay all or some of the expenses? Is travel worth taking on debt? Will an extended journey postpone responsibilities or will it create motivation and turbo-charge career focus?
These are questions each parent and each young adult must work through.
First published: Saturday, July 1, 2006