Gen Z’s priorities are changing — are gap years the new path?

It’s hard to know what to do after high school. We’re often pushed to make huge life decisions at the young age of 17 or 18. We’re told to go to college or get a job, and to start “adulting.” But how often are we encouraged to pause and reflect on some really important questions: who am I, what are my passions, what brings me joy, how can I make an impact?

In 2017, I was in the same spot so many current high schoolers are in — asking those big questions and wondering what my next step should be. I decided taking a gap year made sense for me. And I’m eternally grateful I made that decision. It made me feel so reengaged, energized, and eager to learn that I decided to head to college after my gap year in Senegal. But in 2020, as we all know, the pandemic hit.

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Pandemic impact

While it was tough to finish college during the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel grateful that I had a stable home environment in which to finish my education and that I was deeply passionate about what I was learning. Unfortunately, a lot of high school students can’t say the same. Data from 2021 show that 37.1% of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, and from my conversations with educators, being back in person hasn’t done much to change this. In fact, 87% of public schools reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted student social-emotional development during the 2021-2022 school year.

One NC educator I recently spoke to said that she doesn’t know how to get her students to care. When she asked them to complete an activity about what they want to do post-high school, only 7 people in the whole class had an answer to that question.

I don’t believe there’s one quick fix for this. But I do know that burnout and feeling aimless isn’t unique to current high schoolers impacted by COVID-19. This was one of the main reasons I decided to take a gap year in the first place. And while I don’t believe students should take gap years to run from anything, if they want to run toward a feeling of purpose, of passion, of self-discovery, of feeling alive again, then there are programs to get them there.


Gap year option

Global Citizen Year’s (GYC) Take Action Lab is one of those programs. Take Action Lab is a 4-month immersion program in Cape Town, South Africa for students worldwide, ages 17 to 21, post-high school. Students live with their global cohort and apprentice with local human rights organizations. They learn about themselves, each other, South Africa, and how to make an impact.


Impact is at the core of every program GCY designs and runs — and has been since its founding over a decade ago. Its 2,000 alumni come from around the world. GCY has had students from over 60 countries, 51% of whom were from low-income backgrounds. Additionally, 46% identify as students of color and 80% received some form of financial aid.


These impacts and others are key as high schoolers are making their own paths and those paths are changing in recent years. According to a recent study, just 46% of high schoolers definitely plan on attending college, and graduates are significantly more likely to consider mental health and financial stability as top priorities over a college degree.


Gen Z dread (and hope)

Who can blame members of Gen Z for rethinking college? In the United States since 2000, tuition and fees at private universities have increased by 134%, out-of-state tuition and fees have increased by 141%, and in-state tuition and fees have increased by 175%. There’s even a term for what Gen Z is experiencing: “Gen Z dread.” Gen Z dread comes from a state of constant anxiety about what their future holds — what to do after school, job prospect concerns, cost of living, the devastating impacts of climate change, the list goes on and on.


But dread doesn’t have to be the only thing that Gen-Z experiences. I think Desmond Tutu said it best, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Working at GCY, where I get to read the applications of young people from around the world who want to participate in a program like Take Action Lab, is inspiring. They all have so much hope for the future, ideas for how they want to impact their own communities, and drive to make change. And being around people with that level of optimism is contagious.


The opportunity for graduating students to re-engage, make an impact, find their passions, their people, and their purpose is out there.

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Tilting Futures
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University of Rochester
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I Took a Gap Year Before Beginning College. Here’s Why You Should, Too.



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Global Citizen Year is moving forward as part of our new, larger brand: Tilting Futures. New name, same mission, expanded programs and impact.