On the day I entered college for the first time, at the age of 19, I felt mortified.
All of my peers in the World Politics 101 class were several years older than me. From the twenty-something world traveler to the 45-year old doctor and career changer, it seemed like nobody had had the same priorities in life.
As a recent high-school graduate, I was used to being around people of my age. Soon I learned, however, that this was what college life in Finland looked like.
In my country, it is typical to take a year or more off after graduating from high school. It’s not considered a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that your parents are exceptionally well-off.
If the president of Finland’s daughter took a gap year before college, just like Malia Obama plans to do, it would hardly make any news.
Only after I moved to the United States did I realize that gap years could be such a controversial issue. I was shocked to read about the backlash that President Barack Obama’s daughter faced after the White House announced she’d take a year off before attending Harvard College.
Some argued that a gap year boosts unproductive behavior. Others said only rich kids can afford taking time off.
Advocates of gap year, such as the American Gap Association, argue that young people need time off after the stressful high school years. Studies have shown that burnout from the competitive pressure of high school is among the top two reasons students take gap years.
To get another perspective, I found my own experts in the field – young Finns that took a gap year themselves.
Anni Valtonen, 21, was among the 30 students admitted to the University of Helsinki molecular biology program in 2014, but she took a year off before diving into the academic world.
“Some people know exactly what they want to study after high school and are able to get in the university straight away,” Valtonen says via e-mail. “But for others, the gap year is a great opportunity to get rid of school stress and to think about what to do with their future.”
The young woman did know what she wanted: to become a veterinarian. However, in Finland, knowing what you want is not enough. In order to get in the university, you need to pass a highly competitive entry exam. Education is free for Finnish citizens, but there are simply not enough spots for every applicant.
After receiving a rejection letter from her dream school, Valtonen decided to try again the following year and took a gap year. Many of her friends were going through the same; Valtonen says that more than half of her friends postponed their college studies.
Valtonen spent her year with a couple of months of vacation time and then concentrated solely on prepping for the veterinary medicine entry exam.
She still didn’t get into the school of her choice, so she enrolled in molecular biology and intends to try again for veterinary school.
“It’s a goal that I’m still trying to reach. I’ll probably apply each year until I get in,” Valtonen says. “I understand that our society creates pressure to move swiftly towards college and working life, but in my opinion you’ll have plenty of time to work later — even if you took a year off between high school and college.”
According to a 2014 study conducted by Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, Finnish students enter college at the median age of 20. But walking around the university campuses, you’re likely to stumble into people that seem a lot more grown-up. Wedding rings and baby strollers are a pretty frequent sight.
A closer look at the 2014 education study reveals why: the average age of the whole student body is 26 years. The Finnish higher education system has a lot of flexibility, which allows students to move swiftly between classes, internships, work and travel. A year off is just a matter of a few clicks on the computer; you inform your university that you’ll be gone for some time, and nobody’s going to question it.
So by graduation day, they’ve already gained loads of experience from the work they’ve done or from their various activities. Oftentimes that’s exactly what their future employers want.
For Leo Pahta, 25, one gap year was not enough. After high school graduation, he spent three years out of school, working at a fast food restaurant, interning for a cultural organization and entering in the Finnish civilian service. Before starting journalism studies at University of Tampere in 2012, he spent five weeks traveling in India.
“It was sort of a soul-searching trip for me. I explored the cultural differences, read a lot of books and slept under the starry skies at Rajasthan desert,” Pahta tells me via Skype.
Taking several years off was not his original plan. After high school Pahta wanted to study graphic design, but, like Valtonen with her veterinary goals, Pahta didn’t pass the entry exam. The following year he applied to a business school, still without success. His efforts paid off when he passed journalism major entry exam the year after that.
And Pahta, by choice, is out of school again. He recently withdrew from a master’s program to take an internship at Miltton, the country’s biggest communication firm. Within six months he landed a job as communications planner for the company.
“I might continue studying later, but I’m not sure where,” Pahta says. “I believe that work experience and practical skills are more important for my future career than a degree diploma. I’d still like to pursue more studies to deepen my knowledge and understanding of things, but I don’t think of it as a shortcut to any career achievements.”
Leo Pahta’s and Anni Valtonen’s stories are different from their American counterparts. Even though the most reputable universities such as Harvard encourage their students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue special projects, or work, taking a gap year still remains a rare exception.
Kate Gleason, 20, is a University of Washington sophomore studying communication. The Seattle Prep alumna says taking a year off before college never occurred to her as an option.
“I was worried that if I were to take a break for a year I wouldn’t be able to settle down and go back to school,” she said. “Like I’d just want to keep on traveling and doing other things. It would be hard to get back to the mindset to go to school, versus if I just continued down with my education.”
Gleason can only think of a few high school mates, who took a year off after graduation.
“In the competitive atmosphere of my high school, taking a gap year would have raised questions: oh, why are they doing that? Did they not get into good enough school? There was this one girl who took a gap year, and I’m not trying to be harsh, but she’s not super bright.”
As I walk with Kate around the University of Washington campus, I’m surrounded by faces that look smart, ambitious, hopeful — and incredibly young.
It’s almost as if some of them could take a chance and spend a tiny amount of time off.