Break from Tradition: A Year Off Before College Could Be Just What You NeedBreak from Tradition: A Year Off Before College Could Be Just What You Need

Break from Tradition: A Year Off Before College Could Be Just What You Need

Take Time To Stop and Kiss the Blarney Stone. A break before college can change your perspective and your life.

Malaka Refai had some growing up to do. After graduating from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School in 2001, Malaka begrudgingly went for a year to Temple University to satisfy her parents' wishes. That year taught her something very valuable about herself. "I simply wasn't ready for college," she says. "I did some legwork and found out about the Center for Interim Placements in Princeton through a New York Times article," says Malaka, now 20. The Center helped her locate employment in three different countries.

From October 2002 to this past May, Malaka taught the ABCs to street kids at a shelter in Egypt, helped out at a bed-and-breakfast in Chile, and pitched in at a Nature and Arts Center in Ireland. She received room and board for her work, an experience she now describes as "life changing." She's considering a college major in Spanish after absorbing the Chilean culture. "During my time abroad, I learned to trust myself. I grew up enough to go to college," Malaka explains.

At first, her parents were none too pleased to learn of her plans to leave college. "My biggest fear was that she would never return to school," says Malaka's father, Mohammed Refai. "But she's a good kid, and she made a promise that she would." With her restlessness behind her, Malaka has transferred schools and is now a student at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

Malaka's story is not that uncommon. Many students choose to take some time off after high school to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It's not the choice for everyone, but it can be an important time of maturity if you use it wisely. Talk it over with your parents and put together an action plan.

Here are a few suggestions:

If you're considering using the services of a working abroad program, make sure you and your parents find out how long the company has been in business. Talk to some teens who have used the service. Also, make sure to familiarize yourself with the current crime, political and security situation in the country you want to visit.

If a social agenda is more your thing, look up AmeriCorps. This is a government-sponsored national service program that can place you in a worthwhile job at a variety of organizations and nonprofits across the nation. In turn, some receive a living allowance, and all get a special education award to repay college loans past, present or future.

Leonard McKay, 20, graduated from JFK High School in Paterson in 2001, and was unsure about going on to college. Unable to find a decent job, he signed up for the AmeriCorps program through the New Jersey Community Development Corporation, an economic development organization. From June of 2001 until this past May, he worked on its Digital Divide program, focusing on teaching computer skills to kids in Paterson.

Today Leonard works as a computer assistant at the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson, teaching youngsters basic computer skills, a job for which he was recommended after doing some Digital Divide work at the community center. Leonard this fall also started attending Passaic County Community College. "I loved the service part of AmeriCorps," he explains. "It became much more than a job." In fact, it helped him figure out his future.