How to Take a Self-Directed Pandemic Gap Year in 2020-21

As more colleges consider closing their campuses in fall 2020, more students are considering the possibility of taking a gap year.

This makes perfect sense, since “virtual college” would be underwhelming, even at a discounted tuition rate. A significant part—perhaps the most important part—of the college experience comes from the communal experience of living and growing alongside other thriving minds.

While organized gap year programs do offer powerful, community-oriented growth experiences, most won’t be great options for 2020, because they involve foreign travel.

Some domestic gap year programs do exist, but like international gap year programs, they tend to be prohibitively expensive. Tivnu, for example, is a social-justice-oriented Jewish gap year taking place in Portland, Oregon, which William Deresiewicz highlighted in a powerful New York Times op-ed. Yet the Tivnu gap year costs $30,000: squarely out of reach of most families. [Note: I’ve since learned that Tivnu meets 100% of demonstrated need and has done so throughout its six-year history, making it a happy outlier in the world of gap year programs.]

Traditionally, young people who can’t afford (or don’t desire) an organized gap program will consider building their own cheap and meaningful gap year by relocating to a less-expensive part of the world (like Southeast Asia) and trading their labor in exchange for room and board (through Workaway or HelpX). But this approach is also limited by the new and unpredictable travel restrictions.

Young people who need to make a big decision about fall 2020 right now—college or gap year?—face a tough situation. But it’s not an impossible one.

For young adults who are more excited to take a gap year than sit through 9 months of virtual classes—and who are ready to take a more self-directed and (dare I say) old-school approach to gap years—then the possibilities are vast.

Abby Falik, the founder of Global Citizen Year, penned an excellent article recommending that young adults craft their own gap years in 2020 by

  1. following your heartbreak (working for a cause)
  2. defining your questions (doing serious introspection)
  3. finding your teachers (reaching out to people who can serve as mentors, guides, and coaches)
  4. recruiting a crew (making peers part of your journey)

Falik’s advice closely resembles that of my 2012 book, Better Than College. It’s also quite open-ended. How exactly do you put these principles into practice? Allow me to make some specific recommendations.

First things first, what’s your budget? As a Coronavirus-displaced college student who is no longer spending money on tuition, room, or board, let’s imagine that your family will provide you with $1000/month to cover your living expenses during your domestic gap year. Let’s further assume that your family is covering your health insurance, cell phone, and other basics—so you have the full $1000 to spend on room, board, activities, and learning.

$1000 won’t get you very far in places like San Francisco and New York, so if you’re going to live away from home—which you definitely should, to make the most of your gap year—then you’ll need to consider smaller cities and less expensive parts of the United States.

Consider moving somewhere unsexy enough to have low rent but big enough to have some culture and community. “There is plenty of work to be done right here in the United States,” Deresiewicz rightly observes. Detroit and Albuquerque may not elicit ooo’s and aaa’s from your friends, but they will give you a reasonable place to learn and grow without stressing about obscene rent payments.

Beyond choosing an inexpensive place to live, you’ll need to choose an inexpensive way to live, and that means sharing a house or apartment with 2-5 other young adults. This experience will be an entire education in itself. (The issue of who cleans the dishes may be an entire education in itself.) The more you share—food, utilities, furniture—the more you’ll learn.

To find your future housemates, you can roll the dice and use Craigslist—but if possible, I suggest taking Falik’s advice and recruiting your own crew instead. Seek out like-minded people who are also taking gap years. Propose to move somewhere new and live there together for the year. (If you don’t know anyone who might be up for this, drop me a line, and I’ll connect you to others who write me.)

Once you have a home base and a small community—what’s next? Self-directed learning, of course! There’s a staggering number of free resources with which to educate and illuminate yourself today. Read books. Learn a foreign language. Use a daily meditation app. Listen to podcasts. Teach yourself coding. Watch documentaries. Take deep dives into Wikipedia and YouTube.

Your community will prove vital here. By surrounding yourself with like-minded peers who also value curiosity and self-education—and by instituting habits like “What did you learn today?” discussions over dinner—then you’re more likely to stay focused and go down positive rabbit holes instead of truly pointless ones.

Don’t just consume—learn through producing, too. Share what you learn on Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok. Start a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel. Create things by hand. Steal like an artist, show your work, and overcome your perfectionism.

So far, everything we’ve discussed is possible to accomplish from your living room; but if the pandemic allows, don’t stop there. While international travel may remain tricky through late 2020, domestic opportunities will surely reemerge. Seek out part-time volunteering gigs, service work, and internships (perhaps by browsing Take a part-time job, but only if it seems like a strong opportunity for learning. Connect with other communal houses. Explore Meetups. Host Couchsurfers. None of this costs more than a bus ticket.

Sometimes you’ll feel motivated and purposeful; other times you’ll feel lazy and directionless. This is when the “mentors, guides, and coaches” that Falik mentioned become vital. Reach out to interesting strangers to garner inspiration and kindle potential mentorships. Recruit people like Alan Webb and Sarah Bradley of the Open Master’s Community to coach your little learning community. Reconnect with your extended family and broader friend network to solicit free life advice. Host regular Zoom calls with other self-directed learners where you hold each other accountable to your stated goals. Whatever you do, don’t try to do self-directed learning alone. The myth of the lone autodidact is just that: a myth.

If you do all this for the 2020-2021 academic year, I believe you’ll have spent your time wisely. You’ll feel reinvigorated and ready to go back to college. You won’t have wasted a year sitting at home, feeling like a disempowered high-schooler again.

Or perhaps you’ll have learned enough, grown enough, and enjoyed yourself enough that you’ll take another gap year.

Once they’ve tasted the power and pleasure of self-directed learning, some young people string together multiple gap years, eventually declaring that they’re leading a “gap life.”

A “gap life” a funny concept, but there’s some truth there, too. Gap years should offer a break from the pressure-cookers of high school and college, but should also remind us what life is really about. They can be—and should be—educations in themselves. By “education”, I don’t refer to credentials, but rather to John Taylor Gatto’s definition:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

However you spend your next year—which may be the strangest year of entire your schooling career—may it be educational.


First published May 10th, 2020.

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Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash.



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