Great Gap Year Programs for Outdoor-Loving Students

Finding the right gap year program is a real challenge; not because discovering quality programs is particularly difficult, but because there are so many amazing ones to choose from.

In previous generations, recent graduates simply took a year off, got a job, maybe traveled a bit. Today, the “gap year” is a booming industry, with dozens and dozens of organizations dedicated entirely to maximizing your gap experience.

For those who love spending time outdoors, whether it’s to volunteer, travel, or revel in the beauty of nature, there are some wonderful programs that enable students to spend extended time outside before heading into fluorescent-lit classrooms. The programs below are a great place to start your exploration; also be sure to check out USA Gap Year Fairs, a comprehensive website to connect high school graduates with programs that are a good fit.

Sea|Mester

What is it?

Sea|Mester is a truly unique gap year program. If you were ever intrigued by the stories of sailors spending years at sea, this program should light up your imagination.

Students live full time aboard one of two sailing vessels: the S/Y Ocean Star or the S/Y Argo. The ships sail around the globe, pulling into ports at various islands, countries, and continents. Destinations include the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, Australia, Asia, South Africa, and the Mediterranean. Participants can select trips of varying lengths, from 20- to 90-day voyages.

On board, students learn meteorology and navigation by experiencing them firsthand. Courses also include marine biology, oceanography, geography, and leadership and communication. College credits are awarded through the University of South Florida, ranging from 3 to 12 credits depending on the length of the trip.

How much does it cost?

Cost varies by the length of the trip, the number of credits, and the type of insurance purchased, so check the website for more information. The general range is between $5,000–$25,000 for tuition and other expenses. Financial aid, scholarships, and grants are offered in amounts from $500–$8,000, depending on the student’s need and academic record.

How do I apply?

Sea|Mester requires applicants to fill out forms and submit an essay, after which an interview is scheduled with each prospective participant.

Thinking Beyond Borders

What is it?

Thinking Beyond Borders is designed for students who want to engage in meaningful social change in the world. These rigorous experiences in new environments are great options for those who love adventure and travel. The company offers three different programs: 7-Country Global Gap Year, South American Gap Semester, and Asian Gap Semester.

Thinking Beyond Borders immerses students directly in foreign cultures, with an emphasis on the interconnected, global society we live in. Participants live with local families, receive daily language instruction, conduct fieldwork with professional academic experts, and study through reading and discussion.

The programs focus on global challenges, such as poverty, environmental destruction, public health, and social oppression. For example, the Global Gap Year program includes a unit in which participants spend half a day working on their host family’s farm, and the other half working with an non-governmental organization to research sustainable agriculture.

Thinking Beyond Borders is a hands-on educational experience, and while learning is a primary goal, there are no essays or tests involved. TBB offers no college credit.

How much does it cost?

Tuition cost varies, averaging around $12,000 for semester options and roughly $30,000 for the Global Gap Year (airfare is not included). Need-based financial aid is available through the organization.

How do I apply?

The application for Thinking Beyond Borders consists of an online form and two references, one from an academic source and one from a community member. Applicants and their parents or guardians must also take part in a phone or video-chat interview.

Student Conservation Association

For students who are interested in sustainable development and want to make a difference, the Student Conservation Association offers an array of individual internships and team projects around the U.S. The focus of SCA's work is building future generations of conservation leaders.

Internships include working in environmental education, water quality monitoring, forestry, archeology, and more, with durations between 8 weeks and 12 months.

Team projects put students in the field to do hands-on conservation work. Applicants can select a particular program corps, such as Desert Restoration Corps, Fire Corps, or Green Cities, among others.

How much does it cost?

The positions are 40-hour per week commitments and include housing and some form of medical insurance, as well as a small allowance for participants. To learn more, refer to this chart.

Depending on the program or internship, students may be eligible for Americorps academic award credits or educational scholarships.

How do I apply?

SCA accepts applications on a rolling basis since they fill positions year-round, but they suggest you submit your application at least three months before the program begins. Fill in a general application online and indicate the specific internships or corps programs you would like to participate in.

Where There Be Dragons

What is it?

Where There Be Dragons offers gap year programs in various exotic locations around the world. The goal of each program is to combine cultural study with rugged adventure. Students travel with groups of 10 to 12 participants and three instructors. Each student's unique concerns and interests are explored and integrated into the experience.

WTBD offers nine gap year programs, including: Andes and the Amazon, Central America, Southern China, Himalayas, Indonesia, and West Africa. Each program lasts about 3 to 4 months and has its own particular focus. All include outdoor adventure, home stay, service, language study, philosophy, comparative religion, and study of developmental issues.

The goal of each program is immersion, both in the local culture and the local environment. Students interact not only to learn, but also to serve. Individual, small group, and team community service projects may focus on teaching, healthcare outreach, microeconomic development, hands-on building projects, and more.

How much does it cost?

Costs vary depending upon travel needs, but generally program tuition is around $15,000 plus airfare. College credit is available for some, but not all, programs. Need-based scholarships are available to some participants.

How do I apply?

If you are interested in applying, visit their site. Applications consist of an information form and several short-essay questions.

AmeriCorps

What is it?

AmeriCorps was established by President Bill Clinton in 1994 as a national version of the PeaceCorps. AmeriCorps members serve year-long tenures in communities all over the country, in the fields of education, public safety, health, and the environment.

AmeriCorps allows students to select a field of interest (economic development, homelessness, elder care, homeland security, and so on) and a state in which they want to serve. Students can seek out opportunities that focus on the outdoors, such as the Montana State Parks program, where participants learn to be trail guides and teach kids in an outdoor classroom, or the AmeriCorps Trail Crew, in which participants build sustainable trails through some of the most scenic parts of the country.

Agencies and organizations around the nation can apply for AmeriCorps grants, which means that students can be placed in many possible work settings. The focus of each program is community service, and members commit to 40 hours of service each week.

Students interested in emergency management can also register for the FEMA Corps gap year program, where they are placed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Participants collaborate with communities to respond to disasters and provide relief services to those affected.

Americorps members in the same geographic area also receive training through seminars and attend monthly meetings together. The program puts a strong emphasis on team building, communication, and networking.

How much does it cost?

There is no cost to serving in Americorps. Expenses are paid, and members receive a $4,000 stipend for 10 months of participation. Members also receive an education award for their year of service, which can go towards college expenses either in the future or for loans already taken.

How do I apply?

If you are interested in applying visit this website and fill out the indicated forms.