When I got to the start of my senior year and the overwhelming question of “what are you doing next year?” became the subject of every conversation between peers, parents, and teachers, something inside of me clicked. I knew that I needed a year before college to better prepare myself, grow, and breathe after a long four years of high school. I began telling everyone that I was taking a gap year, with little idea of where to even begin planning. My friends looked at me like I was crazy, and my parents trusted that I would figure it out on my own. I had minimal support, knowing no one who had taken or was planning on taking a gap year. Little by little, however, I began taking steps towards preparing myself for my gap year, and I haven’t regretted it since. These were some of the steps I took over the course of my senior year, that would be helpful to anyone else thinking of a gap year:

Get a Job & Save Money 

My first week of senior year, I got a job working at a sushi restaurant. I began putting aside money every week from my job, and slowly saving my way to a financial goal that I set for myself. I was really careful about spending money, and would remind myself: “I can either buy this top/makeup/whatever else I really didn’t need or spend an extra day in Tel Aviv.” Slowly, those decisions began adding up and I was able to put away more and more money. I also recommend working in the restaurant industry. It’s hard work, but it’s fast money, eye opening, and you’ll learn skills you can use on your gap year. 

Defer Admission 

I, like many other seniors, applied to college during the fall of my senior year. I was confused about the deferral process, and worried that it would impact my college admissions. Thankfully, I had nothing to be worried about. All of the colleges I applied to had a very similar deferral process (and I applied to 17 schools). I think it would be much harder to find a school that would not let you take a gap year, than one that would. After I paid my deposit for Georgia Tech (go yellow jackets!), I submitted a deferral request and wrote a paragraph about my gap year plans. Two weeks later, I was approved. It was by far the easiest and least stressful thing I’ve done regarding college admissions. 

In terms of financial aid, most merit scholarships from your university will defer with your admissions. However, in the case of many outside scholarships, it is not always possible to defer. I would suggest looking into any scholarship that you are interested in, and double checking that it is deferrable. You’ll also have to reapply for need based aid through FAFSA, but that is something you have to do every year in college, regardless of whether or not you’re taking a gap year. 

Every college and scholarship is different, so double check that taking a gap year works with the plan that you choose for future education. However, while it is not the most traditional path, you are not the first student at your university to take a gap year, so your college has a process set up for this. 

Do Research 

I’m the kind of person who loves to prepare ahead of time, but I knew I wanted my gap year to be different. I didn’t want to have everything planned out, so I could “go with the flow” as often as possible. However, I also wanted to prepare myself and go into the year with as much knowledge as I could find. I knew that I wanted to backpack in Europe, but I had no idea where in Europe I wanted to go. I began researching and educating myself as much as I could about different countries in Europe, which made me feel confident and less worried about solo backpacking. And the more research I did, the more opportunities I found. My plans changed and changed as I found more resources, and I feel lucky that I had my whole senior year to explore what I wanted to do. 

Reach out to Friends & Family 

Because taking a gap year isn’t the most traditional path, it’s a good idea to begin warming up your family and friends to the idea as early as possible. I was lucky enough to have supportive parents from the get-go, but I know this isn’t the case with everyone. Even so, my parents needed time to adjust to the idea of me traveling on my own. Instead of springing it on them last minute, I began introducing the idea of a gap year back in August. My community was very supportive, and gave me the motivation and validation that I needed in order to pursue a gap year. 

Daydream 

For me, the idea of a gap year meant a year with no commitments, no concrete plans, and (not to be cliche) endless opportunities. The best thing I did over the course of my senior year was daydream about what my gap year could be. Envisioning my gap year got me through the college application process, senioritis, and every other challenge I had this past year. While I heard my peers complain about how exhausted they were from school and how they couldn’t believe that college was going to be four more years of work, I saw myself walking through historic cities and working on a farm in Israel. I understood that my gap year would allow me to experience so much of life that I have dreamed about, and this both fueled my excitement for my gap year and pushed me through my senior year. If there is only one thing you take away from this guide, I would hope that it would be to dream about all of the adventures that are out there during a gap year. 

“I hope to gain a better understanding of what obstacles woman must deal with every day and how to become a better leader to impact my community.” 

“I hope to further my leadership experience and learn new ways to take part in society and speak up about important issues.” 

These were just a few of the sentiments shared from Strong Women Fellowship applicants for the 2019-20 cohort, a group of teens I would get to know well and have the privilege of working with to grow the Fellowship into the robust, action-oriented leadership program it is today. I remember sitting in the JumpSpark office when I first started my role as the Engagement Manager of JumpSpark, feeling so much hope for the future of our country. I found myself feeling inspired by the drive and passion I saw in these teen leaders to change the world for the better. 

Two years later, as I wrap up my final days on the JumpSpark team before leaving for graduate school at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, I find myself reflecting on what I have learned. I continue to look forward to the future with hope and possibility having now seen what our teen leaders and those that support them are capable of achieving. I am excited to share some of the learnings from the role that I will continue to use well into the future. 

Teens Feel Seen and Heard Through Meaningful Action 

One of JumpSpark’s goals is to amplify teen voice in our community, and last year, I had the opportunity to dig into what this meant through participating in UpStart’s Change Accelerator program. Through focus groups and interviews with our Strong Women Fellows, I discovered that these teens would feel seen and heard through taking action to create positive change in the world using their unique skills and passions. I found that it is easy for one to feel disillusioned by the weight of the world’s problems and unsure of how to use their voice for change. During the Strong Women Fellowship, teens hear from speakers and gain new passions that they strongly desire to amplify in the world. Building in new opportunities for action will allow the teens to have a positive impact in the communities we serve and help the teens feel seen and heard as stewards of our changing world. 

This year, the Strong Women Fellowship will incorporate action into every speaker event, from advocating for LGBTQ+ justice to volunteering at a women’s shelter. Taking these actions will allow for these teens to amplify their efforts as budding Jewish changemakers. 

Collaboration Makes Us Stronger 

Throughout my time at JumpSpark, I have had the opportunity to watch our Community Partner Network of teen-serving professionals grow and gain strength. I witnessed a shift in our community towards more collaboration, towards people calling on others in similar roles for support on programs and combining forces to create high-quality Jewish opportunities for teens. I myself leaned on collaboration to support so many of our initiatives, thinking strategically about who we could partner with to reach more teens and build stronger programs. Throughout the rest of my career, I will embrace collaboration in creating new initiatives, knowing that it leads to more robust opportunities. 

JumpSpark is excited to continue strengthening the network of Jewish youth professionals in Atlanta. The Community Partner Network is beginning its third year with spots for 40 partners, and JumpSpark will be hosting convenings with professional development and networking opportunities twice a month to encourage collaboration and relationship building in the field. 

Parent and Teen Engagement are Interconnected 

One of the first findings that struck me from JumpSpark’s data and evaluation efforts was the interconnectedness of parent and teen Jewish engagement – if we engage parents Jewishly, their teen is more likely to get involved in Jewish opportunities and vice versa. Throughout my time at JumpSpark, I have seen this finding play out. Just the other day, my coworker shared about a parent she engaged with through one of our parent programs who then enrolled her teens in Jewish programming as well. Because of anecdotes like these, I see the value in parent engagement as a tool to further teen engagement, too. 

This year, we are excited to continue supporting parents through a variety of initiatives, like Project Launch for parents of teens just entering their next phase after high school and PhD in Parenting sessions for parents of younger teens. These powerful tools for engagement raise the bar for the family unit as a whole, and I will be excited to see what other new and innovative initiatives crop up for parent engagement at JumpSpark. 

Teens are Today’s Changemakers 

I have heard time and time again that teens are our future leaders. After my two years working with teens at JumpSpark, however, I can definitively say that teens are the leaders of NOW. Teen initiatives across the world are making waves and creating positive change. I have watched right here in Atlanta as teens themselves contributed to creating innovative Jewish programming and strengthening our Jewish community. I witnessed countless teen initiatives crop up to support those most vulnerable during the pandemic. I continue to be inspired every day by the teens in our community and throughout the world, and I am so grateful to have been able to play apart along some of these teens’ journeys. Look around – teens are making change today, leading us into a future that is more inclusive and just. 

All of these learnings and more will continue to guide my Jewish professional journey for the rest of my career – I am excited to take all of the lessons garnered from the teens, parents and professionals I have had the privilege to work with at JumpSpark to my graduate studies in Jewish Professional Leadership and beyond. I am so grateful to JumpSpark and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta for guiding me on my Jewish journey and shaping me into the Jewish leader I am today. L’hitraot Atlanta, see you soon.