Sharif Campbell was the first member of his family to go to college.

But he didn’t rush off to Tufts University, where he’s currently a sophomore studying international relations. Instead, Sharif took a gap year.

Many universities allow students to defer their first year of college as the practice of taking a gap year becomes more common. A number of universities, including Tufts, offer degree programs that incorporate gap years and financial aid opportunities.

While universities may be endorsing gap years, Sharif’s mother didn’t initially. Sharif said the decision shocked his mother, who moved with her son to Boston from Jamaica when he was 5 years old.

“My mother didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, so much of my life has been focused on getting to college,” he said. “That’s what my mother and I worked for. So, at the end of my senior year, saying that I was having hesitations about going to college right away was definitely something that was not very easy to talk about. But overall, I knew that I needed an outside of the classroom experience.”

Creating a new plan  

Sharif described his college education as his mother’s “lifelong aspiration.” Getting to that point was tough. He participated in afterschool and summer programs. Sharif even switched schools until he landed at an elite New England prep school, the type of environment that he and his mother thought would challenge him. And it did.

A typical day went like this: Wake up at 6 a.m. Eat breakfast. Get to bus stop by 6:45 for the 45-minute commute to school. Classes from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Football, wrestling or track practice from 3:30 to 5:45. Home by 6:30. Eat dinner, nap, and finish homework. In bed by 1:30 a.m.

During his senior year, Sharif said he worked with his guidance counselor to research gap year programs. But he knew it would be a tough sell. At the time, college acceptance letters were coming in. He said his mom would anxiously text him to see if she could open the letters before he got home from school.

“To this point in my life, I had never seen my mother prouder or happier,” he said.

Convincing his mother  

With his research in hand, Sharif approached his mother with the idea of working and traveling before he went to college.

“Describing her reaction as agitated, disturbed, and worried is an understatement” he said. “She was totally against the plan. Nevertheless, she came around to the proposal with the assurance that even though I would not be studying in a classroom I would still be receiving an equally valuable educational experience that would only enhance my learning in college. To my mother, it felt as if she was taking a risk allowing me to leave the classroom for a year.”

Sharif’s gap year was just as busy as his classroom education. After graduation, Sharif spent the first half of the year working at an insurance company, retook the SAT, and re-applied to college. Sharif said it made him more self-sufficient because he had to deal with adversity independently, without the assistance of his classmates.

(Sharif appears at the 56-second mark.)

During the second half, he traveled with Rustic Pathways to six countries in Southeast Asia. Sharif immersed himself in other cultures, getting to know the people where he traveled and learning about their customs and lifestyles. When he returned to the U.S., Sharif worked as a summer teaching assistant at an educational nonprofit before heading to Tufts.

“Having a year of new experiences is never going to be a detriment to anyone because the year provides additional and unique learning opportunities,” he said. “In school now, the way that I’m able to deal with the adversity I face is definitely a lot more composed and organized than the way I did at the end of my senior year of high school. Because I consistently put myself in unfamiliar environments during my gap year, I’m able to feel more comfortable and assured with the decisions I make, and not stress out as much.”

Sharif said getting his mother on board with his decision to take a gap year was tough, but she too has seen how it has impacted him.

“Though this was one of the most difficult choices I have ever had to make and the experience was filled with many unnerving moments, taking a gap year has been the most meaningful and rewarding decision I have made in the last few years of my life,” he said. “And I am confident that my mother agrees.”

To learn more about gap opportunities like Sharif’s, visit Rustic Pathways Gap Year.

About the Author

Jack Weinstein

Content Production Manager

Jack has spent his professional career as a writer and editor. Before joining Rustic, he worked as a journalist in Kansas and Colorado, taught English in Swaziland, and transitioned to marketing roles in the Boston and New York startup worlds. Jack is excited to channel his love of storytelling and his appreciation for education as Rustic’s Content Production Manager. When not working, Jack can be found cheering on his Kansas City sports teams and Kansas Jayhawks. Jack and his wife, Blythe, live in Brooklyn.