Into the Gap: Can Round-the-World Trips Justify Their Emissions Cost?


November 18, 2009

Planting trees in Thailand
Alexandra Duncan and John Kline plant trees in a nursery in Northern Thailand. (Sandy Pendoley)
“In my senior year of high school, I was basically planning to go to college and just keep taking classes in the things I’d done well in, which for me was physics and math. I wasn’t thinking about how useful they’d be, or what their application was to the world,” says John Kline, a freshman at Dartmouth College. After taking a year between high school and college to volunteer in the developing world and learn about sustainability, he says this is no longer the case. “Now, I choose my classes differently, and I’m not just doing the same stuff I’ve always done.”

Gap year programs are intended to take students deep into the complexities of social action and environmental action before they’ve gone to college. Sandy Pendoley, co-founder of gap year organization Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), says, “We see so many people going to the university with no idea what they want to do, not taking advantage of the resources that are there. Some students go abroad their junior year, and they get back and they’ve had this life-changing experience, but it’s almost too late in terms of their undergraduate education.”

Thinking Beyond Borders is one of a growing crop of gap year programs that aims to get students interested in social and environmental problems before they’ve chosen majors or a career path. TBB, for example, takes graduated seniors to several developing countries for about 6 weeks each, and ends in the U.S. with a segment focusing on legislation, Congress, and lobbying. Last year’s group visited Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa to study international development, pollution, public health and sustainability.

In the past, such programs, including study abroad programs at universities, have been written off as “glorified tourism,” nothing like the mind-broadening voyage they are marketed as. But as more incorporate service learning, homestays, and focused sustainability-based curriculum, that perception may be changing. Kline says, “We did a lot of work. We dug wells in Ecuador, and in South Africa we went around villages with home-based care workers to check people’s blood pressure and sugar levels and make sure they were taking their medications. There might only be one clinic in the town, so this one organization was providing a big portion of the medical care for everyone.”

Many students see gap years as good preparation for future resumes, and others want to take a break from studying for a year while still doing something productive. But most cite altruism, says Pendoley. “They aren’t interested in just going to college and signing up for a lifetime of paychecks. They have things they want to accomplish in the world, constructive things, and they see this as a good way to learn how. These young adults want more, they want to understand the world and make some positive difference.”

Of course, such programs don’t come cheap, in dollars or in greenhouse gas emissions. A cross-Atlantic flight generates more than a ton of carbon dioxide emissions per person, and students in TBB and similar programs may take half a dozen such flights.

Building Eco-Toilets in Ecuador
TBB students helped build eco-toilets for families in Búa, Ecuador. (Liz Kuenster)
Alexandra Duncan, now a freshman at Tufts, says, “We talked about emissions a lot. Flying and everything else was an issue, but there’s no way to get around it and still learn what we did.” This year, students in TBB will spend some time planting trees in Ecuador as part of the program, but they acknowledge that it doesn’t count as an offset.

As yet, no comprehensive system exists for rating sustainability practices on education abroad programs. A white paper created last year by the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) notes that this process is merely beginning, and recommends first steps such as collecting best practices in the field of study abroad, and developing a system similar to the AASHE STARS program that will rate and track emissions and other measures of sustainability. The report also includes a list of common-sense recommendations, such as printing double-sided, asking tour companies about their impact, and making sure students are aware of the environmental issues in their host area.

Gap year students have typically already been accepted to a university and deferred, but often haven’t stepped foot on campus, and therefore aren’t included in greenhouse gas inventories of the college. The President’s Climate Commitment, which does track the commuting emissions of its staff and students, but includes them under the nebulous “Scope 3” category because they are so difficult to verify, doesn’t include the activities of students that have been admitted, but aren’t currently taking classes.

Some domestic gap year programs exist, dramatically cutting the amount of travel needed. Dynamy offers year-long internships in Worcester, MA, in fields such as health care, media, education, or the environment, and AmeriCorps’ NCCC program gives youth (in their gap year or otherwise) a chance to volunteer for 10 months, but neither is exclusively climate- or sustainability-focused. Rather, these programs tend to emphasize general infrastructure development, education, and disaster and pollution clean-up.

The real value of a gap year, says Duncan, who is considering a major in international development, is that she is better prepared to learn about sustainability in college. “Actually being in these places was the first time I really had to confront the fact that the world has a long way to go. This way, I came to college already understanding a lot about these problems, and I’m a little more skeptical now.”

Pendoley says, “These students are leaders. We won’t take ones that are lost or just want to go abroad because they have nothing better to do.”

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Published: November 18, 2009