Gap Year Programs Provide Purpose & Direction

Gap Year Programs Research Purpose and Direction

This is the second post in a series by Andrea Canuel and Robin Pendoley presenting the outcomes of Thinking Beyond Borders’ (TBB) impact assessment (here is post #1). The outcomes and analysis presented here are written for a broad audience. 

The development of purpose and direction is the strongest area of growth for TBB students. In the general population, students tend to enter college with no clear sense of what they want to learn or what they’ll do with the expertise they gain. While some have chosen a major, few base that decision in real world experiences. They haven’t explored how they’ll align their profession with the ethics and morals that shape their worldview and sense of self. Also, they tend to know very little about the work available to experts in their chosen field. As a result, they’re ill-equipped to take advantage of the educational value offered by colleges.

For those working in higher education, this is a huge problem and a key factor in the higher education value crisis. Unlike K-12, college campuses rarely provide a structured and directed course. Rather, they are mountains of curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular opportunities. Their value is accessed when students plot a course for learning and growth that’s defined by a clear sense of purpose and direction. Therefore, investing in the development of purpose and direction in students during the college transition is a crucial means of addressing the higher ed value crisis.

Educators working to create social change agents know that good intentions and an understanding of social innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t enough. Without a sense of purpose and direction rooted in critical understanding of how to create meaningful social impact, aspiring change agents risk causing more harm than good. Establishing purpose and direction rooted in social change theory and experience with change agents helps ensure that students will wield the tools of social change effectively.


To measure how TBB impacts a student’s sense of “purpose and direction,” we first defined what it means. As such, we measured for three outcomes:

  • Expresses a sense of personal responsibility to affect change and incorporates status as “agent of change” actively into one’s identity.
  • Synthesizes information into actionable plans for creating change.
  • Actively creates new initiatives and engages existing structures to address critical global issues.

There is value in advancing the development of each of these outcomes. However, it is the combination of the three that defines a meaningful sense of purpose and direction for those seeking to create social impact. Below is the growth we saw for each outcome:


Gap Year Programs Research Purpose and DirectionAnalysis

Blog Quote from TBB Student Mary B.As we consider the “Identity as an Agent of Change” outcome, we notice that the students started with some aspiration to create positive social impact. Indeed, TBB’s programs are targeted directly toward those types of students through both our marketing and design. But, as the program progressed, students demonstrate dramatic growth in self-conception as someone who is both responsible for and capable of creating meaningful social impact. This change is the result of fieldwork placements with experts addressing critical global issues and seminars exploring how personal talents and passions can be utilized to create meaningful social impact.

The “Actionable Planning for Change” outcome indicates that students started the program largely unable to synthesize information into a path toward creating meaningful impact. This substantial growth is attributable to the development of both the students’ metacognitive abilities (a key aim of the curriculum) and their understanding of dynamic social, economic, technological, and political processes. It’s also attributable to the culmination unit of the program, when students return to the US for a 10 day retreat. Supported by their Program Leaders, they are challenged to reflect upon how they will translate their learning into meaningful action in the near and long terms.

The “Creates New Initiatives and Engages Existing Structures” outcome measures the degree to which students’ purpose and direction is grounded in idealism tempered with an appreciation of existing institutions. Adolescents, particularly at 17-20 years old, tend to hold idealistic perspectives with strong emotions and a limited time horizon. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to disregard existing institutions as the source of all problems. They tend to see their generation as representing a wholly new solution to social issues. The data here shows students started the program largely not recognizing the value of incorporating new initiatives into existing structures. The enormous growth for this outcome demonstrates that while students still believed in pursuing new solutions to critical social issues, they also recognized the value of working with or within existing institutions.


This exceptional growth of purpose and direction in TBB students represents a dramatic shift in preparedness for higher education. Students who self-identify as agents of change are driven both by the personal and societal value of their pursuits. As they translate new understanding into actions in their lives, they are moving beyond theoretical learning into iterative experiential learning that is personal. With an understanding of the value of integrating new and existing initiatives, they value opportunities to learn from experts and seek opportunities to innovate by standing on the shoulders of giants. Students defined by these characteristics are far more likely to take full advantage of the value college offers.

For those seeking to develop committed social change leaders, these outcomes demonstrate critical growth at a key moment in adolescent development. By delivering our programs in the college transition, we help students find purpose and direction during a developmental stage when they shape their adult identity and choose higher ed and professional careers. As such, these outcomes reflect a strong potential for TBB’s alumni to continue on a path to addressing critical global issues.

Coming Up…

In the coming posts in this series, we’ll examine TBB’s impacts on student empathy and their capacities as learners. We’ll also share questions this study raised that are shaping further examination of our impact and program model. Stay tuned…

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