Why Malia Obama's College Decision Might Make You Think Twice About a Gap Year

May 2nd 2016

Malia Obama is charting her own path.

The White House quietly announced this week that she will be attending Harvard University — but not until the fall of 2017. Why the wait?

malia-obama-barack-obamaAP/Susan Walsh -

She plans to take a gap year between high school and college. It is not yet clear exactly how Malia will spend her gap year, but with most of her friends — and the rest of the Class of 2016 — following the dominant track of high school then college then career, her decision is a courageous one. And one that you should consider, too.

I say that with confidence because of my personal experience: I made the same decision as Malia. I chose to spend my gap year doing a service year — a decision that is the defining experience of my life.

I was a frustrated high school student, tired of sitting at a desk. I wanted to go to college, but I knew it wasn’t the best next step for me. I wanted a challenge and an adventure.

Americorps volunteer in a gardenAmericorps

The stereotypical gap year of traveling abroad without an income was not an option for me. I needed some cash and wanted a meaningful experience. And with only a high school diploma, there were not a ton of purpose-oriented employers who were looking to hire me.

That’s how I ended up serving a year in AmeriCorps with an amazing organization, City Year.

Service Year volunteer painting Courtesy of Service Year Alliance

I moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh to Boston. I lived in an apartment in the city instead of a dorm in the college bubble. The city was my campus. I gained real world perspective and got paid, while working and living with people who were much different than me.

I spent my days working in a school and an afterschool program with incredible students who often lacked resources and support. I was there for them as a tutor, mentor, and role model — day after day — alongside my diverse team of 10 fellow AmeriCorps members.

At just 19 years old, I had the privilege of playing a direct role in the success of students who were not much younger than me. Impacting someone’s future at such a young age is not an experience that ever leaves you. It gives you an amazing amount of confidence and a feeling that you can do anything.

Volunteer working at a school with Service Year AllianceCourtesy of Service Year Alliance

Thinking back about how the experience changed me, I’m really fortunate my parents didn’t fight me on it. It probably helped that I had deferred my college acceptance as a senior in high school. Following my service year, I entered college more focused and more eager to learn because of my real world experience.

While this choice was clear for me, I can see why it would be hard for so many others. Young people like Malia, who chart their own path, are often told that our competitive culture will punish them for doing something different. Few (and likely none) of their friends are doing it and adults in their lives may be outright opposed to it. I remember people in my life giving me a look that something must be wrong.

And they were right. Something was wrong: I had been sitting in a desk for the last 15 years, gaining little-to-no real world experience, and not feeling challenged or engaged. I would have destroyed my GPA and wasted a lot of money had I gone right to college.

This is what makes Malia’s choice so courageous and so important. Because of who she is, taking a gap year between high school and college will become more popular and require less courage in the future. She is setting an example for young people to follow, but there’s no need to wait until this becomes the norm.

Service Year volunteer doing constructionCourtesy of Service Year Alliance

Right now, whether you’re a thriving as a high school student or struggling to succeed, whether you’re a college student looking for an adventure or a young professional looking for something different — you can do a service year. You can mentor students, work in health clinics, improve the environment, fight poverty, and more. And in the process, you’ll become a leader and stand out to colleges and future employers. You’ll make a huge difference in the lives of others.

I hope you’ll consider joining Malia in doing a gap year — or better yet, a service year. It will change your life.

To explore more than 19,000 service year opportunities visit Or, you can nominate a young person you know to serve a year.

Zach Maurin is the Executive Director of Service Year Alliance.

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