By the end of freshman year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., Heather Marlow was burned out and disillusioned. College had turned out to be just another version of high school in Palo Alto, homogeneous and highly competitive. At the same time, the new variety of choices available to her made it all the more confusing.
She wanted out. For a while.
Promising her dumbstruck parents that she would return to school at some point, Marlow proceeded to exit the academic route for a year and a half and strike out by herself on some less traveled byways. She helped build a health clinic in the Dominican Republic. She researched an environmental show for CNN in Atlanta. She volunteered for a public-health project in Guanajuato, Mexico.
As a volunteer, many of her expenses were paid. She and her parents split the other costs. The first two projects were arranged by the Center for Interim Programs, a fee-based program in Cambridge, Mass. The third was a project of the Houston-based Amigos de las Americas.
At first, "We were shocked and panicked," her mother, Elaine, says. "My background was, you went in freshman year and four years later you graduated." As it turned out, she says, "It was the best thing that could have happened to her. . . . Actually, it's a very brave thing to do."
In 1990, fewer than one-third of college graduates made it through within four years. While this situation worries some parents and educators, others like Cornelius Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs, urge students to take a break.
Interim matches students (as well as adults of any age) with situations that interest them worldwide. Bull says some of his students are building houses in Canada, working in a bird sanctuary in California, tagging turtles in Maryland and building guitars in Maine.
"Eighteen is a ridiculous age to be in college," Bull says. At that age, very few have the wisdom, perspective or experience to fully appreciate what they're being taught, he says.
Princeton Dean of Admissions Fred Hargadon also says students need a break. "A lot of these students have been in school since age 5," he says. "It's unnatural to be locked up in educational institutions from age 5 to age 22."
Hargadon started college at 21 after he finished military service. By the time he got to college, he says, "I ate it up. With the experience I brought to it, I probably got twice my money's worth out of it.
"Why should college be the first real world experience for kids?" he asks.
Hargadon advises students who want to take time out to still apply for college admission while in high school and defer only after acceptance.
He says many parents are reluctant for a mix of reasons. Some can't imagine telling their friends that their son or daughter isn't going to college. Some worry they won't return. Many are afraid they'll lose ground academically.
"We hear this all the time: 'I'll get behind,' " Bull says. "The answer is, so what? If you learn languages, you'll be light-years ahead. What's the difference between 23 and 25 anyway?
"Don't forget, these kids are going to live to be 90. There is no hurry."
Heather Marlow says she now realizes the importance of an education and the unique comfort of a nurturing academic environment.
"There's a safe feeling at school, where a lot of things are taken care of for you. It's a chance to concentrate on yourself but there's also a freedom. You don't have to worry about cooking for yourself or paying your rent," she says.
Over the time off, she realized that she wanted to attend a larger, more diverse school. She has transferred to Brown University in Rhode Island.
"I think education is a very personal thing," she says. "You need to follow your own path."
* Lynn Smith's column appears on Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053, or via e-mail at email@example.com. Please include a telephone number.