Ana Veciana-Suarez

Malia Obama’s gap year shouldn’t be just for the young

Malia Obama and her father, President Barack Obama. Malia has decided to take a gap year before attending Harvard University.
Malia Obama and her father, President Barack Obama. Malia has decided to take a gap year before attending Harvard University.
Malia Obama has postponed Harvard University

Malia has decided to take a gap year, a custom that allows high school graduates to delay higher education to do something exciting and exotic for the purpose of personal growth.

I’m so jealous. There’s nothing like hopping off the speeding carousel of life to give one perspective and purpose. I wish I had had the option back in the day. Sometimes I feel my life has been an interminable race toward…well, toward I’m not sure what. Success? Money? Titles? Accolades? Well, maybe, survival.

At 17, when I graduated high school, choices were slim — classroom or job, and in my case it was both at the same time. It would’ve never occurred to me to take a pit stop to evaluate my next step. I blithely went along with cultural expectations, as did everybody else I knew. Besides, my parents would’ve fainted if I had proposed joining a specialized program that brought clean water, say, to the mountain villages of a strange country.

Harvard — as do other schools — encourages students to defer a year to pursue a special project because studies have shown that taking a breather translates into a better college experience later. Students tend to be more focused and more engaged, and they score better grades, too.

Malia, the oldest of the Obamas’ two daughters, deserves it. She has spent eight years in the White House, under the unremitting scrutiny that is the destiny of every political family. And she attended a notably rigorous and expensive school, the private Sidwell Friends in the District of Columbia. Hitting pause for a dozen months will allow her to reassess.

Not all gap years are the same, of course. A gap year at a fast-food joint for the purpose of saving money to pay the skyrocketing cost of college, a common and unavoidable choice for lower income students, impacts college success negatively.

For a gap year to really matter, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of “There is Life After College,” it has be "a transformative event." Selingo lists these experiences as a specialized study program, life-changing volunteer experience or horizon-broadening travel, all encounters that usually cost money. In other words, the gap year lives up to its name in a way the moniker was not intended: yet another way to underscore the growing inequality in the U.S.

But let’s pretend. Let’s pretend that affordability is not an impediment and that age isn’t an obstacle. Let’s pretend I can dump responsibilities and take a gap year starting now. (It’s called a sabbatical in the working world.)

Oh, oh, I know what I’d do, where I’d go, if given a chance: I’d live in Barcelona, join the Peace Corps, learn to computer code, participate in an anthropological dig in the Andes, shut myself up in a room to pen The Great American Novel without interruption. Amazing the opportunities I allow myself when I fantasize. Amazing how self-imposed limits can disappear with a little imagination.

But why think of this as a mere daydream, easy to forget and easier to dismiss? Why not think of these possibilities as probabilities?

Mary Ann Evans, the famously scandalous British author known by the pen name of George Eliot, wrote that it was never too late to be what you might’ve been. I’ll add this: Or to do what you might’ve done.

Ana Veciana-Suarez: 305-376-3633,, @AnaVeciana