And while serendipity is a blessing, getting home safe and sound, having grown and achieved more than you set out to is probably the reason you decided to take a gap year in the first place.
There are many organizations out there that offer gap year programming. But the truth is, many of them haven’t been vetted by an unbiased third party. The American Gap Association has been recognized by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the standards setting organization of the gap year industry. They set the standards for not only risk management and safety, but also the quality of the experiential education programming, as well as a range of other variables, including how these organizations treat their field staff. It’s a holistic auditing of the entire organization.
“The highest caliber of field leadership, the best degree of office support, and the highest standards of safety.”
And this matters a lot. Think about it, in your lifetime, you’ll probably only have a few opportunities to take a gap year. Why waste it on an experience with a lower probability of success in any given area?
Currently there are only a few organizations accredited by the AGA, with a growing number of accreditations in progress. That is, they have met “a commitment to the highest standards in safety, quality, and integrity. They have agreed to consistently abide by the standards of the American Gap Association, which typically means that a student can count on an experience with the highest caliber of field leadership, the best degree of office support, and the highest standards of safety.”
I sat down with several members of the team at Winterline and NOLS to understand exactly what went into the AGA accreditation process. What makes it such a rigorous process? What is the value from an organizational perspective and from a student’s perspective?
“At the highest level of the organization,” says Nathan Scott, President and Executive Director of Winterline, “the most valuable thing about going through the AGA process was the thorough vetting of our own processes.” The AGA wasn’t just concerned about any single area of expertise, preparation, and response. It was everything, “from how we post job notices, hire employees, treat parents and students, and communicate internally and across continents. This has been a comprehensive review.”
At NOLS, the decision to go for accreditation was worth special consideration. “It took us several months to decide if we wanted to go this route, so there was much vetting of Ethan and the AGA in the first place,” says Kary Sommers, Associate Director of Admission & Marketing at NOLS. “We ultimately decided that it was worth it and it was the route we wanted to take because we believe this ‘stamp of approval’ from the AGA will instill confidence in students and their families seeking adventure, education, and leadership in their gap year.”
For both NOLS and Winterline, the process took more than 9 months from initial conversation, through two waves of document submissions and rigorous analysis before full accreditation. There were 111 standards to be met. “Our job was to provide the AGA with evidence that we were meeting those standards,” said Sharon Seto, Vice President of Curriculum at Winterline.
There are four types of feedback from the AGA on whether you’ve met the highest standards of the industry:
- Pass with suggestions
- Pass with accolades
A “Pass” meant that you’d met the standards. “Pass with suggestions” meant it was up to you to follow through on improving that area. A “Pass with accolades” was the most highly coveted response, meaning that you’d gone above and beyond the standards of the industry. And “Investigate” meant you still had work to do to prove that you’re meeting the standards.
“Who keeps the med kits, who keeps the emergency cash, and how much, who has the emergency phone lines on which days?”
“The hardest part was that these standards might be slightly different for each program,” Sharon explained, having been through different kinds of accreditation four times before. “In our case, we go to so many countries on our gap year program, and are in so many different kinds of work and study environments, we had to meet individual standards with multiple responses.”
Each country needed it’s own attention, and every protocol needed to be written down. “Who keeps the med kits, who keeps the emergency cash, and how much, who has the emergency phone lines on which days?” she continued.
“What are our students themselves trained to do? You have to have all these medications on hand, but you have to make sure the students don’t have access to it. We had to write enrollment criteria, saying what you needed to be able to do in order to be eligible for our programs: scuba diving, mountain climbing, working with machines, driving, etc. It’s not as simple as say, ‘backpacking.’ It was complicated.”
The point is that an accredited gap year organization was tackling these questions very far in advance, so that students could, with confidence, focus on other elements of the experience. As Nathan put it, “Many of the things were details that hopefully our students and their families will never have to worry about. Things like, ‘What are our insurance limits should anything go very wrong?’ How much cash do we have on hand in these currencies when we’re in X country?”
“A good metaphor is choosing an airline to fly with.”
In Kary’s words, “I was most surprised and impressed by the in-depth nature of the standards, most of which NOLS was able to easily satisfy. However, there were some categories that we did not fit neatly into. The high-level standards, however, make the time and energy invested feel worth it as the first wilderness-focused accredited member of the AGA.”
When you’re planning your own gap year there are many, many things to think about. Gap year programs take some of this weight off the individual as well as offer additional expertise and security.
“A good metaphor is choosing an airline to fly with,” Nathan continued, “something everyone can understand. There’s a level of assurance that no matter what airline you fly with, they’re going to get you from Point A to Point B. And if that’s all you care about, then you can absolutely go with the cheapest, rock bottom provider. But there’s usually more factors than that. Comfort, safety, how the company treats their employees, and so on.”
He continued with the metaphor. “Fundamentally, what happens if my luggage gets lost? Am I with an organization that is able to track my luggage, get it back to me, and get me some restitution in the meantime? Are they insured should they lose my luggage? An accredited organization can give you satisfactory answers to all of these questions. But a non-accredited organization? Maybe they can get your luggage there — but if they don’t, you’re screwed.
“What it means is that we, an accredited organization, not only have a higher chance of a smooth flight, but the question is, what if X happens or Y happens?” An accredited organization has been vetted to have thought through even the most extreme possibilities, so that when something happens, the right people are there at the right time, with the right resources, and the right plan.
“Can you trust an organization that doesn’t go for accreditation?”
To Nathan, one of the most valuable parts of successfully becoming accredited meant joining a standards-based community, one that includes sharing information, holding each other accountable, and supporting each other. “As an accredited member of the AGA, we now have to submit all of our incident reports. This helps the entire industry a lot. For example, it’s good to know that pot pizza is now widely available in Cambodia,” despite being illegal and carrying potentially significant penalties. A gap year program can plan for that when it has the knowledge, and mitigate a wide variety of risks and unfavorable outcomes.
For Kary, the long term benefit of becoming accredited was acknowledging the importance of an organization like the AGA, as well as “the recognition that NOLS provides high-quality gap and life experiences, and staying relevant in a changing world.”
To Kevin Brennan, Vice President of Finance & Planning, the big question was, can you trust an organization that doesn’t go for accreditation?
“What organizations that don’t seek this kind of approval end up being open to is the charge that they’re not open to the thoughts and ideas of others. An organization that wants to say it’s offering gap year programs but hasn’t sought the imprimatur of the AGA is open to the perception that they don’t want to be looked at too closely. If an organization doesn’t go after the AGA certification, that’s much more likely to put the thought in my head that they don’t want to be reviewed, that they don’t want a critical eye to be brought to their work. And that’s not the most positive stance.”
Kevin remembers a time in the early 1990s when he was a manager for a study abroad program in Kenya, at a time of great political upheaval. By reorganizing the sequence of the program design, he and his team were able to avoid the political violence in that part of the country at the times it was set to occur. Being able to build a plan around ground-level knowledge and expertise creates a bedrock of safety that an outsider can only scrape the surface of. That expertise is exactly what the American Gap Association seal of approval represents.
As Kevin put it, “In a way, we knew how to ‘read the tea leaves’ because of our experience on the ground, and having done this for years — as staff persons, directors, and employees of organizations. Our experience is itself experiential education. It’s part of what allows me to say that after 25 years in this business, the AGA accreditation process is a good structure, and it’s going to keep growing into itself and improving over the years.”