Offbeat picks for Malia Obama's gap year

Offbeat picks for gap year

Hugh Sitton | Getty Images

Malia Obama may be taking a year off between Sidwell Friends school and Harvard, but gap years aren't just for the children of presidents. More and more Americans are considering a similar adventure to explore a passion, travel, or just work to save money for college.

The American Gap Association does not have data on the exact number of students who put off college matriculation, although the group says that attendance at gap-year fairs is growing, as is enrollment in the programs.

Students planning a gap year typically apply to college and then defer once they are accepted. Increasingly, students are opting to take a year off and then apply, said Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor at College Confidential.

"They are not really sure what they want to do or where they want to be," she said.

Critics say these activities are a privilege of people who can afford thousands of dollars to travel the world, and many programs do have hefty price tags. Several of them also offer financial aid.

Harvard actually suggests that admitted students take a gap year, and Rubenstone said that colleges generally look favorably on such a move. However, you need to avoid frittering the time away.

"Whether it's trekking the Himalayas or working the fry–o–lator at McDonald's, it's important to have a plan," she said.

Click ahead to find nine programs that will add stamps to your passport, teach you life skills and expand your mind.

— By CNBC's Kelley Holland
Posted 6 May 2016

Sheep lambing on an Icelandic farm

Herding sheep in Iceland
Wolfgang Kaehler | LightRocket | Getty Images

Workaway offers volunteers a chance to live with a family in another country and help them with their work, including the option to live on a farm in northeast Iceland and assist when the sheep are giving birth.

"We loved it!" former volunteers wrote on the website, describing tasks that included sheep shearing and clipping hooves. "It was such a wonderful time with good and interesting work."

Cost: Several hours work each day in exchange for room and board.

Learn wilderness emergency medicine

Mountain Rescue team
MyLoupe | UIG | Getty Images

Rock climbing: It's not just for fun any more. The National Outdoor Leadership School offers students a chance to spend the fall semester in the Rockies, with "course" selections ranging from river travel to winter camping. Participants can also earn certification in wilderness first aid and become a Leave No Trace Master Educator.

Cost: $13,150.

Coach sports in rural Kenya

Teenagers from different schools compete at a competition in Iten outside Eldoret, Kenya
Per-Anders Pettersson | Getty Images

Athletically inclined students can look beyond the playing field and consider community sports coaching in rural Kenya through a company called CAMPS International. Participants help set up fields and run classroom theory sessions. This one-month program includes a safari to Tsavo National Park.

Cost: $2,575

Tag baby sharks

Shark tagging
Bob Carey | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The Fiji Shark Conservation and Awareness Project is on a mission to save sharks, and students can help out. Participants spend a minimum of two weeks with the organization, taking a Professional Association of Diving Instructors course along the way. Tasks will include data entry and analysis, setting up an education program and setting underwater cameras. Oh, and tagging those baby sharks.

Cost: from $2,895

Intern with a safari company

Volunteer to build in Africa
Gianluigi Guercia | AFP | Getty Images

Not all business internships involve a desk and a phone. The Leap offers a 10-week program where participants intern with a safari company in Tanzania. There are also service opportunities like renovating school buildings and teaching local children, and participants have the option of tacking on a quick trip to Zanzibar.

Cost: $4,285 for 10 weeks

Volunteer at a Myanmar school for monks

Myanmar monastic school
Paula Bronstein | Getty Images

It was not all that long ago that Myanmar was largely sealed off from the West. Now, students can sign up to spend three months in the country through an organization called Where There Be Dragons, including a stint volunteering at the country's largest monastic school.

Cost: $12,860.

Teach English in China

Owen Franken | Getty Images

A gap year can get expensive if you sign up for a lot of fancy programs, but teaching English in China can actually net you a stipend. ImmerQi runs semester long programs consisting of a month of training and travel, followed by a five-month teaching gig. You can travel on the weekends while you teach, and at the end of your stay, you will earn a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification.

Cost: none, unless you supplement your monthly stipend of $385 and completion bonus of $385.

Volunteer at an organic ag co-op in Cuba

Farming in Cuba
Roberto Machado Noa | LightRocket | Getty Images

For a nearby country, Cuba is culturally worlds away from the United States. In a three-month program offered by Carpe Diem Education, students spend a week working at an organic agriculture cooperative and a few days staying with farmers in Pinar del Rio, in addition to time spent traveling around the country.

Cost: $12,900.

Build and repair national park trails

Construction on Lake District National Park
Tim Graham | Getty Images

Many consider our national parks a national treasure, but keeping them in good shape is a daunting task. That is why AmeriCorps offers among its service opportunities a program for volunteers to construct and repair hiking trails in national parks. Teams of roughly 10 volunteers spend two to three months together on a given project responding to community needs, from park repair to distributing donated food and filling sandbags.

Cost: You receive a $4,000 living allowance and may be eligible for an education award.