Take a gap year. Unless you're terribly excited about starting college, have an idea of what you want to do in college, etc...a gap year is a great idea.
I took two gap years, partially because I didn't know what I wanted to study and a general liberal arts major seemed like a waste of time to me (it's not), and partially because I wasn't able to afford school except for community college, and I didn't want to do that, so I worked to save up money so I could go away to school (best decision of my life).
When I got to college as a freshman, I was two years older than most of the other students in a few of my classes (depending on the school you choose, some have a larger adult-ed program, more returning students...so my night classes had lots of people from various ages and backgrounds, but starting out a counselor put me in lots of classes with mainly incoming freshman from HS). There was a notable difference between the classes full of 18 year olds straight out of HS and the 20 or 24 or 30 year olds who were there because they desperately wanted to be back in school and worked hard to get there. Plenty of 18 year olds thrive in college, but plenty of them are as annoyed about being there as they were in high school, are only going because their parents wanted them to, and are too busy acting cool by strolling in late and rolling their eyes and texting to actually participate and enhance everyone's learning experience.
I regret not traveling more. Originally, after HS, I wanted to go work with children in Cambodia, but the programs I found were all quite costly. I didn't know then about free or low-cost volunteer opportunities. You can go to TONS of places, commit to anywhere from a week to a year +, pay something like $5-$15 a week for housing and meals, and work in the community. There are options domestically and internationally. Anything from nannying, to staying on a working farm, to teaching English, to building schools, to working with wildlife or at a hospital.
College will always be there. You can always find a way to get a higher education if you work hard. But as you get older, life gets more serious, commitments get more common, and the opportunities to travel for very little money start to slip away.
I am glad I went to college right away - I did a lot more self-exploration my freshman year than I probably would have done just taking a year off to travel.
That said, I did take a year off between my junior and senior year of undergrad to be a counselor and crew leader at a work therapy program for mentally ill adults, and it changed my life in an extremely positive way and it meant that I didn't get totally burned-out on school
I also went straight to college after graduating high school. I do not regret it because I struggled with my motivation through all four years and I am on my last 3 weeks of school now and I am SO glad to be done. I think that if I had taken a year off that I would have lost that last tiny bit of motivation that has allowed me to finish. Even though I've pretty much hated life while in school, I managed to pull my GPA up to above a 3.0 over the last two years (I started out in a science major but almost failed out, so switched to a writing based major after my second year). I do not have a really big desire to travel outside of the US though I would still jump at the opportunity. I am very much a family oriented homebody so I can still be perfectly happy at home. Plus I have my honeymoon in Charleston, SC coming up in October so I can look forward to that.
Today was my last day of my senior year. I'm going straight to college in the fall and I'm not excited but I'm going. My parents expect me to go and I need a job so I need to get my chemistry degree even though its relatively useless until DH finishes his military career but I'd still like to get it over with. Im however doing a study abroad for this time next year and I am pumped for that.
Absolutely, 100% do it! I went to Mongolia and worked in an infants' orphanage, then to India and worked on an organic crop test farm. Both were volunteer positions. Did lots of travelling around other Asian countries inbetween. It completely changed my perspective on life, increased my confidence and independence, changed what I wanted to study and was the best thing I ever did. It was also very addictive - I have done a lot more travel since then & am now living as an expat abroad :)
I think this is a conversation you need to have with your parents especially since travel involves lots of money. But I am a big traveler and believe that experiencing and seeing how others live is really important in our world today. I would also be very nervous letting my 18 year old kid (esp a girl) travel/backpack alone. I realize it's not that much safer for a 21 year old but eek. If your parents are worried about safety maybe you have family friends or friends of friends who live aboard who you could stay with, or you can find a friend or better two to travel with.
Also, you don't have to take a gap year right now.
I had a friend who was an excellent student at college and just didn't feel like it was everything it was cracked up to be, so she took a semester off and traveled. (Because she had credits coming in, and she planned out her semesters after she still graduated on time.) I think taking time off during college is actually fairly normal (at least for many of my friends), and the nice thing is you are already accepted to a college so you don't have to worry about what your travel year looks like on an application or if you got the "correct experience" for them or whatever else you or your parents might be worried about.
Alternatively, study abroad is pretty great. There are program where you study on a boat for a year or in any city in the world you can imagine. Upside is also that if you know you want to spend a lot of time in south america but your spanish is "no bueno" you can take spanish or portuguese languages classes at college and fill those "foreign language" requirements and prep for your trip. (I never studied abroad but I just moved back to the states from living in Europe for 14 years, so I always felt like I was abroad. lol).
If you go to college and plan to take some time off in between I suggest having a plan of action. This doesn't mean you have to know what your major is going to be before you start but instead that you focus on fulfilling basic education requirements early on. I have so many friends who thought they'd major in one thing and took all their first semester classes in that department and then took a basic requirement class and changed their minds. While it's valuable to explore different fields you can avoid "losing" that semester and instead just take it off. Or even graduate early and then travel.
AJ, a true 'gap year' is very, very uncommon in the US. Most colleges/universities don't allow students to delay matriculation (unlike in the UK or the rest of the Commonwealth). Travelling internationally is very expensive, especially if you have to pay for health insurance out of pocket (and you would be absolutely nuts to forego it). Most 'volunteer' programs catering to 18-20 year old with few skills are likely costly and don't offer the incredible international experience you'd think they would, seeing as they surround their volunteers with a comfortable warm bubble of parentally-approved and -financed protection. Usually, frankly, you're with a group of spoiled somewhat troubled kids who have varying degrees of commitment to the cause at hand. The exception being something religiously-motivated; if you're so inlcined you can often secure a placement with a missionary and do all kinds of meaningful and substantal work for a few hundreed dollars annually.
In the States, the common path is study abroad, as most have noted. It's easier to get something more meaningful when you're already a university student, as--depending on your major-- you have the ability to argue that you have a particular skill set which can be put to good use. This absolutely need not be anything remotely "academic" in the traditional sense; many colleges award general service credit for things like working in orphanages or installing solar panels. Personally, I studied French lit in Paris and backpacked Europe; worked in a medical clini in Haiti; did original malaria/anthropology research in Nepal; and took shorter pleasure trips through Europe & Asia all while in college. And none of it cost me a dime, through research/travel grants offered by my university.
PS As you're in Oregon and not sure if you want a typical college experience, you should check out Evergreen State College.
I went straight to uni from sixth form because it was what you're "supposed" to do. I didn't put as much research into what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go as I should have done because I was afraid of leaving home. I was lucky in that I ended up really liking my course and Derby (the city I studied in) but now that I'm older and still looking for a job I wish I'd picked something that made getting into a career easier.
I went on a trip around Europe with one of my best friends (funnily enough, an American who'd just completed her semester abroad in London) right after I finished uni and we had a great time :)
So... I'd recommend taking your time making sure you know where you want to go to uni and what you want to study so you don't feel like you regret anything. Then do your studying, save up and go travelling when uni is over :)
My best advice I can offer, as a student who took off.... 4/5 years before returning to school, is BE SURE of what you want to do, before doing anything! I just finished paying off a ridiculous amount of student loans for one year of a BA for Psychology, which I took before I realized, hey, I do not want to do this with the rest of my life! Now I'm finished upgrading, and heading to school in September for Video Game Design (Talk about a vocation change!) Do not go to school until you really know what you want to do, even if it takes more than a year, it's better than running up a bunch of useless debt in the long run! I personally think it's ridiculous to expect a student entering grade 10 (15 years old usually!) to choose the courses and etc they need for their future career! Choosing the path you follow for the foreseeable future is a big decision, take your time!
I really don't know much about gap years, but I'm speaking as a person who went right to college after not liking high school.
There are a lot of things to consider here. First and foremost is money: you need to actually have the funds to take a gap year and then go to college, if that's what your plan is. I don't know how much you've saved up or what your parents are willing to contribute, but make sure you know exactly how much you have to spend and how you'll be spending it, whether it's in college or doing gap-year activities. It may also be more difficult to get scholarships after a gap year-it's not the policy everywhere, but at the college I went to, the general unstated rule was that earlier application meant better scholarship opportunities.
Next, and I think my most important piece of advice: come up with a plan and make a real decision. Don't take a gap year because you don't feel like going to college right away, and don't go to college right away because you feel like you have to. Make your decision because you want to do that, not to get out of the alternative. And know specifically what you want to do if you do a gap year. You should be able to express in an essay/timeline what you did when and how that benefited you, so that it doesn't look you just bummed around for a year. You don't have to know what you want to major in in college or what you want to do with the rest of your life, but you do have to know what you want out of college if you decide to go. College will (I think) offer opportunities socially and academically that you won't get during a gap year, and it is more "practical" financially.
Study abroad would be an EXCELLENT option for you- certain programs aren't that academically rigorous, but instead focus on immersion in the abroad experience. There are programs in virtually every discipline, to nearly every country in the world, in any semester including spring and summer breaks. They're also more structured and, especially for women, safer. I don't know where you want to go or what type of program/itinerary you'd want in a gap year, but being a foreign teenage girl travelling alone is never really the safest thing in the world, even if you do everything right. The more structure and support you have available, the better off you'll be.
Case in point: two college friends of mine studying abroad in France took a short trip to Spain; while there, one got mugged, the other got her bank card suspended (it was the company's mistake.) They had only their cash, which was about the equivalent of $30, to last them for three days to cover lodging, food, and travel back to France. Neither of them knew any Spanish. Needless to say, they were terrified and didn't eat the first day, but they called the head of their program, who covered their expenses until they could make it back. Experienced travelers could've negotiated their way out of that situation without too much of a problem, but I doubt that you, as a high school student, have had that much experience travelling abroad alone, and that safety net is really, really important if you don't know what you're doing. (I don't mean to sound condescending- you seem like a very smart kid, but travelling abroad on your own is hard for anyone, including adults)
Another point: Know that college is much, much different from high school; the two educational experiences, for me at least, were not even remotely similar. I was a bit tentative about college courses because by my senior year I hated high school, but I ended up loving college. I didn't go abroad until my 20s because I never had the money, but I do now- you will be able to do it later in life if you make it a priority! And also- 22 isn''t old. If you work and save throughout college, you may be able to travel after you graduate. You won't be able to go through college with kids your age if you take a gap year.
Sorry if that was incoherent- it's late!