Mind the Gap

by Erin Landau | 9/19/13 10:00pm

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For weeks Brown participated in what he called "guerilla camping," setting up his small one-person tent behind high schools and recreation centers, praying to avoid detection and sheltering himself from the infamous Canadian rain. Riding the lonely trail, Brown struggled to maintain his motivation, eventually experiencing a moment of epiphany during which he knew he had to keep pushing through to prove to himself he could finish. Describing this as one of the most profound moments of his life, Brown said his gap year experience helped him understand his capabilities and get to know himself on a deeper level.

The gap year is frequently one of those terms you hear in college fairs and pretend to consider for a few weeks, daydreaming about foreign countries, exploring the world and finding yourself and independence away from the influences of parents, friends and school. While the gap year has always been popular in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe 50 percent of students in Norway take a year off before returning to school, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education it is only now gaining popularity in the United States.

Much of Brown's experiences during his gap year, which he also spent on an organic farming program in New Zealand, echo the years spent by other Dartmouth students traveling the globe in search of self-discovery before entering four more years of strenuous education. Common themes within these benefits include gaining a sense of confidence, getting to know oneself better, discovering independence and simply taking a break from a grueling American schooling system.

Skye Herrick '17, who had long planned to live in a French speaking country and work in a developing country, spent several months working as an au pair in France. Another seven weeks living in Tanzania gave Herrick just the independent experiences she was searching for.

"I lived out of the country for eight months, I flew to Africa by myself, and when I got home I felt like I could really do things that had previously seemed intimidating or overwhelming," she added.

Jonathon Katzman '17, who spent six months studying abroad in Beijing, said his trip taught him independence and time management skills, beneficial in any college setting.

"Mentally you learn a lot about yourself. It's important to get outside your box and experience something different," he said. "Especially as a little kid, I never thought I would study abroad in China."

Katzman was able to channel different parts of himself he did not know existed while away, especially with regards to his communication skills. Describing himself as a "staunch American patriot," Katzman said he learned to accept and converse with those he would usually disagree with wholeheartedly. This new skill set led Katzman to pursue his gap year studies further at the College.

"This term, I am even taking two classes having to do with China, one being a continuation of the language and a class on Chinese history," he said. "I wanted to know why so many ordinary Chinese people have the mindsets that they do."

Rianna Starheim '14, who grew up on a maple farm in upstate New York, said her gap year in India exposed her to a range of beliefs and cultures that she would never have experienced otherwise. After graduating in a class of 16 in an "extremely conservative" environment, Starheim said she studied abroad to live at a new pace.

While in India, Starheim attended a high school in a slum and attended classes in Tamil, which she had never spoken before. She also worked in an orphanage during the swine flu epidemic of 2009, describing it as one of the most transformative experiences of her year.

"One girl Priya who was four years old got it, and it was very treatable but heartbreaking because she got really sick and ended up dying," Starheim said. "I think that sort of changed my life a little bit."

Most students agreed that Dartmouth is extremely supportive of gap years, facilitating the process by providing a simple waiver to sign for deferral and requesting to remain updated on students' progress throughout the year. '17s especially expressed feeling that taking a gap year made them more prepared for college and the challenges of living away from home, leaving friends and taking rigorous classes.

Singer Horse Capture '17, who spent a year in France, said she has a slight headstart on figuring out who she is.

"I have a much more open view of people from other countries," she said. "Before I left I had this idea, like most Americans have, we think we're the best important country in the world, but that doesn't mean our culture is the most important."

Outside of the apartment that Katzman's host family lived in, a couple who sold homemade dumplings on the street. Katzman frequently sought out the little cart after a long day and talked to the couple about moving to Beijing, Chinese politics, American culture and everything in between. Not only did Katzman notice his progress in the language, he realized that he was sharing a cultural experience, relishing the life of the city and getting the best of everything his gap year had to offer.