Gap years offer opportunities to explore passions, take a break

by Coalter Palmer | 2/7/20 2:25am

This article is featured in the 2020 Winter Carnival special issue.

Each year, two- to three- dozen incoming students decide to postpone their matriculation to Dartmouth, opting to spend a year in between their senior year of high school and college working, volunteering, traveling or engaging in a combination of these experiences, according to director of admissions Paul Sunde.

“Our office makes the pursuit of a gap year as simple and straightforward for our admitted students as possible,” Sunde said, noting that the admissions office typically responds favorably to gap year requests.

After graduating from high school, Ian Hou ’22 and Kysen Osburn ’23 both opted to defer their admission to Dartmouth for a year and enlisted in the military. Though each enlisted in different branches of the armed forces — Hou signed up as an intelligence analyst, while Osburn enlisted in the National Guard. Both spent the first 10 weeks of their gap year at a basic training camp.

On why he chose to enlist, Hou said that, upon accomplishing a long-held goal of getting into college, he felt he had lost his sense of purpose and thought that joining the military might fill this void.

“I used to have this dream of joining the military,” Hou said. “My brother’s friend joined the Air Force and had a really good experience, so for a long time I was leaning toward the Air Force. What convinced me to join the Army instead was that they give you more freedom to pick your job, and they were also better at reaching out in general, so I ended up going with the Army.”

Hou also added that his high school experience had felt very regimented. He also described feeling burned out at the end of high school, and said that he didn’t feel socially ready to make the leap to college right away.

On why he enlisted, Osburn also described feeling a sense of purpose. 

“I was an able, fit young man, and I thought it would be my duty,” Osburn said.

Hou, who attended basic training Fort Sill, OK, described an intense first couple of days. He said that, after being bussed into the camp along with around 200 fellow enlistees, he spent three days in reception on limited sleep with the other members of his battalion, filling out paperwork and going through an arduous medical and financial screening process. 

“I met some guys, and the next morning they had us all get buzzcuts, and I couldn’t recognize any of the guys that I had met the day prior,” Hou said.

After basic training, Hou went on to an advanced specialized training camp in Arizona, where he spent four months learning intelligence analysis.

Hou said that his experience in the military has made him conscious of the privilege he has as a Dartmouth student.

“I feel very privileged every day I’m here, just because I know what a lot of my friends in the army are going through,” Hou said. “A lot of them are on active duty; some of them are in Iraq and Syria.”

Osburn said that, after training, he spent the remainder of his gap year substitute teaching at a local elementary and middle school and working at a supermarket. He also volunteered for the Red Cross, hosting two blood drives and recruiting potential donors.

Other students who took gap years also engaged in service. Blake McGill ’22 spent the first three months of her gap year traveling through Southeast Asia with Youth International, an experiential program that aims to immerse participants in other cultures. While there, McGill stayed with local families in Nepal, India and Thailand and completed service projects through the local schools. These projects ranged from building stairs and painting walls to teaching.

Of the experience as a whole, McGill expressed some ambivalence. 

“I think because we were there for such short periods of time, it felt a little weird to be dropping in on these kids and then just disappearing,” McGill said. “I don’t know if it was the right thing to do ... in retrospect, but I also know that I’m so grateful for the cultural experience.”

On her gap year, McGill also went on a backpacking trip through Bolivia and Chile, spent three months in Buenos Aires — where she took Spanish courses and lived with a host family — and lived for six weeks in London, where she worked as a teaching assistant at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership.

McGill said that, before her gap year, she had grown up in a “very white, Catholic, conservative bubble” and had left the United States only once before.

“[My gap year] definitely gave me more of a global lens with which I can go into life and my studies,” McGill said. “I think that I knew this before, but I had been raised in such an Americentric way that I don’t think I really fully understood the scope of the world.”

Luke Collins ’23 spent the first three months of his gap year at the National Outdoor Leadership School, engaging in a wide variety of outdoor activities — backpacking, canyoneering, rock climbing and backcountry skiing — in the Rockies and in Lander, WY. Three days after completing his semester at NOLS, he moved to Utah, where he would spend the rest of his year as what he calls “a ski bum,” skiing during the day and working in a restaurant in the mornings and evenings. By the end of the year, Collins said he had skied more than 1.7 million vertical feet.

Collins described deciding to take a gap year after an intense four years of high school. 

“I felt really burned out at the end of high school, and I wanted to be really excited about college. I wanted to feel really ready to go back to the classroom,” Collins said. “I thought that a gap year would be a great chance to see a bit more of the world and put some money in the bank.”

Now that he’s at Dartmouth, Collins says his experience here is very informed by his gap year. He said that, over the course of his gap year, he encountered a lot of people that didn’t have the opportunity to go to a school like Dartmouth, and that meeting these people made him more aware of other paths available to him.

“There are so many paths out there for me, and a lot of people always say that but to actually see people who took those other paths and thrived was really valuable,” he said.

While Collins expressed that taking a gap year came with “mostly advantages,” he also described experiencing some drawbacks early in his freshman year. 

“No one really had the same experience I did, so I did feel a little disconnected from people because of that,” Collins said. “I sort of felt like people were entrenched in their high school ways in the same way I was, but I had already sort of gotten out of that.”

Like Collins, Catie Stukel ’23 also enrolled in a three-month NOLS course. After completing her Wilderness EMT certification, she spent two months backpacking in Escalante, UT, climbing in Red Rock and backcountry skiing in Wyoming. From there, Stukel traveled to Colombia and Costa Rica, where she worked on a farm for a month, and then went on to couchsurf across Europe for three months. The summer before coming to Dartmouth, she also worked for a raft-guiding company and at an Indian food stand at a Seattle farmer’s market.

On why she took her gap year, Stukel said she felt that she needed a break from school to recover from a series of bad head injuries, and added that she felt a general sense of burnout after 12 years of school.

Entering her first year at Dartmouth after her gap year, Stukel recounted experiencing doubt about her decision to attend college.

“I did not want to go to college anymore,” Stukel said. “I really liked the real world and was ready to continue in it, and so I really did contemplate not going to school. But once I got here, I loved it.”

Stukel also said that her gap year afforded her invaluable life skills and gave her a new perspective on the world.

“I learned a lot,” Stukel said. “I’ve gotten used to dealing with different types of people, I got used to living on my own and cooking for myself and doing my own laundry and problem solving and getting around — which I think a lot of people coming out of high school don’t have that experience.”