The gap year: High school grads embrace real-world experiences before college

| Jessica Weinberger | May 9, 2018 | 0 Comments

iSTOCK / Aguirre_Mar, Junce

As a high school senior, Hannah Wolney knew she needed a break. Attending Chesterton Academy in Edina, she was recovering from multiple concussions on the soccer field and had other mental health concerns. While she loved learning, Wolney realized she needed time after graduation to heal and rejuvenate. Her mother had spent a year in Norway after high school, and her parents were open to her experiencing a new culture and language before pursuing traditional college.

She reached out to a contact at Chesterton’s sister school in Italy, where she had visited the previous year, and soon found herself teaching English at Scuola Libera Chesterton, located in San Benedetto del Tronto, about two hours northeast of Rome on the Adriatic Coast.

“It allowed me to look at my life objectively and not just to follow the [normal] ways,” Wolney, 21, said about delaying college. “It taught me to have a lot of patience on a day-to-day basis on just being OK with where I was … I had my own timing, and everyone has their own time with things.”

Wolney, a Burnsville native whose home parish is St. John Neumann in Eagan, now attends Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and plans to transfer to Concordia University in St. Paul this fall to pursue a degree in mathematics while living in a St. Paul’s Outreach household.

Wolney’s post-graduation path is becoming more common as interest and participation in gap year programs are growing, according to the Gap Year Association. Referred to as “gappers,” these students have an opportunity to travel, serve or work after tossing their high school graduation caps but before starting their post-secondary education. The Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit notes academic and personal benefits to a gap year experience, such as building a sense of curiosity for learning and developing cross-cultural understanding.


Minding the gap

  • According to the Gap Year Association’s 2015 National Alumni Survey, 81 percent of all survey participants said they were very likely to recommend taking a gap year to someone considering it.
  • Those who participated in a gap year had, on average, shorter times to graduation and higher GPAs as compared to national norms.
  • “Gappers” currently experience higher levels of job satisfaction and civic participation as compared to national norms.

— Gap Year Association


Wolney’s fellow Chesterton alumna Abigail Niemann, 21, also spent time working at the Italian Chesterton school, but after completing her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

“I had been studying nursing at Benedictine, but I always had a deep love for the arts and literature,” said Niemann, a St. Paul native and parishioner of All Saints in Minneapolis. “Being able to take a break from all studying really helped me to discern what I missed studying and what I really desired to learn more about.”

Two days after returning from Italy, she started fresh at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a major in English and a minor in Italian studies. Niemann noted that it was easier for her to start at a new school, versus reentering the same college with peers who were a year ahead. She encourages prospective “gappers” to make plans for their return date and post-secondary education prior to traveling to curb time zone and paperwork issues. It’s also key to approach the year off by putting others first, Niemann said.

“If you have the chance to instead serve and work for other people, that’s an opportunity that will teach you a lot about your faith and about yourself,” she said.

Julie Michels, the director of college and career planning at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, works with interested students to identify their goals for a gap year, whether it’s learning a specific skill on the job or growing personally through volunteer work. However, only a small percentage of Totino-Grace seniors explore gap year experiences, she said, noting that the school has a college-bound culture.

Michels recommends that students go through the full college planning process during their senior year to take advantage of professionals who can guide them through it.

“We want them to do college visits and talk to colleges,” she explained. “Universities are really open to working with students about deferring for a year. If they’re traveling during their gap year or working full-time, that’s really difficult for them to do a college search. That’s why we like to work with them through the process while they’re still seniors in high school.”

It has to be the right student who can take a gap year, Michels said, noting the challenges of taking a year off from academics and the new life experiences that separate gap-year students from traditional college freshmen. She recalled several students who thrived in school and in their future careers because of gap year experiences, including Totino-Grace alumnus Dmitri Knoll.

Knoll, 20, traveled for seven months post-graduation with the gap year program Thinking Beyond Borders. He worked in a healthcare setting focused on AIDS and tuberculosis in South Africa, taught preschool-age children in India and planted trees in Ecuador, among other experiences.

Now studying at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Knoll is considering a psychology major after his time in the health field. He said beyond the language barrier and some safety concerns while traveling, returning from his gap year program was unexpectedly the most challenging aspect.

“[I] have all of these experiences under [my] belt from when I went to see the Taj Mahal, or I did something that none of my friends have done,” said Knoll, a parishioner of St. Katharine Drexel in Ramsey. “It’s difficult to keep your friendships like they were before, because you’ve seen a whole new perspective on the world, and it’s tough for some of them to understand.”

Those new perspectives, however, bolstered Knoll’s faith, as he encountered for the first time religions such as Hinduism in India, which helped him to understand more about being Catholic. His time abroad also enhanced his academics at Georgetown. In a recent philosophy class discussion on how different cultures handle death, he contributed heavily based on what he saw firsthand.

Knoll calls his gap year experience eye-opening and enlightening, and it allowed him to gain a newfound level of independence as he managed projects, money and more. He encourages other high school students to consider the opportunity.

“A simple answer is just do it. Once you take this trip, you’ll know why you did it,” Knoll said.

Anna Laughery, 20, served with NET Ministries from 2016-2017 at a parish in Plano, Texas, ministering to middle and high school students after graduating from Providence Academy in Plymouth. Her time working as a missionary helped her gain valuable life skills that she says better prepared her for school at Benedictine College than her freshman peers.

“You’re better at managing your time. You’re more mature and used to be[ing] away from home,” said Laughery, whose home parish is St. Michael in Prior Lake. “You’re just able to live as an adult more when you’ve taken time off.”

The chance to become fully immersed in parish life solidified her desire to work in a parish or diocese after college. Laughery is pursuing theology and catechesis-new evangelization studies. She said NET helped her to establish a strong personal prayer life and to see the world through a different lens.

“It’s so good to live life a little bit outside of the academic world — outside the world of teenagers — that helps you realize there’s more to life than just us,” she said.

Graduation 2018 — Special Section

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