Focusing on the journey, not the destination

| Sara Schewe | October 3, 2011 | 0 Comments

Why some high-school grads choose to serve, work or travel before college

More Catholic high school graduates than ever before are taking a “gap year” before heading to college. They may choose to experience a non-academic adventure or explore an unusual interest. A gap year also can be used to volunteer in the community, a different state or another country, and to grow in faith before continuing studies.

Gap years aren’t just for those who are rich. Some youth might work to pay for college. Some may stretch the year into several if they enlist in the military or volunteer for one of the volunteer programs like Americorps City Year, which provides future tuition benefits.

Following in the footsteps of their father, Nick Hall, Joe, Sharon and Loretta Hall of St. Joseph in West St. Paul took gap years with NET Ministries (National Evangelization Teams), a Catholic youth ministry organization.

“I wanted to take a year to focus on deepening my faith, serving others, and taking time to decide what I wanted to do with my life after high school,” Sharon, 21, explained. After serving with NET, she went to study at the University of St. Thomas, where she is beginning her junior year.

Loretta, 19, who was homeschooled, finished high school in 2010 and began serving her second year with NET this fall.

“After I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other people. I had been so incredibly blessed in my life, and I knew it was time for me to share that in a radical way,” said Loretta, who served on a team last year with 10 other people from nine different states. “I saw a gap year as an opportunity not only to serve others, but to grow up and learn more about myself.”

The team traveled to 17 dioceses around the country, mainly in the Midwest and West, she said.

“Almost every day, we were in a new town and staying with new people,” she said. Among the highlights for the team were: speaking at the Oakland diocese’s first youth conference, staffing the L.A. Religious Education Conference, and being able to attend Altared, the new diocesan youth Mass and event in Kansas City.

“The coolest part? Waking up every day and having the beautiful gift of seeing young people (and old people too) meet the Lord in a new way or possibly for the first time. The other really awesome part was being on a team with such dedicated, wonderful young adults,” Loretta said. “For a people person like me, it was a dream come true. My team was very diverse, and we had little in common, but I was able to learn so much from their differences and to appreciate new things.”

Margaret Ulland of St. Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul took a gap year after graduating from Cretin-Derham Hall in 2010 and before attending Loyola University in Chicago this fall.

“Dance has always been such a major part of my life, but I did not want to major in dance in college — right now I am thinking pre-med — but I also did not want to give it up just like that,” Ulland said. “So, I moved to New York City to dance with the professional training division of The Ailey School of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was a full-time dance program where I took daily ballet and Martha Graham Modern classes. I also took jazz, Horton technique and tap. I had an awesome experience getting to know New York City and the dance world.”

In New York, Ulland lived at Centro Maria, a dormitory in midtown Manhattan run by the Sisters of Mary Immaculate.

“I think my faith in the Catholic Church became stronger during my gap year because of living at Centro Maria. The sisters took such good care of all the girls living at the residence, and I just realized how cool it is that there is a whole order of nuns dedicated to the protection and care of women,” she said. “The sisters planned parties for every holiday, had Mass and prayer service times on holy days that were convenient for our schedules, but at the same time were not pushy, just welcoming. This year was also the first time I got to decide whether I went to church or not on Sundays. I realized that church on Sundays is very important for me because of the sense of community it provides me with. I had never really thought about it before this year.”

A recent survey of 300,000 first-time freshmen at four-year colleges and universities found 1.2 percent waited a year to enter college, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gap fairs that promote various gap programs (see have multiplied four-fold in the past four years, to 30 nationwide.

Joan O’Connell, college counselor at Cretin-Derham Hall, said although only three or four students each year at Cretin-Derham Hall choose to take gap years, she has heard other students say they wish they had taken a gap year.

“They get to college and aren’t sure of their direction or what they want to do and they’re spending all this money,” O’Connell said. “A gap year is a great way to figure that out.”

O’Connell noted that Cretin-Derham Hall students have taken gap years for diverse reasons, ranging from playing junior hockey to devoting a year to volunteering.

For those considering a gap year, several resources are available: “The Gap Year Advantage” by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson, and, coming out soon by the same authors, “Gap Year, American Style,” based on a study of 280 students and former students who took gap years. Brainstorm and network with teachers, family and friends; check out organized programs; talk to past volunteers or interns before making a decision.

Students who have taken a gap year suggest that students schedule work time into the year because working provides structure and an understanding of how to succeed in any job. Also, check with colleges on their deferral policies; taking a year off means you are no longer a full-time student, and that may make you ineligible for some scholarships.

For those willing to leave the road most often traveled, a gap year can be a life-changer.

“Although people say it’s taking a year ‘off,’ you learn so many life skills, you discover a lot about yourself as a person, and you grow and experience so much,” Sharon Hall said.

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