By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
For high school seniors, December is difficult. Early decision college announcements are pending and regular decision application deadlines loom perilously close. Pressure mounts as friends and relatives ask about the future.
Some students avoid the stress and take a year-long detour around the drama of U.S. college admissions.
Ann Bergen, a college and career specialist at Laguna Beach High School, said an increasing number of students are considering alternate paths. She noted an increase in the number of LBHS seniors applying to international colleges or choosing a gap year.
“In Europe, the concept of a gap year is very common,” Bergen said. “The idea is just starting to catch on here.”
In September, two of Laguna’s 2017 graduates embarked on an international journey with the Global Citizen Year program. Since 2009, Oakland-based Global Citizen Year has offered students a hands-on opportunity to learn about the world, and themselves, before starting college. Programs are offered in Brazil, Ecuador, India, and Senegal. AP Spanish students and friends since fifth grade at El Morro, Jack Dickerson and Callista Helms opted to spend a gap year in Ecuador.
Jack originally planned to follow a traditional path and was happily accepted by his top college choice last year. Unfortunately, the financial aid didn’t work out as planned, so he decided to apply for a Global Citizen Year. Within two weeks, he was offered admission to the program along with a financial aid package to make it possible.
Interested in biological science, Jack was drawn to the biodiversity of Ecuador. After completing his training, he was placed with a host family in Paragachi, a rural town in the Andes with a population of 300. Jack resides in a four-room house with a family of 10; the home is crowded and lively, but he loves it. He works as an apprentice for a company that does social work through organic agriculture.
A 14-hour bus ride away, Callista lives in Chordeleg, a small southern town. Her host family is also large, with eight members. Callista entered Ecuador with a strong Spanish background, having attended a bilingual school from kindergarten until fourth grade and studied the language an additional four years in high school. Even so, idiosyncrasies in the regional dialect hinder her fluency. Despite the unexpected language barriers, Callista helps teach English at a high school in addition to her apprenticeship in the local government.
Throughout the year, Global Citizen students join with their cohorts to explore neighboring areas. The groups generally travel by bus and stay in hostels. Jack and Callista live in different parts of the country, but they have both visited huge waterfalls. They laugh about roads filled with crazy drivers and stray dogs, but the travelers, who shared their experiences by email, are proud of the knowledge and perspective they are gaining.
These teens intentionally stepped into conditions less developed than their environment in Laguna Beach. They chose a temporary move away to increase their knowledge in a meaningful way. Both of them plan to attend college next fall, after their gap year concludes.
“I wanted to develop new life skills and values,” Callista said. “Taking a Global Citizen Year was an opportunity to be a part of something bigger…it was a chance to really connect with the world around me.”
“I would suggest a gap year,” Jack said. “Oftentimes the most important growth comes from struggle and if people are willing to jump into a situation where they face struggles, it will be worth it.”
Counselor Ann Bergen agreed, “A gap year is not for everyone, but a well-planned program can be a great option, a way to gain new perspectives and expand horizons.”