How Five Members of W&L's Class of 2015 Filled Their Gap Years
Going to college can be quite the adventure, but more and more young people are choosing to have an entirely different type of adventure first.
Throughout the country, increasing numbers of high school graduates are choosing to take a “gap year,” also known as a sabbatical, and traveling or working for a year before settling in at a college.
According to a recent story in the New York Times, there are even independent gap year advisers who help students design their year.
Washington and Lee has always had the occasional request from a student who wants to defer admission for a year while he or she explores some activity, often involving service.
“Our position has always been neutral,” said Jonathan Webster, associate dean of admissions. “That is, we neither encourage nor discourage students who are interested in doing this.”
But when the admissions offices does receive a request for a deferral, said Webster, they do ask some probing questions of the petitioners.
“Essentially, we want to have three questions answered to our satisfaction,” said Webster. “We want to know how the student will benefit. But we also want to know how the people the student is planning to be with will benefit. Finally, we are interested in how they think W&L will benefit from their experience.”
As far as Webster can remember, the five members of the Class of 2015 who entered this fall after a gap year represent the largest contingent that W&L has had. They spent their years in very different ways and have now settled into Lexington to begin their college careers.
Hamlet T. Fort
Taking a year off to travel and answer questions, Hamlet Fort split his time between classes at the University of Paris la Sorbonne and traveling across Asia. Traveling Europe on the weekends, Fort took classes in French, art history and French civilization through the American Institute of Foreign Study.
After leaving France, Fort followed the Mekong River from southern Cambodia through Thailand and into Southwest China, living in small villages and a Buddhist monastery along the way. Spending a little over four months in Asia, Fort filled a black journal with his adventures to remind him of the experience and keep his head clear.
“I came to know myself on a much deeper level before college starts, which was my goal,” Fort said. “I have experiences now that will shape how I go through school and the rest of my life, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity that I had to travel and see the world.”
Over the course of his gap year, James McCullum had two entirely different experiences, both abroad and stateside.
Starting in the fall, McCullum participated in a gap year program called CarpeDiem Education in South America. With a group of 10 other students and two group leaders, he spent time working on an organic farm, volunteering, taking Spanish classes, exploring ruins and hiking in remote villages in Ecuador and Peru.
After spending the winter at home, McCullum began a five-month journey on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Finishing in August, he traveled 2,181 miles, hiking around 25 miles a day with people he met along the way.
“I think one of the most profound lessons I learned along the trail is to let go,” McCullum said. “I began to let go of little annoyances or feelings of guilt, jealousy and frustration. I felt lighter inside like I wasn’t trying to hide anything.”
Josy Tarantini spent her year giving back through volunteering in both South America and at home. Spending her first three months in Peru, she taught English and played and spent weekends exploring. Coming home for a few months, she did a volunteer internship with the Hoss Foundation Gift Project, which provides Christmas gifts to needy families.
Afterwards, Tarantini went abroad again, this time to Honduras, where she lived with missionaries. She served a teacher, taking over Sunday school classes as well as English lessons and arts and crafts. During the week, she helped care for the family’s children and things around the house.
Once she returned for the summer before she came to W&L, Josy volunteered with Upward Bound, the non-profit organization that works with low-income high school students planning to become first generation college students by assisting them with standardized test preparation and guiding them through the financial aid process. She performed administrative tasks and requested charitable donations.
“My outlook on money, poverty, materialism and life in general was turned completely upside down,” Tarantini said. “I saw people living joyfully with practically nothing, but I also saw people suffering. It showed me how grateful I should be for what I have, and more importantly, it taught me that I can make a difference.”
Stewart Cory took the year off to travel, study abroad and better appreciate the college experience she would have.
“After the pressure of high school and the college process, I was lacking the enthusiasm that I thought I should have had going into my freshman year of college,” Cory said. “I thought that a break from my normal environment would help me to be more motivated and ready to take advantage of all of the opportunities that would be available to me in college.”
Cory spent her first three months in Morocco, traveling and studying before coming home for two months to work. In the spring, she traveled to Paris where she had an internship and also blogged about the city.
Like the other gap-year students, she is excited to start college at W&L.
“I’m looking forward to being back in a routine and being in a social setting,” Cory said. “Over the course of my year, I missed the normalcy of a schedule and seeing my friends on a regular basis.”
Wilson Hallett spent his gap year in England, participating in the English Speaking Union, an exchange program that allowed him to enroll as a full time student at Bromsgrove School in Worcestershire, England.
“As well as living in England, it gave me an advantage to travel and experience different cultures,” Hallett said. “I knew that college would always be there for me, and W&L was gracious enough to let me defer my acceptance to do a gap year.”
Besides taking British A Level courses, Hallet was able to travel on breaks across the United Kingdom as well as around Europe and North Africa. His adventures included running with bulls in Pamplona and riding a camel in the Sahara.
Once Hallett returned stateside, he was ready to bring his experiences and newfound love of rugby to W&L. But mostly, he said, he was just happy to be home in the land of free refills, Cheerwine and driving on the right side of the road.
“It was an incredible year, but being back home is the best part about leaving.”
— by Campbell Massie
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs