When Eva Spohn graduated high school in Kentucky, the then-18-year-old found herself at a crossroads. She could continue her educational path as many students do by moving on to higher education. However, she felt a stirring to try something different, an ‘adventure’ as she puts it.
“High school was pretty rigorous for me, so I wanted to take time to experience the world in a different way besides being a ‘student,’” recalls Spohn. “School had taught me about the problems that exist in the world, but I wanted to do something more hands-on to help people in a concrete way.”
It was that inkling of a desire that ultimately landed Spohn in Oklahoma, focusing her gap year in 2018 with the Gospel of Life Disciples + Dwellings (GOLD). Founded by Sister Maria of the Trinity, GOLD has three locations in Oklahoma City, Moore and Grand Prairie, Texas.
The personal care homes offered by GOLD not only provide a place to live for the elderly but also provide a sense of community, especially for those who are terminally ill, without family or resources or are facing other difficult life circumstances. Spohn served as a “LifeGuard” (the name for volunteers at GOLD), living and caring for the residents in both the Moore and Oklahoma City dwellings during her gap year. In that transformative year, Spohn not only gained greater clarity on life but also found inspiration for her next career step.
What is a gap year?
The Gap Year Association (GYA) defines a gap year as “a semester or year typically taken after high school prior to career or post-secondary education to deepen one’s practical, professional or personal awareness.” Vanessa Zuidema, associate director for GYA, also acknowledges that the pause can happen at other life phases, such as during college.
While taking a gap year has been common in areas like Europe, it has only recently grown in popularity in the United States. The topic gained much press attention in 2016 when then-first daughter Malia Obama decided to take a gap year and deferred her start at Harvard University to the following school year. The coronavirus pandemic also led more students to take a break from academics to pursue a gap year.
What exactly students choose to do during a gap year can take various forms.
“Some students spend time on career exploration, some want to do a cultural experience internationally, while others decide to do a service-learning program,” explained Zuidema.
Zuidema took a gap year herself during her university studies.
“I did a gap year after my freshman year of college,” said Zuidema. “I traveled to the Caribbean for a cultural experience and language immersion program. It was an excellent opportunity to focus on something I wanted to do. I didn’t have the best first year college experience and being able to take a pause and reflect on what that meant helped me return to school with more focus and helped me define what I wanted to do for the next three years of my higher education pursuits.”
For parents of kids considering a gap year, Zuidema advises families to discuss with their student what goals they have for their gap year and what they want to achieve.
“Go in with some intention; state your goals and develop a plan for the gap year and after it,” said Zuidema.
She also recommends looking at what the implications would be for your student’s college planning.
Morgan Brammer, M.Ed., director of recruitment at the University of Oklahoma Office of Admissions and Recruitment, says most colleges and universities will provide a deferred admission or “gap year” option. In this case, the student will still apply to the school for the year they intended, but they can defer admission for one or sometimes two years if accepted.
“Alternatively, if a student simply doesn’t apply for college after their senior year of high school and just takes a year or two off, I would say the best way to illustrate the experiences they gained [once they are ready to apply] is to share stories of growth, perseverance, lessons learned and how they have bettered themselves in that time away from academia,” advised Brammer. “There are many positives to outline and their experiences should shine in that admissions essay!”
Parents may be concerned about their student not continuing with school if they take a break for a gap year, but studies by GYA have found the opposite to be true. Data from their 2020 National Alumni Survey found 83 percent of respondents enrolled in or continued their higher education after a gap year.
In Spohn’s case, her gap year redefined her life purpose. After completing her time at GOLD, Spohn gained a new perspective and respect for the elderly and terminally ill, a group often forgotten by society.
“Our culture has a hard time grappling with the idea of growing old and being at a point in life where one might have trouble remembering things or can’t be in a job anymore,” reflects Spohn. “People might look at the elderly and say, ‘They don’t have the same purpose as I do’ since we often cling to things like our careers, but I’ve realized that you are still an amazing, dignified and fully alive human being even when you are old. Elderly people have a perspective that you can’t learn from other places, like how one can be content just by being in someone else’s presence, sharing life together and enjoying a good laugh.”
Now 21, Spohn is completing a bachelor’s degree in studio art at Western Kentucky University while also fulfilling prerequisites for nursing, a career path inspired by her time working as a GOLD LifeGuard.
Finding your place in the world
While many students choose to take a gap year after high school, some also decide to pursue it after completing college and before entering the workforce. Such was the experience of Sarah Wells, 22, another GOLD LifeGuard who heard about the gap year program through Spohn.
Wells learned about GOLD during the coronavirus pandemic in summer 2020. After graduating from Centre College in Danville, Ky., in May 2020, she was motivated to take time off.
“The COVID pandemic made me realize that the world was in a tough place and I wasn’t ready to enter the job market yet,” explained Wells. “I also had skipped seventh grade as a child, so I already felt a little rushed academically and I wanted to take time to get to know myself better.”
She sought a more hands-on path to discover how she wanted to make her impact on the world, beyond what she was taught in the classroom.
“In college, we talked a lot about policies and changing the world, but it was all in very broad strokes,” recalled Wells. “But I realized that before I could make the changes I wanted to see, I needed to live in other peoples’ shoes and understand what their struggles were.”
At the end of the day, living and caring for the elderly provided Wells with a fresh outlook and life lessons that transcended any text book.
“What I learned during my gap year at GOLD is that you can only make the world a better place by the hearts that you touch, and often that happens on a one-on-one basis,” said Wells.
Questions to consider with your student as they prepare for a
• What are the financial implications? Will you have financial support or should you work for a bit to save money for the program?
• What is your desired structure of a gap year program?
• What support do you need in place during this experience? The Gap Year Association recommends having mentors and people you can communicate with to discuss the experience and work through problems that may arise.
• If you are leaving home, will it be your first time living away? Are you comfortable with that, especially if the program is international?
Worried about traveling due to COVID?
The Gap Year Association has seen an uptick in online and domestic gap year attendance in response to the pandemic. Program options include:
• Global Citizen Year Academy offers a 12-week semester online in leadership development.
• TEFLPros is a digital gap program providing certification to teach English as a foreign language.
• Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) provides programs domestically and worldwide to learn about organic and ecological farming practices.