Introduction: Intrepid Pathways
"I'M NOT SURE I want to go to college next year."
This was the first indication we had that our eighteen-year-old son, Adam, although accepted by selective colleges, was considering stepping off the traditional road of education to journey down a path less traveled.
"But I do have an idea of what I want to do!" he continued. Adam was inspired by a graduate of a school in his district who had taken time off before college to participate in a community service program called City Year. The young man, Matt Hendren, had returned to his alma mater and dropped by Adam's government and politics class to talk about his experiences.
"I was about to enroll in an excellent but very large university," Matt Hendren reported. "I didn't have the focus or exposure to seek out what I wanted to do. If you have any doubt that you will succeed, take time off to ensure you will succeed. Forme, City Year was the perfect mix of teaching, learning, exposure to the real world, and responsibility. Taking time off and serving through City Year was the best decision of my life." Matt's description of teaching fourth-graders in a rooftop garden in Boston, Massachusetts, sparked an interest in Adam that was more relevant and focused than his vision of spending at least four more years sitting in classrooms.
While Adam spoke convincingly about how taking time off might be the right option for him, we recalled a time not too long ago when some in our generation had acted on President Kennedy's assertion that "one person can make a difference and every person should try" through the Peace Corps or Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA). And many more of us--at least those not called by military service--had heard the words but continued unquestioningly and dutifully down the road prescribed by our schools, our parents, and our society. We also recalled conversations with a few peers who chose to set forth in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s on gap-year opportunities before or during college. They--like Adam's City Year schoolmate--considered the experience powerful, pivotal, and life changing.
As Adam wondered about the options that might be open to him if he took time off, Karl recalled how, more than twenty years earlier, as a principal of Heathwood Hall in South Carolina, several of his students had questioned whether they were ready for college ... yet. At that time, he had a fortuitous encounter with Cornelius "Neil" Bull, an educator and visionary, who made the case that there were alternatives to going straight to college for students who were prepared to choose them.
Inspired by Adam's interest, we made a quick search of the Internet. We found that Neil Bull's vision had grown into theCenter for Interim Programs, LLC, located in Princeton, New Jersey, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Interim is a locus for helping thousands of students design and implement customized gap-year strategies. Soon Adam was on a conference call with Holly Bull, Neil's daughter and the Center's interim president. She described the myriad opportunities open to him if he was interested in pursuing intrepid pathways.
As we grew accustomed to the prospect of Adam's stepping off the beaten track to college, we were reassured by the examples of other families who had been the beneficiaries of the Interim experience. Holly (like her father before her) ensured our involvement every step along the way, delving into our view of Adam's options--and particularly reinforcing his college goals as an integral part of an overall plan. By the time of our initial phone interview with Holly, we believed Adam was prepared, along with us, to consider the prospects of taking time off as part of his educational and (perhaps) life goals.
"Would you like to work with a group in Central America? Explore where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand? Volunteer as a forest ranger in the Redwoods? Teach environmental studies in Appalachia? Intern with the British parliament?" Adam's eyes grew wide as Holly was able to connect with exactly what Adam was hoping for: These were his options! He did have choices!
What emerged from these conference calls--and the conversations we had with Adam around them--was a plan for an "extra-curriculum" sequence of events that, combined, would last a year or more. Adam's gap experiences would begin with a weeklong outdoor education program in New Jersey at Tom Brown, Jr.'s Tracker School and then would take him overseas to teach in Costa Rica and to work on an environmental preserve in New Zealand, finally leading him to a job in Texas as aninstructor in environmental education. Holly's sense of Adam's goals provided a rationale for each program he considered and its respective place in the overall plan.
The first stage in Adam's international journey was ten weeks living with a host family in a small mountain village in Costa Rica and teaching English with another volunteer in the local elementary school through a program called Global Routes. The growth, maturity, and perspective that he gained were evident to us in numerous ways, but can be illustrated through e-mails written at that time. He discovered through working with kids who were incredibly excited about learning that teaching was his calling. His fluency in Spanish grew exponentially as he became immersed in the life of the village.
He also gained a perspective on the value of resources. "In my school there is absolutely nothing," he wrote in one e-mail. He proposed to develop a fund for textbooks and scholarships. "Tons of the kids here want to go to school but can't go past sixth grade because of the lack of funds," he relayed. "Their hunger for learning and teaching in Costa Rica is awesome and has totally changed my view on education." During his time in Central America, he managed to raise more than two thousand dollars for books and scholarships, mostly through contacts at his former high school.
Last Thanksgiving, he sent this e-mail to his family: "It's amazing that this part of my life is about to end. It seems like a few days ago that I arrived in San José, and now I'm five days away from leaving. This experience has been the best thing that ever happened to me, and I appreciate all the support you all gave me throughout. My village will be forever thankful to you guys, and you can know that you really have made friends in Costa Rica."
The e-mails and the stories he has shared since provide only a hint of the breadth and depth of Adam's experiences and the strength of the bonds he developed with his host family, his students, and his peers in the Global Routes program.
Adam's experiences were eye-opening to us, as parents, and we continue to be amazed and inspired by Adam's growth, development, and contributions during and after his time-off experiences. As Adam learned, so did we.
With a combined forty years of experience in public policy, we have been able to contribute to debates and initiatives regarding what can be done to improve educational outcomes for students. As teachers and parents, we've had the opportunity to help guide students in their options regarding post-high school choices. But, as effective educators will confide, the right personal stories can be extremely instructive. And we've rarely encountered stories as powerful as those of students who've taken time off before or during college. They have been able to learn more about themselves, and, at an age when many still call them kids, they have given back to the world in ways many adults could not even imagine.
This book is based on the stories of the dozens of students we've met and interviewed who've chosen to follow their own intrepid paths. It also is based on the experiences of dozens more families, counselors, program leaders, teachers, and other educators who have supported them along the way. The examples and practical advice in these pages are offered in the hope that many other young Americans and their families will step off the traditional road and benefit from the gap-year advantage--and come to believe, as we do, that we can all gain a better perspective on our place in the world and the wisdom that will help us in our journey through it.
We look forward to hearing more stories and learning of your journeys in the months and years ahead.
Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson Advance, North Carolina 2005