Today the World, Tomorrow Occidental

Gap-year students prolong the journey from high school to college with a spirit of adventure and a better understanding of themselves

Ryan Hammill

Danville, Calif./France

Prospective major? Social sciences or the humanities.
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? Pictures from Taiz with contact information for the boys I lived with—my Taiwanese friend wrote his address for me in Mandarin Chinese characters.

Ryan Hammill was sporting shoulder-length dreadlocks when he received his diploma from San Ramon Valley High School in Danville in June 2010. But when he took a detour en route to Occidental to live among monks in Taizé, France, those accouterments came off.

For five months at the Christian Monastery in Taizé, Hammill helped the brothers sell pottery, books, and music to visitors, in addition to cooking and cleaning in what amounted to highly regimented days. "It was incredibly life changing," he says, and a sharp contrast to the disjointed lifestyle he'd come to know in the suburban Bay Area.

"I'm not some keen social observer, but it's pretty evident that people are trying to return to the idea of living with more simplicity and put more of an emphasis on community," Hammill says. "It really blew me away to see those ideas lived out. I connected with a vision for a different kind of life—not necessarily in a monastery, but a life with different priorities."

The experience strengthened his relationship with God and made Hammill think deeply about his future. "I had to make a serious choice to leave the monastery and realize what I was coming back to, and that is a college campus that is a little more communal and simple than the suburbs, which I'm excited for and welcoming of."

Hammill is one of 14 members of Oxy's Class of 2015 who deferred enrollment by a year (or two, in at least one case) to pack their bags for points beyond in search of adventure, self-examination, and a break from the books. The "gap year," as admission professionals call it, is taken by relatively few. But gap students say they are better prepared for college because of the maturity and insights they gained during their layoff.

Gap-year experiences often complement the College's mission to provide a total educational experience of the highest quality, says Vince Cuseo, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid. "Oxy's approach to a liberal arts education--emphasizing participation through hands-on research and field experiences locally and abroad--fits well with the options gap students often consider," he says.

Hammill, who chose Occidental because of its urban setting and liberal arts focus, first considered taking a gap year as a high school sophomore. "I'm not sure what the underlying motivation was other than going on some crazy adventure," he admits. After returning from France in June, he went to work for a landscape gardening business in Danville. Many of his co-workers were undocumented immigrants who recounted their stories of crossing the border. "It was an assault on my feelings of entitlement," he says. "There are so many things that I think I'm entitled to, and I realize there are lots of people who have never even dreamed of getting a scholarship to go to a private college."

A Margaret Bundy Scott Scholar entering Oxy, Hammill is already involved with Inter­Varsity Christian Fellowship, and he also hopes to spend part of his college experience taking stands against government policies that can be viewed as hostile to immigrants. A high school buddy, Colin Redemer, says the gap year helped define Hammill's purpose: "Ryan, and students like him, will enter college knowing why they were created, and they will leave equipped to transform the world."

Over the last five years, roughly 2.5 percent to 3 percent of each entering class at Occidental is made up of gap-year students--more than twice the national average of 1.2 percent, according to a 2010 study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. (Next year's entering class is expected to continue this trend, as 15 students who were accepted at Oxy this spring have deferred their enrollment to fall 2012.)

"Oxy exceeds the national average, perhaps in part because we accommodate and encourage substantive gap-year requests," Cuseo says. Some of the nation's most prestigious universities--Harvard, Princeton, and New York University among them--also encourage gap years and even partner with international organizations that provide service opportunities for students.

Liza Comart

West Roxbury, Mass./Guatemala

Prospective major? Cognitive science.
Extracurricular interests? I intend to audition for the improvisation club. I am also starting tai chi, which confuses my friends back home!
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? Physically, I have brought the gifts I was given by my students and friends in Guatemala. Culturally, I have brought a perspective that has helped me engage with others in a more profound manner.

When Liza Comart decided to take a gap year before enrolling at Oxy, reaction among her friends and family was mixed. "A lot of people couldn't get why I'd leave the United States—a developed country where I could be clean and well fed," she says. "It's a lack of understanding. I didn't blame people. Most difficult is my parents' generation. I think people my age are more used to the idea of the gap year."

As a junior at Concord Academy in suburban Boston, Comart took part in CITYterm, a semester-long program in which students research an assigned neighborhood by talking to residents and collecting their own data. She and her classmates were sent to Astoria, N.Y., a neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York City that is home to the largest number of ethnic Greeks outside of Greece.

"It taught me a lot about experiential learning, which I fell for," Comart says. "I didn't realize how valuable it was and I didn't realize how much I could get that wasn't in books or studying. You get a feel for a place that you can't get from any other source."

She applied the same ethnographic methodology to her gap year, during which she traveled to Guatemala City. There she worked with Safe Passage, a nonprofit group that provides schooling and work opportunities to children who live in and scavenge recyclables from one of the city's largest garbage dumps.

The experience offered insights both humbling and revealing. "Part of it is seeing that humans are humans no matter where they are," she says. "There's a common element among us, no matter where we're living. Any one of us could be living in the Guatemala City dump. After the first month or two, I didn't pity these kids at all. I was admiring their valiance and vivacious attitudes, despite their hardships."

"Liza has always been good at fearlessly jumping into unfamiliar situations," says Razina Aziz-Bose, a classmate from the Con­cord Academy. Comart chose Oxy in large part because of the cultural and charitable activities available to students: "It seems like a wonderful place to explore new interests."

Now that she's in college mode, Comart is eager to broaden her experiences in other ways. "I got really good advice from someone: They said try something weird. I definitely want to get there and try something I haven't tried, something like roller derby or learning sign language. I'm a little nervous for starting classes again and having homework, but I think I'll be fine."

Alexander Parker-Guerrero

Oakland, Calif./Spain

Prospective major? Environmental biology.
First impressions of Oxy? I love it. My classes, teachers, and peers are all great. I think I'm going to learn a lot about myself and the world at Occidental.
Extracurricular activities? Baseball, Photography Club.
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? I brought my Athletic Club de Bilbao soccer jersey!

Alexander Parker-Guerrero's gap year happened by accident. He'd accepted admission at UC Davis over Occidental, but then had a last-minute change of heart. "I contacted Oxy and asked if they still had a spot," he says. But the College was over­enrolled, and admission officers offered him a slot for the Class of 2015. "It opened this huge world of possibilities," he says.

The Oakland resident immediately solicited advice from former high school teachers. His Spanish teacher said she knew of a couple in her hometown of Bilbao, Spain, who needed an au pair for their 13-year-old son. "All I had to do was pay for a plane ticket there," Parker-Guerrero recalls. "I had taken four years of Spanish, but I wasn't fluent. I'd never gone to a Spanish-speaking country to practice the language. Now I'm pretty close to being fluent."

When he wasn't serving as a caretaker, Parker-Guerrero traveled the Basque country and took Spanish classes with students representing 13 nationalities. "It was important for me to see people who were out of their element," he says. "Living in a different country where you don't speak the language was always a terrifying prospect."

It turned out to be anything but. Parker-Guerrero wrote a blog about his experiences and kept in touch with Victoria Parraga, the College Preparatory School teacher who suggested he go to Spain. "His year off has given him a true life experience outside the four walls of a classroom," Parraga says. "He is going to be able to deal better with all the good and the bad that is thrown at him. He has been places, he has known people, he has had to deal with situations that other kids in his classes will not have experienced."

The unexpected layoff proved fortuitous in other ways. "I felt really burned out after high school, and college applications were a stressful experience," Parker-Guerrero says. "Now, more than ever, I feel fresh and excited and determined to learn."

Parker-Guerrero, who is considering majoring in biology, ultimately opted for Occidental over UC Davis after his high school counselor suggested it was a better fit. He wanted a college with small class sizes and the opportunity to know professors. It didn't hurt that three of his friends from high school--Sean Curran, Nick Gallagher, and Lisa Gilliland, all Class of 2014--are attending Oxy.

Now that he's finally in Eagle Rock, "I'm really excited to grow intellectually," Parker-Guerrero says. "That's the thing I want to do most--let my mind grow. I want to learn and figure out what I'm interested in."

Emily Reuter

Arcadia, Calif./Rwanda, Japan

Prospective major? Kinesiology.
First impressions of Oxy? Friendly faces, small classes, sunshine.
Extracurricular interests? I hope to try out for soccer, play intramural sports, and join several clubs.
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? Some African batiks and jewelry; Japanese stationery; a ton of pictures and handwritten notes.

A plan was born after Emily Rueter's brother, Jesse—now 26 and an admissions officer at USC—spent a gap year in Hon­duras. "He inspired me to do the same," says Emily, a Trustee Scholar from Arcadia who took two years off to travel to Africa and Japan. "I saw how much he'd gained from it. It was a transformational experience for him."

She joined the NextGen Leadership Academy, a faith-based international leadership-training program based in Rwanda. One of Emily's friends had already taken part in the month-long program and spoke highly of it. Participants learn public speaking and leadership skills, while also visiting schools to teach older students to be role models for younger children. This in a land where ethnic factions claimed 800,000 lives in the 1994 genocide.

"It definitely impacted me. I really felt empowered and I had the potential to do big things and make a difference, even if it's holding a kid's hand," Rueter says of the trip, which she took in February 2010. "It was a perspective change on myself. I never looked at myself like I could make such a big difference to people, but you could really tell. So many people were in tears when we left."

In February 2011, Rueter took part in a NextGen program in Tokyo and Okayama, Japan, where she co-hosted leadership workshops to help young adults discover their leadership potential.

The experiences, she says, aren't something she could have gained had she enrolled in college directly out of high school. "I'm much more aware of myself and what I can offer the world." Still, some friends thought she was "crazy" and ribbed her about trying to "save the world."

"The jokes weren't mean, and it didn't really bother me," Rueter says. "My parents were supportive of me, and there was never any second-guessing. But now I feel like I'm going to college with a bigger purpose and higher direction. I have a much broader perspective on the world and who I am."

Says mother Sheri Rueter: "Our family has been deeply touched by Emily's experiences. Her relationships with us--her parents--and with her brothers have become far more honest and real. I had reservations when Emily announced her decision to defer for a second year, but I was impressed by her personal initiative to convince us, and to convince the admission office at Oxy that a second year at NGA would be valuable."

Rueter was drawn to Oxy because of its size and the opportunities she'll have to get to know her professors, but there's another reason: "I like being kind of close to home, but not so close that my mom will show up." She hopes to get involved in student government and service activities--interests that in no small part can be traced to Rwanda. "I definitely learned that I like giving back," Rueter says. "I want to make a difference wherever I am." 

George Copeland

Oakton, Va./Brazil, South Africa

Prospective major? Undecided.
First impressions of Oxy? It's a welcoming community, and I am happy to be a part of it.
Extracurricular interests? I plan on trying the Outdoors Club and Ultimate Frisbee.
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? I have a sign warning against dangerous animals from my reserve in South Africa on my wall.

George Copeland's gap year was nearly over as soon as it started. Traveling a Brazilian tributary of the Amazon River in September 2010, Copeland's canoe was snapped in half after being sucked into a whirlpool. He and his boat mate were dragged under the rapids before resurfacing 20 feet downriver.

"It was pretty harrowing," says Copeland, who was taking part in the National Outdoor Leadership School, a nonprofit program that teaches outdoor skills, leadership and environmental ethics. Fortunately for Copeland, "we weren't in an area with caimans or anacondas. We were also in open water where there weren't piranhas. It was obviously something to keep an eye on, but NOLS prepared us pretty well."

Copeland, of Oakton, Va., has always loved to travel and watched his cousins take gap years. He enrolled in NOLS more for adventure than self-growth, but soon discovered the 375-mile expedition required regular self-examination. "Many of my flaws were laid bare," he says. "It's an experience to be in the jungle cooking food and being self-reliant. You start noticing things about yourself you need to work on."

From Brazil he went to South Africa, the country that, when he traveled there in the fourth grade, gave genesis to his gap year. In Africa, Copeland took part in the Entabeni Nature Guide Training School, where he learned to lead safaris.

High school geometry teacher Rick Stubbs says he voiced "enthusiastic support" for Copeland "and my usual 'I wish more people would consider such an option.'" The pair kept in touch via email and "I got no sense that George approached any day with anything other than enthusiasm and excitement," says Stubbs. "While I don't think that gaining in self-confidence was George's primary goal as he undertook these gap-year experiences, he certainly achieved that during his time away."

Copeland says he never had any doubts about enrolling in college. His family supported the year off and "I got a lot of jealous remarks from guys my own age." Copeland chose Oxy because of his fascination with the West. His first visit to Oxy was also his first time in California. "It was really the vibe there that got me," he recalls. "Everyone was very welcoming. I felt at home."

He's considering majoring in life sciences, but beyond that--like any explorer--Copeland doesn't have any preconceptions about what he hopes to accomplish in college. "I really do need to get out to Oxy and figure it out for myself. I want to try things and see what's right for me."

Elizabeth Noon

Fort Collins, Colo./Peru

Prospective major? Politics, with a minor in Spanish.
First impressions of Oxy? All of my teachers seem very supportive and really knowledgeable about their topics. The other students are very friendly and seem really happy at Oxy.
Any souvenirs from your gap-year travels? I brought a hat from Peru to Oxy with me-but I don't think I will be needing it.

It didn't take long for Elizabeth Noon's parents to get behind their daughter's plans to postpone college in favor of exploring the Peruvian Amazon and traipsing Incan ruins. Her father Barry, an ecology professor at Colorado State University, had already seen firsthand the impact of such journeys. "All of his best students have taken a year off," Noon says. "They were better prepared and more mature, so he was really supportive of me."

The Fort Collins, Colo., resident expects much the same of herself when she sets out on new explorations at Oxy. "I thought it was a good idea to learn more about the world and kind of get a break from academics," she says, adding that the trip gave her one other particularly valuable insight. "It was my first time on my own, and I fell right into it. I was surprised how easy it was to adjust to living in Peru."

Her next port of call is Eagle Rock, where "I just hope to learn a lot and make some good friends and connections with the school and the L.A. community." Noon chose Occidental because of its sunny climes ("I don't like Colorado winters very much") and, upon visiting campus, "we all really liked the tour guide." She also was drawn to join boyfriend Griffin Mead '14, who likewise hails from Fort Collins. Noon plans to major in politics and pursue a minor in Spanish. She says there never was any doubt she'd enroll in college after her break, particularly given her experiences abroad. "I saw the importance of being educated," she says. "That's really how you succeed. I'm ready to start learning again."

Noon spent seven months in Peru, where she helped teach at a primary school. On the advice of a family friend, she chose the country so she could hone her Spanish skills. In Cuzco, Noon took language classes at the Academia Latinoamericana de Español. In her free time, she often hiked, including the Inca Trail leading to the Machu Picchu ruins.

Mother Paige Noon joined her daughter for her last two weeks in the country and was impressed by her daughter's ability to communicate with people and navigate on her own. Elizabeth didn't travel to Peru with an organization. "She had to make all of her own decisions and find her own place to live and volunteer," Paige says. "As a parent you want to prepare your kids to be independent. She did what I had hoped."

Noon was particularly struck by the people she met, who emboldened her commitment to compassion and justice—traits nurtured by her mother. Thanks to her gap year experience, "I learned that everyone around the world has similar hopes, dreams, and desires," she says. "We all want the same things for ourselves and our families."

Freelance writer Andy Faught lives in Fresno. Originally published in Occidental magazine, Fall 2011.