Adventure Calls

By Eric Butterman

Taking a gap year before college can be a life-shaping enterprise. Here, five Sidwell Friends graduates recount five very different experiences— from studying in Nepal to professional ballet— with one overwhelming conclusion: Totally worth it.

Gap years have become an increasingly popular choice over the past decade. Each year, according to Laurén Carter, the School’s head of college advising, a small but committed group of Sidwell Friends students decide to postpone the start of college enrollment and choose to spend all or part of the year after graduation pursing an experience, a project, a dream, or a desire to take some time to gather themselves before they begin college.

For many parents, the term “gap year” may evoke a kind of primal fear: Once a kid steps off the path (high school graduation, college, successful career), will they ever come back? Why postpone college when for so many years that had seemed like the singular goal? And what are the potential academic effects from a year or more away from studying? Though the “gappers” may have momentarily given up some mileage on one road, they are already picking up speed on another—one that may serve them better. According to Ethan Knight, the founder of the nonprofit Gap Year Association, students who opt for new experiences before college actually go on to have higher GPAs on average than their peers. Knight says gappers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Middlebury College, and Colorado College, for example, had GPAs ranging from .15 to .35 points higher than their more traditional counterparts.

Students who opt for new experiences before college actually go on to have higher GPAs on average than their peers.”

“Partly the gap year is about time, partly about perspective, and partly about purpose,” Knight says. For the following five Sidwell Friends students, words like “maturity,” “growth,” and “change” came up a lot. In many ways, those are just the kind of words one might hope college itself would inspire—which is another reason gap years give young people a leg up: Before they ever hear, “Welcome to first-year orientation,” they are armed with a newfound confidence.

Isabel Laguarda ’21 has been careening across the western United States in a van for months. Part of a 15-member crew in a passenger Chevy Express, Laguarda estimates she has personally logged 2,000 miles as a driver. Soon she’ll arrive at the base of the Idaho panhandle to work with the Nez Perce Tribe. Laguarda can’t even hazard a guess as to the work she’ll do there— and she can’t wait.

Last year, Laguarda joined the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a service program affiliated with AmeriCorps that is designed specifically for young people ages 18 to 26. Signing on with the NCCC meant allowing the service group to station her wherever they chose in the Pacific and western United States, toting the vague knowledge that wherever she ended up would be a community in need of assistance.

“I started in Sacramento on a former Air Force base living in former barracks,” she says. “There, you were filled in on what to expect, your stipend, so many things. If you do this, get ready for some PowerPoints!”

Volunteers are assigned to teams of 8 to 12 for the duration of the NCCC year—for better or worse. “I talked with people who said your group can really affect how you’ll look back on this,” Laguarda says. “But you can’t switch. Part of this experience is getting along with people.”

And sleeping in, well, close quarters. “Let me tell you about the housing situation at Joshua Tree,” she laughs. “We lived in a house that was the size of a van. Six people in one room and two in another—and there isn’t a kitchen. We did all those dishes with the help of a hose outside our building. Just go with the flow.”

But in return for the sometimes cramped sleeping arrangements, there were moments of ineffable beauty. “Palm Springs at sunset, the lights twinkling, the sunset a brilliant red,” she says. “And the mountains, the purple, so intense and so big. You can see incredibly far out into this beautiful nature. Trees so high in the majestic quiet Redwood forests, like being in a cathedral, so tall around you that your neck hurts trying to see the treetops.”

Of course, Laguarda also gained just a few skills: pouring concrete and repairing a sidewalk in Happy Camp, California; painting five or six houses in Paradise, California; adding siding to a building in Elkton, Oregon, for a new healthcare clinic (currently, the nearest one is 30 minutes away); installing tile flooring for an elementary school; wielding a pick-ax at Joshua Tree; and using all manner of saws and weed-whackers across locations.

Now that Laguarda has been thrust out of her comfort zone and thrown into dozens of new situations for the good of others, she doesn’t foresee picking out classes and learning the terrain of a college campus as being the major undertaking she might once have thought. After a year of service on the road, Laguarda will head to Harvard in the fall, a member of the Class of ’26—but she won’t be the same young woman she might have been had she remained with her original Class of ’25.

“I see things differently now,” says Laguarda, who plans to major in mechanical engineering. “It doesn’t mean everything in life will be a snap. But I have new problem-solving skills and experiences of taking the unknown and turning it into a strong outcome.” College is just the next adventure. 

Of course, you can’t take a gap year if your parents aren’t on board. For Alana Barry ’17, that was the big question. When she told her parents that she longed to take a gap year doing a program in China, they were circumspect. And so, as any good Sidwell Friends student might, Barry created a PowerPoint presentation for her folks, complete with details and anecdotes from previous Sidwell Friends graduates who took a gap year.

Her parents came around. “They were concerned about the general safety and the security of the program,” says Barry. “For me, there was self-doubt because so many people were doing the more common route of going to college and not taking any time off. There was a lot of comparing myself to my peers and whether there would be a disadvantage. But, in the end, imagining what the experience could be outweighed it all.”

I had become more independent, more mature, and felt more focused on my studies than I would have been. I had had so much freedom to explore, so I was ready to work.”

Her experience, in fact, would show that a gap year is by no means a year off. After finishing in third place in the Chinese Bridge language competition, an annual worldwide Chinese speaking and performance event, Barry won a scholarship and stipend to the Chinese university of her choice. For Barry, it was an opportunity to finish what she had started at Sidwell Friends. “I had been part of a Sidwell study-abroad program that went to China, but it was very structured,” she says. “Now I was going to have a chance to exercise the kind of choice that you can have as an adult.”

Barry chose to study at Fudan University in Shanghai—but it was on the plane ride there that the full weight of what she was doing hit her. “I honestly didn’t have any idea who would greet me when I stepped off the flight,” she says.

“I didn’t know what the school would be like. I hadn’t even seen pictures of the dorms. I didn’t know anyone who had done that specific program in that university.” She was also wistful about leaving home and sad to leave her parents at the airport. “But remember, I was also excited!” she quickly adds. “I had planned this for over a year and now it was finally happening. Even though there was uncertainty, I remember feeling glad about my decision, that I was on my way, and I had a firm sense that it would be really good for me.”

For one semester, Barry focused solely on language courses, resolved to build on the Mandarin studies she had started at Sidwell Friends. But it was during the second semester, she says, that her decision to take a gap year really cohered. “The friendships kicked in at a higher level,” Barry says. “I saw that I might know some of these people for the rest of my life. It’s powerful when you get that sense of being in stride and feeling that way in such a different environment.”

When not attending to her coursework, travel filled out Barry’s gap year. “There were so many sensational moments,” she says. She visited a large panda conservatory, took part in a homestay with a Chinese family, and even participated in a wedding in that family’s village. She and her new friends took “a spur-of-themoment trip off the coast of Shanghai. We organized this beach trip all ourselves, eating seafood and having a terrific chance to bond outside of class. The whole year was comprised of big and small moments—the feeling that I really lived there and didn’t just visit.”

Now Barry, who majored in international studies and East Asian studies, is graduating from Johns Hopkins University. Looking back on her college experience, Barry says: “I was a year older than my peers. I had become more independent, more mature, and felt more focused on my studies than I would have been. I had had so much freedom to explore, so I was ready to work.”

And now that college is over, Barry is about to do it again: She is teaching English in Japan for a year as part of JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching program). “If not for that gap-year experience, I don’t know if I would consider doing this,” she says. “I could be placed anywhere in Japan, and I don’t even know what kind of school I’ll be in. But I’m up for the adventure. I’m ready.”

The Appalachian Trail spans 14 states in all, and is, at times, less than an ideal hike; it is rugged, steep, and grueling. But that’s the point. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not about “ideal”; it is about having the nerve to push yourself, to be bold, to suffer some aches and pains, to experience discipline, and to occasionally find moments of transcendence. And hopefully, you are better off on the other side.

“This is an undertaking,” says David Hauge ’16, letting out a hearty breath. He decided, if he was going to hike for more than four months, he was going to need some friends. Not fellow hikers, at least not for most of it, but authors—lots and lots of authors. “I contacted family, friends, so many people, to find out what books they would recommend,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many audio books you can get through in a few months.” Hauge estimates he listened to 35 titles. He blistered through everything from Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography to Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. They were excellent hiking companions.

Often decked out in three layers and a trusty North Face blue coat (which he used through mid-March and promptly lost before the end of his adventure), and a pack of intelligent supplies at the ready, Hauge began his mostly solo trek.

“You had to be prepared for all kinds of weather,” he says. “It got as cold as a wind-chill factor of -15 degrees in Virginia. A tough moment but luckily, at the time, I was with a few other hikers.” Hauge explains that when the weather gets that cold, hikers will put their water bottles in their sleeping bags, in the hope that their body heat and sub-zero bags will keep it from freezing overnight. Unfortunately, for some of the hikers with Hauge, their bottles did freeze—meaning they would have nothing to drink for the next leg of the hike. “We had to call ahead to a hostel and get pseudo-evacced from the mountain. The weather overall for my time on the Trail wasn’t a negative, but that? That was a little scary.”

Hauge explains that there were three-sided wooden structures peppered throughout the Trail where roughly six to eight people could sleep—though not necessarily comfortably. “When I had company during my time on the Trail, there was just a wide swath of people, and you never knew who you might meet,” he says. “But most of us had a sense of adventure in common. That was part of the fun, feeling like a part of a tradition.”

When shelter wasn’t available, Hauge relied on his one person tent, which was always on standby for deployment and a major factor in the weight of his pack. Experts at REI say your pack shouldn’t be more than 20 percent of your body weight—a tent and food can get you there very quickly. (Hauge wolfed down calorie-rich mainstays such as granola, bagels, waffles, and peanut butter.)

Hauge’s parents were fairly relaxed about his gap year from the start. His supportive mother, in fact, asked just one thing when it came to the Trail: that he regularly turn on a GPS to let her know he was okay. “And I would call my parents to send food,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it, in so many ways, without them.”

Hauge had planned his gap year into three parts: the Trail, an internship, and as a camp counselor. The Trail and the camp of course both featured the natural world, but the internship landed him firmly in the world of 21stcentury technology.

“I spent four months working with a focus on data analytics for The Atlantic’s website,” he says. Staying with his uncle in Morristown, New Jersey, Hauge took public transportation into Manhattan each day. “In the first weeks, I actually had to learn how to code,” he says. “It was a great chance to see what the real world was about.

People were generous in showing me how to do so many things, and even just playing on the company soccer team, it all gave me a sense of how it works to be a part of a workplace. In many ways, it took away the mystery a little bit and I learned a lot.”

For Hauge’s third and final gap-year leg, he landed in Raymond, Maine, at Camp Agawam, a boy’s camp Hauge had attended for half-a-dozen summers. “I taught tennis and I was a counselor. Having a chance to help give kids a terrific summer, like so many I had, that was such a positive way to end this amazing gap year.”

Hauge says that his gap year was due partly to a deep need to turn away from the usual for a while. “I had been in the high school environment of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the college application process was arduous,” he says. “It had been four years of giving 110 percent in this way, and I just needed a break to do something else. When I was done, I had a new appreciation for class. I felt fresh and happy to return. That felt great.”

Hauge graduated from Dartmouth in 2021 with a degree in government. Now he’s on one of the most arduous trails of all: politics. Hauge works on Capitol Hill as a special assistant to Representative Seth Moulton of the Sixth District of Massachusetts. “I’m in operations, focused on helping organize the office and [Moulton’s] day,” he says. “My gap year made me ready for anything and, in my present position, you need to be.”

Even now, Hauge speaks about his gap year and particularly the Trail with a kind of reverence. He will always remember moving through the heft of the Great Smoky Mountains to the panoramic views of Shenandoah National Park, ambling through powerful forestry and taking in the same American landscape generations before had witnessed. “Just all those peaceful moments,” he says. “You feel a very different kind of relaxed.”

Many a great adventure begins with a piping hot cup of coffee. For Alison Steinbach ’14, it began by working at a coffee shop, slinging joe for the summer, and saving all her paychecks. Come fall, Steinbach traded in her apron for a backpack and headed to Nepal for three months. Once in the Land of the Truth, Steinbach immersed herself in the study of the Nepali language, while experiencing a homestay with a local family. Steinbach also had an internship to learn Thangka painting, a Tibetan art also known as “scroll painting” that usually depicts a deity or mandala. Using yak butter, ink, and cloth, Steinbach created a painting of Buddha.

Then it was time for a slight respite—to the expansive, daunting Himalayas. Trekking the famed range for roughly two weeks with her group, Steinbach unzipped her tent each morning to brilliant snow-covered mountains. “Just seeing a picture is jaw-dropping,” says Steinbach. “But to see it in front of you, this huge, open, incredible view is beyond breathtaking.”

After Nepal, Steinbach traveled to China to act as a teaching assistant for John Flower, who teaches Chinese studies and history at Sidwell Friends, for his semester program abroad. “It was a challenge to be in this role when I’d only just recently been in the students’ shoes,” Steinbach says. “This time offered many opportunities, including just starting in the courtyard every morning with the relaxation of tai chi.”

Steinbach finished up her Asian adventure in rural Southwestern China with a friend she met in Nepal. The pair worked on a farm, planting rice, picking a variety of crops, and even building a structure for chickens. It was one more example of what she had hoped to gain during her gap year: learned experience. That’s something she carries with her now as a reporter for The Arizona Republic (she graduated from Harvard in 2019).

“Growing up in a school environment where you are taught to really think about people and culture and lives beyond your own,” she says, how could she not go into the world and explore? “That’s part of what made Sidwell special.”

Growing up in a school environment where you are taught to really think about people and culture and lives beyond your own, that’s part of what made Sidwell special.”

For Roland Spier ’14, ballet was practically right outside his door at Sidwell Friends. Strolling down the street to the Washington School of Ballet, he pushed himself pirouette by pirouette closer to his full potential. So, when graduation loomed, he realized the gravity of the decision before him: Take a gap year with a shot at a real career in professional ballet or continue with his educational success?

Spier grabbed his ballet shoes and boarded a plane for Florida—and the Miami City Ballet School.

“Two of the highlights that year were dancing in Western Symphony and Coppélia,” he says. “I was nervous and excited to think about what I would learn, the people I would meet, and the chance to improve. That year was filled with a chance to embrace a learning curve that could take me to a whole new level.”

Once that year of training was almost up—after all the lessons, determination, and hard work—a new question entered his mind: “Should I make it two gap years?” And, while he was thinking about it, should he continue to train or turn professional (the Colorado Ballet had offered him a place)? Spier decided to continue with another ballet gap year, but he wanted to grow more by staying in training: “This was about finding out my potential.”

So, he took what he calls a “trainee-esque” position at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, an experience with soaring highlights. He danced surrounded by burgundy red, the signature color of McCaw Hall, and leapt before 3,000 audience members. “You do have that distance where you can’t see the audience, but you know they’re out there,” he says. “You’re in your early 20s, and it’s a powerful experience spilling over with adrenalin. Everything is you in the moment and your ability to control it. When they applaud and show that wild approval, it’s magical.” Spier went on to dance in The Nutcracker, in Cavalia, and as a lead in Le Corsaire. But those highs were countered by lows: Spier was besieged by injuries. After two years at the height of the professional dance world, Spier realized it was time to go to college.

“Going back was actually pretty challenging at first: how to navigate the classroom, getting the rhythm of it all,” he says. “But slowly, thankfully, muscle memory kicked in and Sidwell’s preparation for college made it become really comfortable before too long. It felt good.” Spier graduated from Columbia University in 2020 and went on to work in finance.

“I work for a strategy consulting firm, OC&C Strategy Consultants, as a junior consultant and, believe it or not, there is some translation there to dancing,” he says. “There is actually a performance aspect, doing challenging analysis and delivering it. Even shuffling teams after a project is a little like recasting in the ballet. I was always someone who enjoyed both the qualitative and the quantitative, and this blends the two. You compete with yourself to continue to be better. I learned that mentality in the ballet. If I can do five pirouettes, see if you can do six tomorrow. Because, just maybe, you can.”

Clearly, he hasn’t completely moved on from ballet. “I want to say that there isn’t any regret,” he says. “I admit I almost wish I had two lives: one to dance with and one for this other exciting path.”

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