June 23, 2015

GAP YEAR: An educator's perspective

Written by  J. Richard Thomas
2015 LMS graduate Katie Rutt talks with LMS Superintendent Dick Thomas about her upcoming gap year in Honduras. She will serve at an orphanage called Casa Feliz through EMM's GO! program. 2015 LMS graduate Katie Rutt talks with LMS Superintendent Dick Thomas about her upcoming gap year in Honduras. She will serve at an orphanage called Casa Feliz through EMM's GO! program. Photo by Gary Hiller.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

"A wise person changes his/her mind, but a fool never does.” This is one of many sayings that I recall from my parents. It continues to guide me and helps me better understand life. Not all mind changes indicate wisdom, but neither is wisdom indicated by refusing to be open to the Spirit, conversations with others, or personal observation. 

A recent mind change for me has been my move from opposing a gap year between high school and college to supporting a gap year for many students. This break between high school and college has long been a tradition in Europe, and there has been a 20% increase in the number of students in the U.S. taking a gap year between 2006 and 2014.

Gap year benefits
Data is showing that “gap year students” demonstrate improved academic performance and experience easier job placement upon graduation. In addition, they:

  • Overwhelmingly report being satisfied with their jobs after college
  • Have a better sense of who they are as persons
  • Have a better understanding of other countries, people, and ways of living
  • Have additional skills and knowledge that contribute to their academic major and career
  • Report that a gap year had an impact on their academic major and career

Forbes Magazine says that “many of the benefits of taking a gap year are difficult to quantify: maturity, confidence, and a refined sense of direction.” Ethan Knight of the American Gap Association says that a gap year helps students to answer questions about themselves and to define what success looks like to them.

Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) offers an eight-month discipleship adventure that serves as a gap year option following high school. It is described as an opportunity to "travel, serve others, God, and the world.” Some call this CMU program “a spiritual pilgrimage because everyone comes back changed in some way.”

Closer to home, OneLife Institute partners with Lancaster Bible College to provide a gap year experience designed to “get distracted lives focused on one reason to live." OneLife offers an intense discipleship culture in which students interact with professors, staff members, and mentors in a relationship-oriented environment. The program is directed by Derek Melleby of Mount Joy Mennonite Church.

I began to rethink the gap year based on a number of factors:

  • Learning about the CMU program
  • Working with international students at Lancaster Mennonite High School
  • Observing students for many years, and realizing that an extra year before college can be beneficial for their success in college and beyond

More than just a year off
A gap year needs to be more than just a year off between high school and college. It needs to be planned to take the student beyond his/her comfort zone, to include time away from home (often in another country), and to involve service and spiritual growth.

EMM offers a faith-based gap year experience that includes holistic personal growth and being a witness to the way of Jesus Christ in our world. It is gratifying to see our church agencies provide Anabaptist faith-infused gap year programs that lead to self-understanding, adventure, and growth in maturity and in the way of Jesus.

During the past ten years 29 LMH graduates have spent a gap year serving through short-term EMM programs. Other graduates have served in programs such as Radical Journey (Mennonite Mission Network), SALT (Mennonite Central Committee), and YWAM (Youth With a Mission) discipleship training schools.

One of the members of the class of 2015 is taking a gap year serving with EMM in Honduras. I believe this will build on her LMH experience and equip her for success in college and career because of the proven benefits of the gap year experience.

So while fifteen years ago I discouraged a gap year, now I encourage consideration of this experience through one of our church agencies’ programs. Consideration of a gap year is one more mind change for me — and hopefully a wiser perspective on this valuable option for our young people. mm

Dick Thomas serves as superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite School. He enjoys observing the transformation of lives brought about by a Christ-centered educational community.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.