July 7, 2015

Young adults grow in faith, cross-cultural understanding through gap years

Written by  Chris Fretz
Katey Ebaugh (in checkered shirt) gathers with friends for a meal of rice, fried fish, fried tofu, sambal, and peanuts during her gap year in Southeast Asia through EMM’s YES program. Katey Ebaugh (in checkered shirt) gathers with friends for a meal of rice, fried fish, fried tofu, sambal, and peanuts during her gap year in Southeast Asia through EMM’s YES program. Photo provided by Katey Ebaugh.

SALUNGA, Pa. — The practice of taking a gap year between high school and college is growing in popularity, both among young people and educators.

“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,” said J. Richard Thomas, superintendent of Lancaster Mennonite Schools (LMS). “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.”

Over the past 10 years, 29 graduates from LMS have served in YES or GO!, two short-term service programs offered by Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM), and numerous graduates from other high schools have also joined them in gap year service.

Katey Ebaugh, who was part of the 2013-2014 Southeast Asia YES team, was hesitant to consider a gap year, but became a strong advocate for the idea after having a good experience.

“Initially, I was afraid of how my family and friends would respond to my decision,” said Ebaugh. “To my surprise, they were very supportive and my church blessed me in so many ways. My experience of living and serving in another culture was incredibly eye-opening, challenging, and transformational. I experienced God and people in ways I never had before.”

Zachary Garber, who served on the 2005-2006 Kenya YES team, also had a powerful experience during his gap year.

“I learned a lot from watching some of our host families,” said Garber. “While their lives were very different from mine at home, they struggled with some of the same questions: How do you follow Christ when His commands conflict with cultural norms? How do we live out the Great Commission? How do we disciple our young people? Seeing the gospel lived out in a completely different context was a refreshing reminder of how powerful and universal the message of Christ is.”

Garber was so deeply impacted by his time in Kenya that several years later, he and his wife, Sarah, decided to mentor other young people taking a gap year by leading the 2010-2011 Himalayas YES team.

Many YES participants observe that they learn important lessons in the midst of difficult moments.

"It was very challenging spiritually, emotionally, and physically because of the new culture and having no idea how to do anything,” said Ebaugh. “However, the challenges led me to fully surrender to God and be transformed to be more like Christ.”

Hadassah Stoltzfus, member of the 2014-2015 Chile YES team, was surrounded by the Spanish language and said she now knows what it is like to feel completely isolated because of a language barrier. “After experiencing this, I hope to be more inclusive of people for whom English might be a second language, or who simply have a hard time fitting in,” she said.

As colleges see the benefits of taking a gap year, they are working to accommodate students who take a year off. Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Eastern University, Hesston College, Messiah College, and others allow students to defer enrollment for a year. Hesston College is also willing to defer scholarships for students taking a gap year.

“It is not a wasted year,” said Garber. “I found that when I returned to college, my perspective on life was so much broader than that of my peers. There were a lot of people around me who seemed to need to make decisions about majors and the careers they wanted to pursue, but what they really needed was more time to learn about the world around them and how they fit into God's plan for the world.”

Moved by faith, gap participants are stepping into what they believe God is calling them to do.

“Sometimes you cannot see the results of what you are doing or what God’s plan is in all of it,” said Stoltzfus. “But God is still good. Jesus is still worth it, and I am learning to believe that God’s plan is bigger than what I am capable of seeing.”