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LOOSE ENDS 2/7: The benefits of taking a gap year at any age

By Pam Hersh

For the past 40 years, a Princeton-based business known as the Center for Interim Programs has been dealing with a lot of stress — other people’s stress.

Media in the past few months have reported how high schools, including Princeton, are dealing with “the epidemic of anxiety” (the words of the National Education Association — March 28, 2018) among high school students. Interim has a strategy for mitigating student stress and anxiety. It specializes in ‘gap-year’ adventures and experiential, hands-on, learning projects configured to fit the passions and personalities of the students. And even if an individual is unencumbered by depression and anxiety, students who have participated in gap-year programs report the experiences are transformative, and provide lessons and skills that last a lifetime, according to Interim President Holly Bull.

“What I am seeing is a crazy increase in stress, anxiety, depression, and medications for treating these ailments. The students are tired….The level of energy depletion is really high. The mental state knocks the stuffing out of an 18-year-old,” Bull said.

“The gap-year adventures that we plan are very energizing, and provide a break from the aspects of schooling and other issues in their lives that are weighing them down,” she said, noting there are scholarships for individuals who lack the resources to engage in a gap-year program.

Another factor to consider, Bull said, is the gap year can contribute to a more affordable education because gap students generally finish college in four or fewer years. On average, college students in New Jersey are taking six years to get a four-year degree.

“But what about helping old people who are suffering high levels of stress and anxiety?” I
asked. I was thrilled to learn Interim never engages in age discrimination, when it considers whom to take as a client.

Interim has “golden gappers” programs, aka “denture ventures” for those non-high school seniors — just seniors, as well as and programs for middle-age muddlers, who want not just an getaway but an experiential adventure that would set them on a new direction in life. Since the only gap-year adventure in my life has been occasional five-minute gaps that I fill by watching people in Small World and Starbucks, I started fantasizing about a gap adventure for myself.

“We definitely could create a program to fit your love of coffee,” said my longtime friend Kate Warren, director of research at Interim and an accredited gap-year counselor, and the inspiration for my interest in this gap-year planning service.

Cornelius Bull, the now deceased father of company president Holly Bull, founded Interim in 1980. His career in academia as a teacher and headmaster led him to conclude there was a need for a complementary path of learning through hands-on, in-the-world experience. He compiled a comprehensive database of program options, and the Center for Interim Programs was created as the first independent gap-year counseling organization in the USA. Its purpose was to assist students in making an effective transition from high school to college and getting them to evaluate what they wanted to achieve in their college careers and beyond.

Holly Bull estimated the Center for Interim Programs, LLC has helped 8,000 students and hundreds of adults create a year of experiential learning, custom-made for each individual client, said Bull, who at the age of 17 did a gap year in Hawaii as a marine biology intern.

Warren gave me examples of gap-year experiences that took three clients of different ages to faraway places for the purpose of engaging in medicine in Nepal, stone masonry in Romania, cuisine in Italy, animal conservancy in Africa, and ants research in the Southwestern United States desert.

Dennis, said Warren, first came to Interim on the eve of his 60th birthday.  He had a medical practice and a teaching position in North Carolina at the time.  His interests were varied — construction, welding, archeology, eastern medicine, masonry, antiques, and more.

He wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday in an unusual way: to be culturally immersed in Nepal, where he could trade his western medicine knowledge for an opportunity to explore eastern medicine firsthand. He traveled to Nepal and lived for two months with a physician and his family who helped him celebrate “his Saturn return just the way he envisioned,” said Warren. (Every 27 to 29 years, Saturn returns to the sign it was in when you were born, a cycle called The Saturn Return. The belief is that understanding this cosmic rite of passage can help you advance into your next stage of adulthood.)

The following spring, Dennis apprenticed with an antique furniture restoration expert in Lambertville, where he learned the fine art of French polish. Another adventure that year was helping to rebuild a castle wall in Romania.

“For several years after his 60th birthday adventures, he would call and ask about other areas of interest. His last request was for me to find him a steam locomotive that he could help restore. He worked the rails during his high school and college years, and longed to work with his hands restoring an old steamer. Unfortunately, Dennis passed away before he embarked on that adventure,” said Bull.

Tari, at the age of 54, contacted Interim when she felt burned out and craving a new direction in her life. Her interests were varied — spirituality, physical work outdoors, and wildlife conservation.

She spent the late summer and fall of her gap experience at a Buddhist monastery in France, and worked on organic farms in exchange for room and board. She then headed to Siena to learn about Italian cuisine. The following winter, she went to South Africa, where she worked with animals and volunteered with an organization working with underserved kids in the townships.

After her gap experiences, she changed careers — attended a tour-guide training course and now is working successfully and creatively as a travel agent.

And then there was Jack, a more conventional Interim client. The 18-year-old was unsure about taking a gap year before heading off to college, so he was a bit reluctant during the brainstorming session. He challenged Bull, and indicated he would partake in a gap year, only if Interim found an opportunity for him to do “research about eusocial behavior (showing an advanced level of social organization) with naked mole rats!”

“First, we had to look up ‘eusocial’ LOL! Well, I did find him a eusocial research placement (not with naked mole rats), but with a professor who has been studying the same ant hills in the southwest for 30 years.

“When I contacted her, she told me she only awarded intern opportunities to college juniors and seniors. I implored her to consider Jack, because at the age of 17, Jack had read every scholarly paper written by a famous Harvard professor who dedicated his life to the study of eusocial behavior among ants.

“The researcher granted Jack, despite his young age, a position among her college-age researchers. She was amazed by his attention to detail…. His gap year included his eusocial behavior research, tutorials in cosmology and creative writing in the UK, an internship at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, volunteer animal conservation work with baboons in South Africa and another summer in the desert with the professor before heading off to college,” said Bull.

Even though Jack is no longer doing eusocial behavior research on ants or naked mole rats, he has found success in the computer technology field, where he employs the discipline, focus and attention to detail he perfected in his gap year.

I certainly have no interest in ants or naked mole rats or even harmless furry hamsters. With the amount of time I spend drinking coffee, however, maybe I can become a coffee roaster and coffee connoisseur. I could write eloquent coffee descriptions on the bags of exotic coffees — and travel to every place in the world that grows coffee beans. I already can taste and smell my golden-gap adventure.

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