When I greeted new students at Opening Convocation Under the Oaks at the start of the year, 15 members of the Class of 2017 were absent. These students’ semester had already begun 2,000 miles away as part of the Elon Gap Semester Program, an innovative alternative way to begin university studies.
Now in its second year, the program has three distinctive phases: 1) a three-and-a-half week leadership and wilderness experience at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS); 2) a series of four service experiences at a Native American reservation in South Dakota, a nonprofit dedicated to providing fresh food to inner-city residents of St. Louis, Mo.; an opportunity to study Appalachian culture and the impacts of the coal mining industry in southeastern Kentucky; and a Washington, D.C., experience focusing on the systemic issue of homelessness; and 3) a six-week study abroad experience in Costa Rica, which includes a home stay with a local family and study at the Elon Center in San Jose.
I was delighted to catch up with these adventurous members of the Class of 2017, along with program director Steve Morrison and Professor Phil Miller of the human service studies department at Elon, for two days in mid-September at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Having just arrived at RE-MEMBER, a nonprofit dedicated to cultural understanding and improving life on the Oglala Lakota reservation, the students were thrilled to find the bunk beds in our cabin following their three weeks of wilderness camping.
The rates of unemployment, teen suicide and alcoholism at Pine Ridge, combined with poor living conditions for many and lack of ready access to healthy food, made an indelible impression on us all. On a service day at a local school, clearly an anchor institution within the community, we were impressed by capable and dedicated teachers and school counselors at work. After-dinner lectures by tribal elders amplified both pride of the Lakota in their great heritage and the systemic challenges of life on the reservation. Time in the cabin before bedtime gave students an opportunity to discuss what they had witnessed that day, as well as to work on journals and reflection papers.
When I returned to campus, I interviewed three members of the Class of 2016—Cat Hollister, Corey Shegda and Dan Zangmeister—who participated in the inaugural year of the Gap Semester, and asked them to reflect on their experiences. Here are some of their thoughts.
Corey: I’m an Elon tour guide, and I recommend the program to every student I meet. I loved it. It was the best experience of my life.
Cat: NOLS affirmed for me a broad perspective of my place in the world. I realize how small each of us is in the larger world, yet that you can still have influence on the world around you. … You realize your experience can still be rich living with simplicity.
Dan: I learned tolerance of adversity and uncertainty, and being OK at facing challenging conditions and learning how not to freak out.
Corey, Cat and Dan told me stories about feeling like an outsider for the first time in their lives, of learning to depend on each other every day, of strong bonds and a special and lasting closeness of the group, of being pushed to their limits, of gaining perspective on what real challenge is all about, of getting to know people without the distractions of texting and technology, and of immersion in a new culture and language.
Certainly the program is not for everyone. Corey cautioned that students must be willing to adapt to new surroundings and unplug from cellphones. And students who are not interested in serving others aren’t appropriate for Gap.
My belief is that the Gap Semester Program is tailor-made for a young person seeking perspective, wanting time to reflect on their place in the world before beginning a traditional university semester, committed to exploring life outside often relatively privileged communities, seeking deep bonds with 14 soon-to-be-lifelong friends and testing their limits in the most constructive ways. I predict the overall Elon educations of Gap Semester graduates will be immeasurably enriched by their non-traditional start. They will have a jumpstart on what it means to think like a global citizen.
Leo M. Lambert