Gap semester travelers bring fresh perspective to campus

Molly Emmett

For many first-year students, last semester was highlighted by discussions about Odysseus and IM football, but a handful of first-years spent it traveling to exotic destinations and learning in alternative ways.

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When some students are admitted to Whitman, they are offered admission for the spring semester instead of the fall.

“Each year, there are a number of qualified, compelling applicants who we’re unable to admit outright for fall, but offer a place in the spring class,” said director of admission Kevin Dyerly in an email.

The school can accommodate these additional students in the spring because more juniors study abroad during the second semester and many seniors do not   register for full course-loads. Thus a small spring class can enter Whitman in January.

“Many of our Jan-starts welcome the opportunity to take a semester off after a grueling high school experience to travel, work, or serve their communities before enrolling at Whitman,” said Dyerly.

Last fall, first-year Jan-start Hilary Painter traveled half-way across the globe to go backpacking in the Himalayas. She was able to do this through a course facilitated by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and it proved to be an invaluable adventure. Along with her group, Painter journeyed from village to village in the northern Uttarakhand province of the mountain range.

“It was an independence builder,” said Painter of her two-month excursion. “It was quite an adventure.”

Compared to days spent hiking in India, the transition to Whitman has been a bit strange, but Painter believes she and her Jan-Start peers have integrated well.

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“I think all of us had our fear of academics and making friends, but we all have Encounters together, so it’s a nice transition back into the academic world,” she said.

First-year Dylan Snyder is another student who took a gap semester during the fall, and he spent his time in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

“I had the option to either go abroad or get a job, and I figured I wouldn’t have time after [finishing] school to go traveling,” said Snyder.

Through an organization called Carpe Diem Education, Snyder took a two-and-a-half month trip through the South Pacific, where he gained an outdoor education through activities such as working on a dairy farm in New Zealand, and scuba diving in Australia.

“The experience taught me to relax, loosen up and prepare for living in the dorms, in close quarters with a person my own age,” said Snyder.

A third member of the spring class, first-year Helena Victor, spent three months of her gap semester in Mexico, also through a NOLS program. She went backpacking, kayaking and sailing in Baja. And though it was a challenge, Victor found the experience extremely rewarding.

“One of the things they really emphasize in their curriculum is ‘tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.’ That was definitely something I needed to work on,” said Victor.

Although her transition back into society was a bit overwhelming, Victor feels the transition into Whitman has been smooth, thanks to the lessons she learned from her time abroad, as well as Whitman’s efforts to make her feel comfortable.

“I feel like my mental stamina has increased tremendously and made me ready for the transition back into an academic environment,” Victor said.  “[Plus,] it’s nice to be surrounded by such inviting people.”