In Celebration of Yonder
For those of us who work with and care about the development of young adults, it quickly becomes evident that, as a society, Americans have largely abdicated responsibility for teaching teenagers about things that are critically important for navigating adulthood, such as responsible substance use, basic personal finance, relationships, social responsibility, feelings, sex, integrity, and wholeness/spirituality. Working with teens, we quickly learn that many parents are confused and/or lost in adolescence, that our system of compulsory schooling has lost touch with the needs of students, and that the social webs of our society don’t encourage teens to thrive. These problems have been thoroughly documented by John Taylor Gatto, Bill Plotkin and Christian Smith, among others.
My intent is not to focus on these problems, which can be daunting and depressing, but to introduce you to one approach that has proven successful over the past 14 years.
In our previous lives as educators and gap year counselors, Cassie Bull and I noticed that by the time many teens reached us by age 17 or 18, their organic human wholeness had been significantly diminished and/or damaged. They hadn’t developed a reliable cognitive framework for healthy growth and evolution, or they were emotionally wounded or stunted, out of touch with their own bodies or confused about their own values. Their passage into adulthood was compromised, and we didn’t know of existing programs that would address these foundational issues in healthy ways. So in 2002, rather than continuing to refer students to colleges or gap year opportunities that ignored these issues, we created a college program called LEAPYEAR to demonstrate that a healthy foundation for a life can be reclaimed with a reasonable amount of effort and attention, within existing academic structures.
Our intent was to work with emerging adults, ages 17 and older, to help them build or rebuild a solid foundation for moving consciously and gracefully into adulthood, aiming for each person to begin to release the potential locked within them. We chose 17, because at this age most people can begin to re-school and re-parent themselves.
We chose to embed the program within the existing college framework, so that anyone able to access college and financial aid could do our program, so that parents could countenance the “leap” to another way of learning, and so that the program can be replicated within existing social structures.
Like many freshman years of college, the program has two semesters that run from September to May. But rather than sitting passively in a classroom in the U.S., and learning indirectly through lectures and reading, LEAPYEAR students travel and learn experientially in India or Latin America for 10 weeks in their first semester. In their second semester, they do a 12-week individual internship.
Bracketing these periods of intensive travel, are four residential retreats in the U.S. totaling 2 months, during which students focus on their inner journey. At the mid-point of the program, there is a 3-day formal rite of passage that parents are required to attend, to let their “child” go and give them their blessing. Three days after this formal ceremony, rather than returning to a known environment, each student travels to an individual internship that they have spent 3-4 months choosing from a menu of over 6,000 options. Imagine how much more potency the rite of passage ceremony has for a parent or student, knowing that in 3 days the student will be getting on a plane to South America or Africa, alone, to enact adulthood for 3 months in a new way.
Rather than focusing on mastering academic content chosen for them by well-meaning educational experts, students learn for themselves through homestays, one-on-one language immersion, yoga retreats, daily movement and mindfulness practice, Himalayan treks, extended stints of volunteer work, cooking and baking, doing landscaping and carpentry – a series of “whole” activities that can only be accomplished with one’s entire body and full engagement. Many students report “coming to life” and feeling more alive than they can remember since starting school. Immersing yourself in daily life in Nepal and India for three months establishes a global context for your life that studying geography in Denver simply can’t match.
A foundational value throughout the program is “integrity” or alignment with yourself. We break it down into four key skills that no one should be without: feeling your feelings, telling the truth, making and keeping agreements, and expressing your creativity. These are learned about in all of the contexts that a community of 10 to 30 students create together. Each learning cohort is small enough to feel communal. Within this tribe, this intentional family, we learn ways of communicating that bring us together rather than divide.
The program design supports conscious differentiation from parents and engagement with the greater world. The first semester includes group travel, support of adult leaders and peers, and a choice between Asia and Latin America, with a progression to much more choice and independence in the second semester. In this way, the world literally IS the classroom, and each student is encouraged to explore their world for 6 months in ways that reflect what they love doing.
International travel is both effective and efficient as a way to forward personal development at this life phase. Traveling to the other side of the planet and being a “stranger” serves the dramatic nature of young people, and it helps them to break open the “husk” of boredom or jaded entitlement they may have developed while growing up in their hometown.
The transition from high school to college or a gap year is a perfect time to make a conscious passage because it also includes the passages from family to independence and adolescence into adulthood. In the words of David Whyte, “There are certain harvests that never come to us again if they are not gathered in season.” Rather than leaving young adults to their own devices in college to initiate each other through substance use, unconscious sex, and other risky behaviors, this is an ideal time for generous adults to come in close, provide healthy structure and environments for exploration, introduce evocative questions, encourage deep listening and exploration, and assist students to align with their essential natures.
As we leave home and begin to travel in foreign environments (here or abroad), it is utterly appropriate to wrestle with the central question, “who am I?” This is a time when humans are naturally full of hope and idealism, qualities that must be fed if they are not to languish. Though the program design is very important, the heart of the program and the indispensable element is the involvement of what we term generous adults, initiated adults who are alive with their own engagement with life, and who are willing to share their fire with young adults. Without their wisdom, witnessing and love, the program would warm, but it wouldn’t reliably transform. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, “through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”
The primary goal of LEAPYEAR is to create an environment, intention and activities that allow a young adult to map who they are, align themselves with what they are, and begin to risk being themselves. Implied in this approach is the idea that “each person is this astonishing sacred frontier of experience that has never appeared before in the whole of time, and never, ever, will appear again.” (David Whyte) Working at this frontier is not an easy thing – it takes time, attention and practice. In the words of Miles Davis, “It takes a long time to play like yourself.” The program lasts for 9 months, long enough to give each student a chance to slow down, listen in, and explore what they “plan to do with (their) one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver) They are afforded the chance to get a life before they get the rest of their education.
Students complete LEAPYEAR with their first year of college under their belt, as well as radically enhanced emotional literacy, an ability to travel and live in strange new environments, a grounded sense of what they love and how they might express it in the world, and having positioned their life in a meaningful global and inner context. One graduate expressed it best when he said:
“I have obtained a worldview, climbed a volcano, found love, SCUBA dived in Madagascar, learned a language, stood on pyramids, learned to live consciously, hugged a baobab tree, and the list goes on. Life is my journey, and my journey has a purpose. I have discovered my personal legend; I have never felt so enthused to dive into the unknown.“