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The first students to participate in the Gap Experience will graduate in May, and some say they’ll take the tools they earned in their very first semester with them long after Commencement.

Gap Experience Has Lasting Impact on Program’s First Cohort

Peyton Going ’18 hasn’t quite traveled to all four corners of the earth, but with passport stamps from Uganda, Israel, Palestine and the Caribbean, she’s not far off. She says her passion to see the world and experience new things stems from her first semester as a St. Norbert College student – when she forwent the typical college semester and opted instead for an experience that focused on leadership and service.

Going was part of the inaugural group in the Gap Experience, a semester-long experiential service-learning program that takes first-year students off campus to build relationships, gain leadership skills, and meet the needs of rural and urban communities, both domestically and internationally.

That first cohort of Gap program students will walk across the stage during Commencement in May, and some say they’ll be doing so with new tools and perspectives that can be traced back to their participation in Gap. 

“I more openly and willingly – maybe it’s just in a different way – seek out ways to get out of my comfort zone, especially through experiential learning,” Going says. She says that came from the first leg of the Gap Experience – spending a month in northern Minnesota at Voyageur Outward Bound, an outdoor education program.

“The whole first portion, the Voyageur Outward Bound portion, had the biggest impact just because we were out in the woods together for a month, just really secluded – no phones or anything,” she says. “It just really gets you outside of your comfort zone in a way. It’s just different.” 

Joseph Beck ’18 agrees: “I remember well my Outward Bound experience and how it showed me that I didn’t need to be afraid to try new things, that I could conquer my fears and find joy in the things that would have intimidated me before.”

Instead of beginning their college careers on campus, the eight students in the inaugural Gap group spent their first semester developing their leadership and communication skills while backpacking in northern Minnesota and whitewater rafting on the San Juan River in Utah, doing service projects in Chicago and Tennessee, and taking part in a six-week service experience in St. Lucia in the Caribbean.

“I most remember being in Chicago, working with people and hearing their stories about the struggles and adversities that they face,” Beck says. “The Gap Experience helped me to be more receptive and understanding of other people’s struggles and difficulties in life, and inspired me to want to help change the world for the better, even if it is by small kindnesses every day.”

The students began the service portion of the Gap semester in Chicago, working with the Brother David Darst Center, a social-justice education center. Afterward, they headed to rural areas of Tennessee, working with the Once Upon a Time organization. The semester wrapped up with six weeks of service in St. Lucia, where students worked with the Good News Project, an initiative founded by St. Norbert alumni that works to fulfill needs domestically and abroad through service opportunities.

Going says Gap’s service work was a formative experience and led her to a major in international studies with a minor in peace and justice.

“It definitely introduced me more to having an interest in society and history, and how [the world] got this way,” she says, adding that Gap helped open her eyes to the everyday lives of others throughout the world. 

“A lot of times, it feels like we’re super connected and informed based on what we read or see on television, but it’s harder to actually grasp or empathize – it’s harder to understand that these are people’s actual lives and realities. Versus, you go someplace and actually see it and you’re surrounded by it, and see, ‘OK, this is like a real place with real people, not just something you see on the news,’ ” Going says. “Making that connection that these things aren’t always super far away, the things we read about and hear about. Because it’s hard if all you ever know is what’s around you. You can understand – but you can’t.”

Both Going and Beck continued seeking experiential-learning opportunities after the Gap Experience. Going signed up for the Israel-Palestine educational trip the first year it was offered by the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding. Later, she studied abroad for a semester in Uganda. Beck spent a semester studying abroad at University College Cork, Ireland.

“I was definitely more prepared to tackle the challenges of studying abroad because of my Gap experience,” says Beck, who plans to pursue a Master of Science in Recreation with an emphasis on recreational therapy at Indiana University.

After graduation, Going plans to intern with Voyageur Outward Bound. She is considering where her path will lead her next, but she hopes to work as a facilitator of experiential education opportunities. 

“The choice is all mine what I want to do next, and that’s kind of overwhelming,” she says. “I’ve had this feeling a lot – going into the unknown, doing something unknown, and I know that it’s always kind of scary when I do it. But then you get there, and you start, and you figure it out and it just becomes normal. So, I’m sure it’s going to be fine and I’m sure it’s going to happen again. It’s just always uncomfortable being like, ‘I don’t quite know what’s next.’ ”

But, she says, through her experience with the Gap program, she now has the tools and the strength to take that uncertainty head on.

May 8, 2018