Brianna Medearis was a dream candidate for a gap-year program of study abroad. Bright and focused, Medearis, 21, headed to South America in 2014, where she improved her Spanish skills, visited children in orphanages and became certain that she wanted to pursue nonprofit work after college to better the lives of the less fortunate.
“I feel like I can conquer the world,” Medearis said.
Her heartening optimism is common among young people of means who pursue gap-year adventures to Europe, China or Africa before leaping into college.
Uncommon is Medearis herself, who in no way is a young person of means.
One of five children of a divorced stay-at-home mother and truck driver father living outside Portland, Ore., she is the first in her family to pursue a college education. The idea of studying in Peru and Ecuador was so outside her father’s reality that she “kind of just dropped it on him,” she said.
“It’s always been like walking on eggshells for money, which is why I never wanted to pursue these things.”
Sadly, many young people with Medearis’ potential never will pursue these things. While innovative programs are lifting low-income students into college in greater numbers than ever — and Minnesota is a leader in this regard — mind-expanding, life-changing gap-year programs, typically taken between high school and college, remain the bastion of the haves.
“The equity issue is front and center,” said David Weerts, director of the Jandris Center for Innovative Higher Education at the University of Minnesota.
“If you go to Europe for a year, you’re probably not saving a lot of money,” he said. This is likely doable for kids of means, he said. For others, delaying entering college and, eventually, the labor market, coupled with parents mystified by the value of sending their children to countries they may have been happy to escape, leaves gap years largely out of reach.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also found a “social-class gap” in gap years. More affluent young people travel abroad or work in well-paid internships in professions they’re considering, said Goldrick-Rab, whose lab studies effective ways to help more low-income students complete college.
Their delay before attending college averages 4½ months.
Less affluent young people take an average of 13 extra months before entering college. Their gap year, Goldrick-Rab noted with frankness, is “a year working at KFC or Culver’s.”
The divide isn’t just about money. It’s about dreams.
“I’ve listened to class discussions where students are talking about how many countries they’ve been to, and other students have never left rural Wisconsin,” she said.
“They don’t need to have been in Paris five times,” she said. “But they would love to be able to say, ‘I did something in my life that wasn’t about working or paying for my parents’ needs.’ These are extraordinary kids who have demonstrated overcoming so much adversity.”
Model gap years
Fortunately, many extraordinary low-income kids are getting to college, particularly in Minnesota.
The Power of YOU program, for example, covers the cost of tuition and fees for two years, or up to 72 credits, at Minneapolis Community and Technical College or St. Paul College. Costs are covered by state and federal grants and private scholarships.
The up2U program gives students a start at Minnesota State Community and Technical College, with an opportunity to transfer later to Minnesota State University, Moorhead, or St. Cloud State.
And PSEO (postsecondary enrollment option) allows Minnesota high school students to earn college credit free of charge. Nearly 21,000 students took advantage of concurrent enrollment in 2014, said Doug Anderson, spokesman for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
What’s needed now is similar creativity to fully fund gap-year programs for deserving students with limited financial resources.
Inspiration is out there, including respected exchange programs for teens and young adults through Diversity Abroad, Rotary International, AFS and Youth for Understanding, which continue to reach out to nontraditional candidates.
Sam Bull, director of 21-year-old California-based Leap Now, has sent at least 1,600 students on gap-year adventures. Fully 50 percent of his young travelers, he said, have found significant financial help through federal financial aid, need-based scholarships and private scholarships of up to $12,000. One success story was the daughter of a felon who won a $28,000 scholarship, plus federal financial aid, and traveled overseas.
“The gap year is needed for these kids more” than for other kids, Bull said. “You begin to understand that the world is your playground. You begin to understand that you don’t have to be confined to the world you grew up in.”
Medearis carved a new path through Carpe Mundi, a Portland-based nonprofit, one of the few focusing on gap years for lower income students.
“I thought, ‘There has to be a better way to do this,’ ” said Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association. He created Carpe Mundi to mentor low-income students and piece together financial resources to send them abroad.
“Mother Teresa talked about the destitution of spirit and the destitution of means,” Knight said. “We have remediation around means, but the destitution of spirit is completely forgotten about. That’s the knowledge that you have it within you to be more than the assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant.
“It comes down to the possibility of being more.”
First, though, Knight must help these students believe that message by overcoming hurdles that others don’t face.
“Their parents are often skeptical,” Knight said. “We’re outsiders, taking them to far-off places, and the students often feel like they are abandoning their family, emotionally and financially, since they frequently contribute to their family through work.”
A few students have pulled out of his program midway, he said. But many more have succeeded.
Watch for them to lead us.
“In high school, I had a lot of drive, but I never knew where to go,” Medearis said. “Carpe Mundi took me in. They showed me how to travel, better my life, set goals.
“Coming back, I looked at everything with a new set of eyes,” said Medearis, who spent only about $300 for the entire yearlong program. “My situation isn’t the best in the States, but I have running water. I have hot water.
“I’m just grateful. Grateful.”