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Gap Year Experiences of Young WA Alumni

Gap Year Experiences of Young WA Alumni

Tori Cochrum ’16 (2nd from left) during her gap year in the Northwoods.

Until this past August, Tori Cochrum ’16 was planning on doing what the majority of her Wheaton Academy classmates were about to do: start college. But then Tori’s parents suggested she investigate Vanguard, Wheaton College’s gap year program held at HoneyRock Camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Students in the Vanguard program work at the campgrounds, receive vocational training, participate in spiritual formation classes, have monthly seminar sessions with Wheaton College professors, and go on two mission trips. Tori changed her plans, and now, three months into her year at Vanguard, she is glad she did. “Taking a gap year has helped me pause and really think about life and faith. Being in an area so remote, we rarely use technology. I have time to process and reflect and ask hard questions, and I’m learning so much about faith and myself as a person.” Tori is not alone in feeling this way. In the past few years, several Academy graduates have chosen to postpone their entry into a four-year college. In the interim they’ve attended schools overseas, taken classes at community colleges, gotten jobs, and served with mission organizations and churches. No matter how different their experiences have been, they all say this: they learned things in that time they would not have if they’d gone directly on to college. 


 “I always felt tied down by school,” said Joel Swick ‘13. “There is a small window of time in our lives to travel the world, so I chose to take advantage of my year from school to do that.” The day after Joel graduated from WA, he flew to Cordova, Alaska, where he worked for the summer as a salmon fisherman. He credits his Winterim ARRR U Prepared sailing trip with helping him get the fishing job, and he is grateful to trip leader and teacher Matt Dominguez for encouraging him to pursue unique experiences. “He even gave me a tent and sleeping bag when I told him I was going backpacking the first time! The sailing trip is one of the highlights of my life. It led to the job salmon fishing, which fueled my adventures for the next two years of my life, as it landed me some great connections and jobs designing for many clients in the Pacific Northwest.”

After the fishing season ended in August, Joel moved to Nashville, TN, where he worked as a waiter and freelanced as a photographer and videographer for musicians. When he wasn’t working, he traveled. “I learned a lot about myself in that time. Wheaton Academy is a school that thrives on community and full student involvement. One great benefit of that is it instilled a serving mindset in me; it instilled service into my work ethic, but, at the same time, sometimes you’re so involved, you lose the ability to become introspective. Stepping away from it all helped me figure out what fuels me and also what is unhealthy for me. I was prideful in my independence during my gap year. One day, just being spontaneous, I bought a flight to California to hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail. I was out there all alone in the desert for a week. I quickly learned that happiness is real when it’s shared.

“It was difficult not being involved in a solid community due to the amount of travel I was doing,” he said. This realization took him back to a major value he learned at WA. “[The Academy taught me to] find a community and invest in it. God works through community; whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, you need people around you. [You need] true community, people with a heart for God gathering to know God better. Wheaton Academy was my first exposure to good community and I did not realize the value of it until I left.” 

The gap year gave Joel time to fully explore what he wanted from his education. He sat in on classes at universities in both Illinois and Nashville but eventually chose to study online through Full Sail University. 

“I currently have one more year left of school and will be graduating on time with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. I have not once regretted my decision,” Joel said. “It’s allowed me to explore options and travel while in school, working in any location and still getting an education.”

Ben Kopp ’14 also took a year off to work, but he chose to do it locally so he could get more involved at his church. “I wasn’t really ready for going to college, and I just felt like God was calling me to do this,” he said. “It was difficult having all my classmate friends away at school and now having them a year ahead of me, but I benefitted from getting a job I can work at during breaks (now that I’m in college), and I learned God can use you wherever you are, even if that means you don’t follow the general course for education. I was able to minister to various types of people, both religious and not. I would do it again; it was an incredible opportunity.” 


During her first year following the Academy, Heidi Engebretsen ’15 took classes full-time at the College of DuPage (COD) while working half-time at a tea/coffee shop. “Mostly it was a financial decision,” she said. “I had the opportunity to still go to school full-time and stay on track with my college education while earning and saving money instead of accruing debt.” 

Now a graphic design and communications major at Judson University, Heidi says her year at COD was difficult and challenging but she grew through it. “I suddenly had no Christian school, teachers, or friends surrounding me every day to keep me accountable in my Christian walk. Last year I began to understand how disciplined and intentional I need to be about making my faith my own. I learned about the importance of church and how essential it is to be invested and deeply involved and about how important it is to surround myself with friends, small group members, and older mentors for encouragement. 

“In complete honesty, last year was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Community college is an extremely different experience than a traditional 4-year school. Everyone is commuting and constantly coming and going, making it feel almost impossible to create any type of real friendship. I struggled a lot with loneliness last year, feeling like no one could relate to my different college experience. Thankfully, [this] led me closer to my family, my best friends from high school, and, most importantly, to Christ. I can’t say if, [given the choice], I would go to community college again or not… but what I can say is the Lord cared for me and held me through it all. I rest in the truth that God cares for me enough to not necessarily let me experience college the same way all my friends are, but to experience college in the way that is right for me. I saw His faithfulness and goodness through all the highs and lows this past year.”


Will Ferris ‘14 also took classes at COD, but he did this through Eikon, a nine-month discipleship program run by Calvary Church in Naperville, IL. Students in the program live in community, take classes and study together, and are heavily involved in ministry at Calvary. Will primarily worked with the high school program there, planning services, events, and outreach, including an after-school program in a low-income neighborhood in Aurora. At the end of the year he took part in a trip to Slovakia, where he and other team members held day programs and Bible studies for children in the Roma-Gypsy communities. “I joined this program because I felt God was leading me towards it all through my senior year. I had applied and been accepted elsewhere, but nothing else felt right,” Will said. “I’ve gained a bit more insight into the way God guides his people through my decision to join the program. Throughout it, I learned how to work, both physically and mentally, beyond what I could have had I chosen a different route.” 

From September to August of the year following his WA graduation, Josh Mangis ’11 was involved in Mission Year, a program which calls itself an “entry point into a lifestyle of faith, community, service, and justice, [of] com[ing] alongside what God is doing in the city by partnering with local churches, non-profits, leaders, activists, and neighbors who are transforming their communities.” Mission Year operates in Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, and Josh spent his year in the Philadelphia program. “My main reason for choosing Mission Year was that it seemed like the right balance of structure and independence for me. I knew I needed [some] structure, but I also wanted more independence than some programs so that I could be moving into adulthood and figuring out what I wanted to do.”

Josh’s gap year also gave him time to choose a college. During his senior year, he’d applied and been accepted to Seattle Pacific University, but when he visited the school in the spring, he realized it wasn’t the right fit for him. He applied to two colleges during his Mission Year and ultimately chose Wheaton College. His experience with Mission Year also helped him choose a field of study, even though his major changed after he got to Wheaton. “I was choosing between music and sociology and Mission Year helped me figure out I needed to work with people, so I started with sociology. Community Art is now my major, and my first exposure to it was through teaching drumming classes at a Community Art house during my year in Philadelphia. That’s when I figured out Community Art would be my dream field.

“I was also able to identify more of my personal passions and character surrounding justice, racial reconciliation, and community during Mission Year. Those experiences and lessons continue to shape me to this day, impacting the classes and major I chose in college, the clubs I joined, friends I hung out with, where I lived on campus, and who I’m dating.”

“I know myself better as an adult than I would have if I’d gone straight into school. As I prepare to graduate this May, I’m more confident about moving into the next stage of life because I know how I function when I’m not in school. Had I not taken a gap year, all this would be hypothetical for me at this point, but since I have a year of living more on my own to look back to, I am more confident in who I am and what I will do after college.”


Sam Trautwein ’13 and Jud Aulie ’10 both chose to go to schools overseas during their gap experience. Sam, now a computer science major at Stanford (he’s also considering a double major in philosophy), deferred his enrollment at Stanford to attend The Second High School Attached to Beijing Normal University. He went there for the fall semester and then worked during the second. “Beijing seemed novel,” Sam said. “I am fluent in Spanish from growing up in the Dominican Republic and have studied Latin and French, so Mandarin seemed like something unique and challenging.”

Sam hasn’t kept up with his Mandarin study, but says the experience itself was beneficial. “My gap year probably greatly increased the quality of my life. I worked out a lot of problems through [it, and] it really renewed my sense of wonder and drive to learn. I came into college less worried about maintaining perfect grades, and it changed me from a humanities person to an engineer and taught me how to embrace whatever you take on and make it part of yourself. It wasn’t a painless process, but I don’t think any processes that shape you really are.” 

Jud Aulie’s gap year came after his first year of college. “I wanted to go somewhere I could focus on learning the Bible and growing my faith,” he said, “So I took a break and went to Greek Bible College. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The classes challenged me and grew me spiritually, and through the school’s service requirement I got involved in food distribution to refugees. I had more time to focus on the Lord and many opportunities to explore Athens and Greece—I even took a trip to Israel over a weekend.” The small class size of seven students allowed Jud to get to know his classmates very well: one became his best friend and later, through marriage to Jud’s sister, Sarah, his brother-in-law. “I would recommend an opportunity like this to any high schooler,” Jud said, “where they can experience another culture and grow in their faith before college. I would especially recommend the Greek Bible College.”

Jud is not alone in recommending a gap year. Tori Cochrum said she would “100% do it again,” and Ben Kopp said, “Don’t be afraid of doing [a gap year] if God is calling you to. He will bless you.” Josh Mangis said, “Too few people consider a gap year as a possibility. My experience was very positive, and all my friends who took gap years are glad they did for one reason or another. I think more high school students should consider it.” Josh also had some advice, as did Heidi Engebretsen. He said, “Gap years are less helpful if you just end up basically sitting around at home for a year. If you are taking a year off school, still have some sort of structured experience or plan.” Heidi said, “Talk to mentors and people who have more experience; pray, pray, pray; and then learn to love where you are even if it may be somewhere completely unexpected.” 

Though Joel Swick would “absolutely” take a gap year again himself, he doesn’t believe it’s for everyone. “Some people know who they are and what they want to do with their lives. That’s great! Go do it. But if you are a curious personality or want to know more about yourself, about community, and about the world, step back from school for a while. God is going to work through you whatever path you take. He has given you gifts and passions for a reason, to glorify him as your creator, to participate in an act of praise. If you don’t know what you are passionate about, it may be a good idea to step back and talk to God. The main thing we need to understand when we’re figuring out what we want to do with our futures is this: God loves us.”

Heidi added, “Wherever you are next year, the Lord is going to shape and mold you more into who He has created you to be.”


If you are interested in learning more about gap years, follow some of the links below. Wheaton Academy does not officially endorse any of these options or information but provides them for your use.

The two links above are at Wheaton College’s Vanguard site. They give information about gap years in general as well as links to other articles about gap years and other gap year programs.

This is the home page for the Wheaton College/HoneyRock Vanguard program.

This is the website for the Eikon program, a discipleship/training program in which students take classes at College of DuPage, serve in a church setting, and grow spiritually in community with each other.

This is the website for Christian Spanish Academy in Guatemala.

Mission Year is a program focused on urban ministry. It describes itself as “a diverse community of Christians committed to loving God, loving people, and living out faith and justice in the city.”

This is the website for Greek Bible College, a theological institution serving Greek evangelical churches based in Athens.