November 2, 2017
If you ask any random Wheaton student roaming campus how they ended up at Wheaton, you are bound to get a million different answers. The stories range from last minute decisions to years of knowing, from choosing what was considered the “lowest” option to choosing the only option, from being confident in one’s acceptance, to being waitlisted. Regardless of the story of how they got to Wheaton, a majority of Wheaties walked across a stage in late May or early June, high school diploma in hand, anticipating their trip to Wheaton in just a few months’ time.
But for one group on campus, their stories look a little bit different. Parts of their stories match others on campus, but there is one big divergence: they waited to join Wheaton’s community. Instead of joining the majority of their peers by immediately attending college, some Wheaties took gap years.
Whenever I heard of someone taking a gap year, the question that flashed to the forefront of my mind was “Why?” Through sitting down and listening to the stories of several students who took gap years, I got a closer look not just at the “why” behind their gap years, but at the growth that they experienced, the challenges they encountered and the ways that God showed up in each and every one of their stories.
When I asked junior Meredith Schellhase what she did with her gap year, her answer wasn’t exactly what I was expecting: “I went to Bible school.” Schellhase further explained that she didn’t just go to any Bible school, but Capernwray Hall, a Christian Centre located in Lancashire, England. She also expanded on what she meant by “Bible school,” saying, “It had no academic value at all.”
When Schellhase arrived in England, she was expecting something more like a “mini-seminary.” For the high schooler who staked so much on her academic reputation, she anticipated stepping into an academically rigorous setting where she would engage in deep and intense theological study. Instead, since Capernwray focused more on spiritual growth than grades, she found that the slower setting showed her that she placed a lot of her identity in being academically accomplished. “I discovered that, wow, basically my entire life is about… being academically clever or academically well-known,” Schellhase said. She realized that she didn’t need to work on her brain, but her heart.
Stripped of most of the things that Schellhase had founded her identity on, all she was left to fall back on was the Bible. She began to face some areas where she learned she needed growth: she had logically explained away the power of prayer, she didn’t believe that God took any pleasure in humanity and her desire to gain more knowledge was an attempt to study her way into heaven.
Beginning her gap year, Schellhase left intending to learn the Bible inside and out. Instead, God showed himself to her, reminding her of his power and his love for her. Her faith was solidified and she felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit pushing her to go to a Christian college.
Like Schellhase, senior Erika Johnson also travelled to Capernwray for six months of her gap year.
However, her reasons for going were different from Schellhase’s. Johnson’s time away from school was a time to rest since she felt burnt out after high school. She wanted relationships with both God and other Christians. She found those relationships. “One of the best things was the friendships. I have really close friends in Germany, Canada… and other countries… They were probably the [deepest] friendships I had had up to that point.”
Johnson also learned how to be present with God. “In high school, I felt like I was always fighting for my faith… I kind of focused on me and what I believed.” In Capernwray, Johnson learned about “the sweetness of the presence of God,” basking in him instead of defending herself.
After spending six months in Capernwray, Johnson travelled around Europe with friends and family. One place she visited was Nepal, where she had spent two years growing up. She travelled to Nepal by herself and had to network her way through the country, an adventure that Johnson felt like forced her to make decisions for herself and face some fears. Through her solo trip, Johnson had to rely on God and trust that he would provide. By encountering other cultures and societies, she saw that “there are a lot of different ways to live life and still glorify God.”
Johnson learned the importance of staying in the Word and opening herself up to allow God to speak into her life. She learned how to questions things while avoiding becoming cynical. She concluded, “If you’re not in a good place spiritually, then everything else is just kind of meaningless.”
After graduating high school, junior Ryan Ho didn’t have much of a choice in taking a gap year. “Coming from Singapore,” he explained, “I had to do two years in the army.” Singapore passed the National Service Act in 1967, making it mandatory for all 18-year-old male citizens to serve two years in the military.
Ho served in the Singaporean army as a scout. If Singapore had declared war, he would have been responsible for parachuting behind enemy lines and gathering intel. “There’s a lot to it, a lot of basic military training, a lot of physical training, a lot of combat training.” Military service was challenging for Ryan, both mentally and physically — when he was discharged in December 2014, he wasn’t sad to leave the army behind.
Ho was planning on joining Wheaton in August of 2015, so he had a few months to spend before heading off to college. “I wanted to do to something meaningful and important… Youth With a Mission (YWAM) seemed to fit that,” Ho said. YWAM’s Discipleship Training School (DTS) is broken down into two parts: a lecture phase and an outreach phase. Ho spent his lecture phase in Switzerland. There, he heard from many different speakers on a myriad of topics ranging from the character of God to intercession.
After Switzerland, Ho went with a team to Cairo, Egypt. He spent time working with refugees, playing with boys from a small orphanage and speaking to people in Al-Azhar park. In Al-Azhar he was able to talk with people whose goal was to talk about their Muslim faith. But the time in Cairo was also challenging for Ho because he was unsure of why he believed in what he believed. By having to question his faith, Ho felt that it was solidified.
When Ho left for YWAM, he told his mother that he wanted to hear God’s voice, but what he got turned out to be so much more. During his time with YWAM, Ho discovered the relational side of God and how to truly be a follower of Christ.
When explaining to me why she took a gap year, sophomore Christina Gaebel said that, “Before coming to college… I knew that I needed to give at least a year of my life to God and see where that goes.” Like Ho, Gaebel found out about YWAM and researched their DTS program before deciding to join.
Gaebel completed her DTS lectures in Yosemite before going to Thailand for the outreach phase. When talking about the work that she did in Thailand, Gaebel said that she “worked with a lot of ministries in the red light district… I actually ended up helping get one girl who had been trafficked in from Cambodia out [and] back to her hometown.”
After returning home, Gaebel knew that she had to keep trusting in God. Since she has an interest in politics, Gaebel set out to find an internship with a senator. Gaebel made a list of senators that she would want to work with and started calling offices. Finally, she landed in the office of Montana Senator Steve Daines, where she got to produce and coauthor a resolution on religious freedom.
After finishing up her internship with Senator Daines, Gaebel went back to YWAM as a volunteer in Redding, California. There she served under missionaries from Afghanistan and trained in how to serve and minister to Muslim groups.
For her final endeavor before coming to college, Gaebel worked as an assistant manager on a congressional campaign back in her home state of Washington. Though she was the youngest staffer and had the least experience, part of Gaebel’s job was to oversee many people.
Gaebel expressed how her time away from college affirmed many of her skills and broadened the scope of what she could do. But each of Gaebel’s experiences over her two years away from college also taught her how to trust in God.
Sophomore Lydia Griffith had no intention of going to college when she graduated high school. After graduating, she got a job as a janitor at her church in Colorado. Griffith explained that she had always been very independent, so she felt no pressure to go to college. She found it a little strange when people in her church asked her what her post-high school plans were and she would say, “I don’t really know, but right now I’m a janitor.”
Griffith spent six months as a janitor before becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She had taken care of elderly and disabled people during high school, so she had some experience heading into her job as a CNA. Griffith said that “[she] realized that at some point in [her] life… [she] would need someone to take care of [her],” so she decided to invest in caring for someone else.
One patient that has stuck with Griffith was the youngest patient that she took care of. At 23 years old, this man was a quadriplegic. He sustained injuries in a car accident and was left with a lot of anger. “He would roll around yelling, ‘I’m going to f-ing burn down this f-ing place,’” Griffith remembered, “And I realized that that could’ve been me.”
While reading “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, Griffith decided that she needed to go to college. She realized that “wasting time is arrogance.” So she went to the library every day and started to study to retake the SAT. After getting higher scores than she had in high school, Griffith applied for Wheaton College in May 2016. Two days later, she got word that she had been accepted for the fall semester, confirming that she should be at Wheaton.
Since coming to Wheaton, Griffith has continued her journey in servanthood. She has joined ROTC, citing a desire to serve and understand. After serving in the army, Griffith desires to go to law school so that she can practice criminal law and help people get into better circumstances in order to make better decisions. She explained that she regularly reads court cases and is overwhelmed with how much she sees herself in the perpetrators, saying that “the only difference being when [she] had that thought in its earlier form, people were there to say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong thinking.’”
Through each of the stories that I heard from these students, I saw the common thread of God moving through their lives. Embarking on unknown adventures, they trusted that God would show up and provide. Gaebel made the comment that, “Where you are isn’t where you will be forever.” Thus, we should appreciate and celebrate where we are now, trusting that God will take us to where we will go next.