Rather than sitting in front of computers for Zoom meetings or in classrooms at socially distanced desks, some 2020 high school graduates found themselves using chainsaws, rolling pastry dough or preaching in Romanian churches in what would otherwise have been their freshman year of college. They’re now a year older, and more ready than ever to begin their college experience at Wheaton.
Although Wheaton’s admissions office does not track gap years directly, Director of Undergraduate Admissions Jason Kircher said that 17 freshmen deferred their enrollment and then enrolled for this fall, and another 18 freshmen graduated high school before August 2020. Overall, this means that 35 of this year’s 546 first-year students, or 6.5% of the freshman class, postponed their college enrollment for at least a year after graduating from high school.
The Record talked to three freshmen who took a gap year about their unconventional routes to Wheaton.
“I applied to colleges because that was the thing to do,” said Ruth Chinn, who goes by Ren, about her senior year of high school in Portland, Oregon. Despite submitting applications, she was on the fence about attending college the following fall. “I was really tired of school and feeling restless,” Chinn said.
Then COVID-19 hit and tipped the scales. “I had been living in a bubble; I had lived in the same house since I was born,” Chinn said. “I needed to go out and meet other people. I wanted to do things and get some skills. I wanted to travel.”
Through online research, Chinn discovered AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, or AmeriCorps NCCC, which “ticked all of those boxes.” During her ten-month AmeriCorps position, Chinn was stationed in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. Many AmeriCorps positions consist of mostly paperwork, but Chinn’s track was hands-on.
In Houston, after only a weekend of construction training, Chinn and nine team members helped reconstruct homes that had been damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The team hung drywall, laid flooring and installed doors.
Then they traveled by van to Oklahoma. Living on a park campsite in the small town of Woodward, Chinn and her team maintained trails and repaired damage caused by ice storms. Chinn fed debris through a woodchipper and learned to use a chainsaw to clear invasive plant species.
After six weeks of living on a campsite in the state park, the team was reassigned to an emergency mission. Partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), they worked eight- to ten-hour days at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Loveland, Colorado.
The team was responsible for everything except administering the actual shots. They directed traffic, helped walk-in patients complete paperwork, asked screening questions and filled out vaccination record cards. Finally, the team traveled to southeastern Colorado, where they painted houses, partnered with local youth groups and cleaned at Boggsville Historic Site, a landmark to the origins of sheep and cattle industries in Colorado.
Chinn’s work was both physically and emotionally demanding and grew exhausting when she was selected to be the assistant team leader.
“That was stressful. I was one of the younger people on my team and having to make judgement calls was difficult, but I grew a lot,” Chinn said.
“What is the difference between Christians helping in a food pantry and a team like AmeriCorps?” Chinn pondered while she worked. “In my youth group we would do something like that and think, ‘Wow, we’re really serving people, and when they see our light they’ll ask us and then we can share our testimonies.’ But while volunteering with AmeriCorps I realized people that aren’t Christians do this as well. Is there supposed to be a difference? Is it only a means to an end? What is the goal here?”
At the end of her stint with AmeriCorps, Chinn, who’s still trying to decide what she wants to major in at Wheaton, said she regained her sense of confidence from working in an environment where many of her teammates were older than her.
“In general I have a more solid sense of self,” she said. “And I realized that everyone is just making stuff up all the time.”
Sarah Beckler grew up helping her mom in the kitchen at their home in Pasadena, Calif. In high school, she began baking to relieve stress. Halfway through her junior year, she decided to apply to the Institute of Culinary Education, a local school that offers a six-month baking and pastry course followed by a two-month “externship” working in a bakery of the student’s choosing. Students earn pastry chef certification through the program.
Beckler graduated high school early, at the end of her junior year, and then started culinary school instead of going straight to college.
When what would’ve been Beckler’s senior year of high school transitioned to remote learning as a result of COVID-19, she was grateful to have adjusted her plans and graduated early. But the transition still proved difficult.
“I went to the same school from kindergarten to 11th grade,” Beckler said. “Graduating and having to leave the place where my whole childhood was and all of my friends were was really terrifying.”
Because of COVID-19, students at the institute were required to wear masks at all times and follow strict sanitization protocols. Fortunately, the program remained in-person for the entire six months. Each day Sarah’s class made something new, from cakes, to souffles and custards, to elaborate plated desserts, based on a demonstration from their various instructors. They also completed timed exams, cooking and serving their creations to their instructors for judging.
For one exam, she made a crème anglaise custard and poured it into a souffle as she served it. For another, she made a mirror glaze cake, which requires the glaze and cake to be at a precise temperature while pouring.
“It felt like ‘Chopped,’” Beckler said, referring to the popular cooking show on the Food Network. “It was a running joke.”
After the six-month course, Beckler completed a two-month “externship” at Mon Petit Choux, a bakery in Cincinnati, where her sister lives. Throughout the week, she prepared and refrigerated doughs and pastry elements to be baked early Saturday morning and served throughout the week. She stirred pots of pastry cream for hours, producing gallons of filling for eclairs.
Beckler said the culinary program prepared her to transition to college.
“I got to experience what it was like to have to make friends,” she said. “Being in a completely new environment made me nervous, but I learned from it.” Beckler also gained work experience she plans to use in a future career in baking.
Although the Fischer kitchen isn’t up to her usual standards, Beckler, known on Fischer 4 West as Chef Mary (a moniker whose origins she can’t explain), now spends her free time baking for friends.
After months of preparing to attend Biola University in southern California, online classes forced Rome Williams to rethink what his 2020-2021 school year would look like.
“Come January 2020, I had never considered taking a gap year,” said Williams. “Then COVID-19 hit, and Biola went online, and that threw everything off.” Instead of starting college, he decided to take a gap year, taking a food delivery job at a local company in his hometown of Ferndale, Washington.
“I was mad, more than anything else, that my life had to be postponed for a year,” Williams said. “That was something that I had to wrestle with God about. Who’s in control of my life—is it me or is it him?”
With this question in mind, Williams decided to travel to Romania with Torchbearers International for three months, quitting his food delivery gig. In addition to eight weeks of lectures on the Romanian language, cultural sensitivity, storytelling and event organization, Williams and his team organized youth events for locals, shared the gospel with children at orphanages, and preached in churches. After returning from Romania, Williams found his perspective on his gap year had shifted.
“The way my gap year was framed with uncertainty and disappointment, it forced me to go outside my comfort zone,” he said. “I realized, ‘I don’t know why I have to be here and I have to be doing this, but there is a reason and it will bear fruit.’”
Williams had committed to enroll at Wheaton before his Torchbearers trip. Since arriving on campus, he has been able to meet many new people with many different experiences from the last year. He believes the gap year has set him up for special connections with many different students at Wheaton. “It’s amazing to see how much in common the freshman and sophomore classes have for this year. I’m part of both of them, which gives me a really unique perspective that I am so thankful for.”
Four weeks into his Wheaton career, Rome is looking forward to putting his experience in Romania to use by pursuing a degree in either Communications or Bible and theology. He is also active in Arena Theater and is enjoying connecting with both the freshman and sophomore classes, since he feels he relates to both.
“Taking a gap year raised a whole new field of questions for me to ask myself and gave me a lot more direction for where I want to go,” said Williams.
Wheaton College, IL