Davis High School sends the vast majority of its graduates straight off to college every year.
Among last year’s Class of 2013, 70 percent headed to four-year colleges and another 20 percent to two-year programs, with many of those students now back in Davis having completed their freshman year. Valerie Hurst and Richie Farman had long expected to be among them.
As it does for so many Davis students, college was supposed to come right after high school in their life trajectories. They took the right high school courses, researched colleges and spent fall of their senior year working on those applications.
But somewhere along the way, Hurst and Farman came to the realization that the expected path isn’t necessarily the right path for everybody, and each ended up on a road less traveled: the road known as the gap year.
Hurst’s path took her to Ecuador, where she lived with a host family that became a second family for life, learned Spanish and worked in an orphanage.
Farman’s path included making a series of videos about Davis and all it has to offer and also took him to Japan, where he, too, developed close bonds with a host family, learned Japanese and toured parts of the country — often entirely on his own.
Now, as each prepares to head off on that original path — Hurst to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and Farman to Whitman College in Washington — neither has any regrets about their decisions. And with good reason.
Both are poised and confident, accomplished and worldly, and they face their futures with a clear sense of who they are, what they are capable of and what they want to do in life.
“I have no regrets and would do it all over again in a heartbeat,” said Hurst, who like Farman, recommends the experience to others.
“In Davis especially, there is such an emphasis on going to college and getting a degree,” Farman noted, “and nobody ever asks, ‘Do you want to take a gap year?’ And I think it’s important to ask, because there’s so much to lose if you don’t do it.”
Back in the fall of 2012 when she began the whole college application process, Hurst was feeling some ambivalence.
The thought of picking a place where she would spend the next four years — not to mention a whole lot of money — without really knowing where she wanted to be or what she wanted to be doing, didn’t seem ideal to her.
“I didn’t want to head off to college, spend all that money, without having a clear direction in mind,” she said.
But like so many of her classmates at Davis High at the time, Hurst dutifully completed those applications and sat back to see where her future might lie — until her mom, Linda, found Global Citizen Year online. The bridge-year program sends American students who have just finished high school to countries in Latin America and Africa for a year of service and leadership training.
Fellows, as the participants are called, live with a host family while apprenticing with a local organization and learning the language and customs of that country. It was right up Hurst’s alley, as she’d always wanted to travel abroad and learn new languages.
She found herself at the tail-end of the application process in March, but managed to get her papers in on time and learned soon enough that she had been selected to spend the coming school year in Ecuador, with grants covering nearly all of her costs. Hurst left Davis in August and after some training seminars at Stanford University, headed to Quito along with 50 other fellows.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Hurst said of the culture shock, “because I didn’t speak Spanish.”
After a brief acclimation period in the capital city, Hurst headed to her host family’s home in a small city in the south of Ecuador.
The family, Hurst said, “were a little shy at first, especially my host mom, but by the end, I was like one of her daughters. They shared everything they had with me.”
Her days in Ecuador were busy — Mondays were spent in Spanish class and the rest of the week working at an orphanage where Hurst helped cook, clean and care for the children, who were between the ages of 6 months and 14 years. Some had special needs and many came from homes where there had been alcoholism or abuse. When she wasn’t in school or at the orphanage, Hurst was with her host family, watching telenovellas with her mom, running errands and visiting other relatives. She also traveled to the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands, and attended occasional seminars with the other fellows living in the region.
“We’d talk about what we were feeling, the challenges we faced,” Hurst said. “But I felt very supported there.
“I never missed home,” she said of her time in Ecuador. “I was completely happy, being in the moment and being there for nine months.”
The hardest thing was learning to communicate with people, but by the time she left, her Spanish was so advanced she could understand everything anybody said. And she was a changed person.
“I’m more directed in what I want to do in my life,” Hurst said. “I want to do something that makes an impact on people. I also feel more confident in myself — that whatever I want to do, I can do. I can get myself anywhere. And I’m really happy with myself.”
She plans to study international relations and Spanish, and possibly environmental science, at Allegheny College.
Farman, meanwhile, heads to Whitman College, a different person than he was just a year ago.
Unlike Hurst, who made her decision to take a gap year before accepting admission to a college last year, Farman was a bit further along in the process before switching paths. He was more or less packed and getting ready to leave for the University of Colorado. But it just wasn’t feeling right.
“I wanted to have some idea of what I wanted to do before I went in,” he said. “And I starting to think there were a few other things I wanted to do.”
A friend was taking a gap year, he said, and the idea began to really appeal to him. High school can be so intense, Farman noted, with classes and homework and sports leaving so little time to explore anything else. A gap year would give him a chance to that. With about a week to go before leaving for Boulder, he decided to go for it.
“It was a tough decision,” he said, “throwing out the entire life path I had set out for myself.”
But there’s never been a regret.
The first thing he did was indulge two of his interests: Davis and filming. Farman created a webseries called “Discover Davis,” shooting video and interviewing local business owners about the city.
He pitched the idea to the Davis Downtown Business Association and they were enthusiastic and supportive.
“It was the first time I ever did anything completely independently,” he said. “I’d always wanted to do it, but never had time … it was an outlet for creative stuff that I always wanted to do.”
He worked on the video series from August to December, producing half a dozen videos which can be seen on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVd0PboSQACvag7XkmrSTFQ.
“That was a lot of fun,” Farman said. “I had a really great time making them.”
Needing a plan for the second half of his gap year, Farman decided to apply for a Japanese exchange program through the Council on International Educational Exchange. Since his junior year of high school, when Japanese exchange students had visited Davis High, Farman had been interested in Japanese culture and visiting Japan.
Now was his chance.
He ended up spending three months in and around Tokyo, learning Japanese and living with a host family.
“I loved every part of it,” he recalled.
Farman’s host family lived in the suburb of Chiba, and he recalled arriving there alone by train and getting completely lost walking from the train station to the house that first time. He spent two hours walking around lost, he said, “but completely enjoyed it.”
And by the time he found his host family’s house, he knew that neighborhood inside and out. His host family, meanwhile, “was completely amazing from the get go.”
Farman knew little Japanese and they knew little to no English, but there was no trouble connecting.
“Definitely, the most rewarding part of the trip was being with my host family,” Farman said. He took trips with them, spent time with the extended family — even played tennis with the kids’ grandfather and his buddies.
“I didn’t expect I’d be playing tennis with a bunch of men and running around the market with my host siblings,” Farman said, “but I had an absolute blast.” That first month went by in a blur. The second month, Farman traveled by himself to Kyoto for several days in February — an experience he called “the highlight of my trip.”
He took an overnight bus on an eight-hour trip to Kyoto and stayed in a hostel there, visiting ancient temples and shrines, dining alone in restaurants and hiking through the hillsides.
On another trip, he spend the night in a Buddhist temple.
“It was like something from a different world and something I never thought I’d be doing in my wildest dreams,” Farman said. “It made me realize how lucky I was to be able to do something like that. It’s how I felt during my entire trip … doing things I never knew I wanted to do until I did them.
“Changing where you are, changing your perspective, helps you to look at where you’ve been and where you want to go,” he said. “Getting away from my old life and taking some time to figure out what I was going to do was invaluable.”
It’s an experience he highly recommends.
“It doesn’t matter what you do … if you’ve been in to painting, paint for a year. Just do something and make sure it’s worthwhile,” Farman said. “There’s so much to lose if you don’t do it.”
Both Farman and Hurst chronicled their experiences in blogs — read Farman’s at http://www.ciee.org/gap-year-abroad/blogs/ and Hurst’s at http://globalcitizenyear.org/author/valerie-hurst/
— Learn more about the Council on International Educational Exchange at http://ciee.org and about Global Citizen Year at http://www.globalcitizenyear.org. — Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy