How one-year programs are equipping young high school graduates
The minds of today’s high school graduates are filled with many questions. Presented with a dizzying array of work, travel and training options, young people may have feelings of both excitement and apprehension, particularly over the prospect of postsecondary education. Is this the right program for me? Am I up to the challenge? Will I make new friends? Rather than launch immediately into a full-time academic program, some 17- and 18-year-olds are opting to take a gap year.
Gap year programs first became popular in the 1960s, although the practice has not caught on in Canada like in Europe. Intended as a season of personal development and a bridge between high school and university, a secular gap year typically consists of travel, volunteering, skills training or focused exploration of a specific sector – with minimal or no academic components.
Increasing numbers of Christian postsecondary institutions have recognized this need and opportunity, and have designed one-year programs to match. Many of these effectively serve as feeders into subsequent three- and four-year programs at their host schools, but for students who choose to complete just one year there is still tremendous potential for mental and spiritual growth.
Appreciation for gap year programs is certainly growing, reports Aileen Van Ginkel, executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada, who is in regular conversation with deans and presidents of CHEC member institutions across Canada.
Many see benefits in both academic readiness and spiritual formation from such programs. Van Ginkel also notes a widespread concern for future students starting from an experience of isolation during Covid that might leave them "less prepared for discipleship-focused community life in a Bible college or university" – and gap year programs as being an excellent response to that concern.
Van Ginkel also references a recent collaborative study Renegotiating Faith: The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What It Means for the Church in Canada (2018), which examines the transition from high school to the next stage of life be that employment, college or university. One of the report’s most interesting findings was that young people who took a gap year before postsecondary education were far more likely to continue in faith practices than those who did not.
PREPARATION FOR LIFE
One of the original Christian gap year programs in Canada is offered by Capernwray Harbour Bible School on Thetis Island in British Columbia. Founded in 1979 as an extension of the ministry of Torch-bearers International, Capernwray’s motto is pithy – "Training for full-time Christian service, regardless of occupation."
This wholistic sentiment is echoed across other Canadian institutions. "Our first-year curriculum is essentially a road map for a successful Christian life," says Brad Dewar, director of Victory Bible College in Calgary. "It helps students to get their Christian feet on the ground."
For example, Dewar mentions hermeneutics classes where students learn how to dig into the Bible and interpret it for themselves. This, Dewar explains, "enables young people to lay strong Christian foundations they will take with them into the rest of their lives."
Similarly the aim of the Life Launch program at Pacific Life Bible College in Surrey, B.C., says vice-president Dr. Dean Davey, is to impart to students "an understanding of the reconciling mission of God, and to embrace a philosophy about their lives that recognizes that all areas of human endeavour are sacred."
He wants young people to know that "Our work is itself an act of worship, and the excellence of our work is a reflection of our innate bearing of God’s image."
Davey is concerned, however, that the public education system is not adequately preparing students for academic rigour in postsecondary studies, that there is a lack of intellectual capacity in many young high school graduates. The Life Launch program, he explains, tries to address this issue by offering increased academic support, especially in the areas of critical thinking, research and writing.
COMMUNITIES OF LEARNING
The academic benefit of gap year programs is also evident to Korey Reimer, program leader at Briercrest College’s Kaléo program. He notes that Kaléo graduates who go on to studies at Briercrest thrive in their second year and generally have higher GPA scores than their peers.
"They consistently make the best leaders and are always seeking leadership opportunities. At Kaléo they formed a community of learning. They developed an academic culture wherein they spurred one another on to greater accomplishment."
Many one-year programs intentionally accept a very limited number of students – the emphasis is on growing together in community. Communal living means learning how to communicate and work together to reach shared goals, and how to iron out differences that may arise.
Larger programs usually segregate participants into smaller cohorts to allow similar deep bonds to form as students journey together through the entire one-year experience.
Youth With a Mission’s Discipleship Training School in rural Que-bec develops an especially diverse community that is not only bilingual, but also multigenerational. Housed in a former Anglican boarding school, the Dunham base has created a live/learn environment where community members include recent high school graduates, families with young children and retirees.
Training director Dan Hall believes the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. "The young people love having families in the community mix."
Students’ relationships with one another are not the only catalyst for personal growth. Many programs now include an academic component structured around one-week modules taught by visiting instructors with whom students may engage informally during that week.
Even more importantly, resident faculty and staff are very intentional about doing life together, walking alongside students through their questions and challenges, and being prayerfully alert to teachable moments.
Across all programs the most common curriculum offerings include overviews of the Old and New Testaments, biblical doctrines, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, principles of Bible interpretation, spiritual formation, evangelism, leadership and personal resource management. In the modular approach used by many schools, lecture weeks are interspersed with weeks of homework, personal reflection, out trips, ministry and special projects.
Journal keeping is a core element of the Capernwray program. Students summarize truths they are learning from Scripture and submit their journals for periodic review and feedback (but not formal grading) by faculty. Students are also required to prepare and present Bible study projects, and to lead seminar discussions based on John’s Gospel.
At neighbouring Camp Qwanoes students in the Kaléo program must bring their creativity and big picture thinking to bear on the annual film project. Students are given two and a half weeks to produce a dramatized overview of the Old Testament story. From start to finish the entire project is student driven. Students delegate scriptwriters, directors, actors, videographers and editors. They must navigate and negotiate every aspect of production while ensuring the final product accurately distills major themes of the biblical narrative.
Outdoor adventures, most prevalent in gap year programs offered in British Columbia’s rugged landscape, play a key role in building both leadership and resilience. In trips that involve hiking, skiing, caving and sailing, students are stretched both physically and mentally.
Reimer notes how being immersed in situations well outside their comfort zone, and overcoming challenges as a group, not only bonds students with each other, but also brings a deep sense of achievement. "Participants discover that they are much more resilient than they thought. Getting over that hump together builds such confidence."
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Another component that helps students practically apply lessons learned from the curriculum is involvement with local churches. Many programs assign small teams of students to specific churches. Over the course of the year, students gain valuable experience and mentoring as they assist with children’s programming, youth ministry, worship, evangelism and neighbourhood outreach.
Additionally, most programs seek to serve the community around them. At Capernwray students typically spend one afternoon a week helping local seniors with yard work. Kaléo’s annual three-day Love Crofton campaign similarly sees students raking leaves, clearing gutters and chopping firewood. Acts of service such as these are not quickly forgotten. They open doors for building relationships with their neighbours.
Reaching into the local community is a major emphasis of YWAM Quebec. Serving the village of Dunham, with a population of just 3,000, means intentional engagement with Quebecois people and culture. Students host weekly evenings of music and storytelling at a local establishment. Their own stories of faith often spark spiritual conversations.
Students also serve small enterprises in Dunham where business is seasonal and winter can be especially challenging. YWAM team members have asked small business owners about their practical needs and responded by sending students to clean up in the backs of shops or package products made in-house. The feedback from businesspeople is consistently positive, says Hall. "They really trust our students and that to me says a lot about how character is being developed in their lives."
In most one-year programs, this experiential aspect of learning culminates in a cross-cultural mission trip, often overseas. Students in Dunham may reach deeper into the province of Quebec or travel overseas into the French-speaking world.
Victory churches in India and Thailand welcome gap year students from Victory Bible College, which is part of the same church-planting network. For Dewar, the end game is transformation of hearts and minds. "By the end of three trimesters, students will have been thrust into a wide range of ministry situations … and they will have concluded, ‘I am ruined for mediocrity – I will serve Jesus for the rest of my life.’"
As increasing numbers of Christian institutions design programs to help students navigate the challenges of entering adulthood, we can expect to hear more and more testimonies like that of Levi Allen, an adventure filmmaker living in Chilliwack, B.C., who graduated from Kaléo in 2013.
Looking back he emphasizes how "The environment of the Kaléo program is so contagious for growth. The combination of academics, out trips, and ministry experience with leaders and professors who poured into me helped create a unique year where God worked in ways that I would have never thought possible."
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Evelyn Pedersen is a freelance writer in Mississauga.