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By Matt Apuzzo '00
A few days after first-year students arrived at Colby this fall, the phone rang at the Poulos home in Rockport, Maine. Was Ben there? "No," his 8-year-old sister replied.
Her older brother, a recent high school graduate who had been accepted to Colby, was not available for one very good reason: "Ben's in Ukraine," she announced.
Poulos had been living in Ukraine for about a week. He called home the day he arrived and said he had already enjoyed a lunch of borscht.
Poulos is one of 14 students who deferred enrollment from Colby's Class of 2007. That's a record number for the College, which had just one student defer in 1997. Seven students deferred enrollment in 1998, and 31 students have put off entering Colby in the last three years.
Dean of Admissions Parker Beverage said Colby has not changed any policies regarding deferrals. In fact, he said, the school has never discouraged students from writing proposals for so-called gap years, and most deferral requests are granted.
The gap year concept isn't entirely new. Students in Europe have been taking gap years for many years (England's Prince Harry is on his right now, working on a ranch in Australia before attending Sandhurst Military Academy.) Recently, however, more U.S. students applying to the nation's top schools have asked for a year off than ever before.
Many of the country's top schools are not just becoming amenable to the idea, they're recommending it. Harvard University encourages its students to take a year off to travel, work or "spend time in another meaningful way," according to their admissions Web site.
At Colby, Beverage equates deferrals with college grads doing a stint in the Peace Corps, something Colby graduates do in impressive numbers. Perhaps more important, Beverage said, parents are coming around to the notion that a gap year might not be such a bad idea. From world travel to woodworking, focused study to volunteering, students at Colby are coming up with more ways to spend a gap year. One student is even deferring for two years to serve in the Israeli army. "I haven't seen anyone roll their eyes at me when I tell them I'm taking a year off," said Ryan Rodel '08, of Pownal, Maine, who opted to learn the family business of building handcrafted furniture.
His high school guidance counselors embraced the idea, and when he pitched his plan to his parents, they supported him. "I want to learn this craft," Rodel said. "It's nice to have a skill that's really applicable in the world. And there's a lot of bad furniture in the world."
He and his parents began the college search with the idea that he would join the class of 2008 instead of the class of 2007. "It's one of the questions we asked at every school we looked at," said Ryan's father, Kevin Rodel.
Colby has a reputation for being flexible when it comes to deferrals, said Robert Gilpin, who runs Time Out Associates, a Massachusetts-based company that matches students with programs to fill their gap years. That's because the College puts a premium on independent study during Jan Plan, embraces study abroad programs and each year sends a group of first-year students to study overseas before enrolling, he said.
Ashley Thrasher, of Vershire, Vt., took this year off to hike the Appalachian Trail. "I wanted to go with her," her father, Garret, said. She made it about 530 miles, her father said, before her hiking partner quit on her. Now she's learning the family business and getting her fingernails dirty at the same time. A likely science major, she's working as an excavator, helping prepare foundations for new homes.
Garret Thrasher worried briefly that, after a year off, Ashley might not go to college. But he's comfortable with the decision now.
Both Beverage and Gilpin say they've seen nothing to suggest that a year away from school encourages students not to go back.
Gilpin said his business is up 100 percent in the past five years, as more parents and students accept the gap-year idea. "This train isn't an express. It's a local," he said. "People can have a really hard time understanding that. They think if you get off, you can't get on again."
Arthur Poulos, Ben's father, had no problem embracing the notion. Ben would travel with a group and live with a host family, and Arthur realized there aren't many times in life when you can do that sort of thing. "He's not just grabbing a backpack and going across Europe," he said.
When students study overseas during a gap year, their experiences help them when they arrive at Colby. "Not only do they bring international experience and a greater understanding of a foreign language, but also another year of maturity," Beverage said.
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Paul L. Coffey '98 and Joshua Scharback '98 discovered
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