Seniors map out their gap years

Caitlin Beard

As Redwood’s Class of 2022 spams social media with celebratory college commitment posts, and Instagram bios change  from “RHS ‘22” to “@uofmichigan ‘26,” the convincing illusion that every senior attends college in the fall is easy to believe; however, seventeen percent of current lowerclassmen are considering a gap year before they head to a four-year college and three percent of this year’s seniors plan to take a gap year, according to a Bark survey. Among them is former Redwood student and current Tam senior Samantha Smart, a competitive rower at the Marin Rowing Association with a verbal commitment to Princeton University. 

With several national titles, Smart will return to selection camp this summer to hopefully compete in the U-19 World Rowing Junior Championships. Her crew also recently qualified for the U.S. Youth National Championship which will be held in Sarasota, Florida in June. 

“Going from Nationals, to selection camp, to Worlds, straight to college would be extremely hard on myself, so I think a gap year would be good. I have a lot of random goals that I really want to get done before going to college,” Smart said. 

With several national rowing titles, Smart will attend selection camp this summer to try and make the U-19 World Rowing Junior Championships team. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Smart)

To train for rowing, Smart runs ultramarathons: distances over a standard 26-mile marathon. So far, Smart has run a fifty-miler and several thirty-milers, including a 28.4 mile Quad Dipsea spanning 12 hours in which she ran from her house to Stinson Beach and back four times. She will spend her gap year training for the HURT 100 in January 2023, a 100-mile endurance run in Oahu, Hawaii.

“There’s an aspect I really like about ultra running,” Smart said. “I get my best thinking done during those 12 hour runs.”

In addition to rowing and ultra-running over her gap year, Smart wants to work part-time at REI to get discounts on gear for ultra-running. She also hopes to lay the groundwork for a non-profit organization dedicated to combating and researching drug addiction in America. 

“I want to have a basis of a non-profit and get more expertise and build on that so that I can come out of college hopefully taking [action] on more of a legislative level,” said Smart.

Unlike Smart, Redwood alum and current freshman at Duke University, Lauren Steele, did not take a gap year by choice. Graduating from Redwood in June 2020, COVID-19 rendered the chance of a “normal” first year of college impossible. Hoping that school would return to in-person in the fall, Steele was initially reluctant to defer her enrollment and debated for months whether or not to take a gap year.

“I felt like I was ready to go to college, so I wasn’t taking a gap year because I thought I needed time. I graduated from Redwood and I felt super ready,” said Steele. “I was really nervous to be a year behind my friends. I was also nervous that I wouldn’t find things to do on the gap year…It was just a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t really know what to expect from a gap year, I didn’t really have people to reach out to to ask what things would be like. No one had lived through a pandemic before.”

In the end, Steele’s fear that she would not find things to do during her gap year did not come true in the slightest. Her gap year itinerary consisted of everything from a backpacking trip around the Western United States, to moving to Hawaii with two other deferred Duke students where she worked at a scuba diving shop, to a Spanish language program in Costa Rica as well as an internship in Israel.

Bungee jumping in Monteverde, Costa Rica, Lauren Steele spent several weeks abroad doing a Spanish language program (Photo courtesy of Laureen Steele)

Absolutely jam-packed with travel, meeting new people and experiencing new things, Steele could not be happier with her gap year.

“It was a really incredible year and looking back, I would do it over again. It was a ton of unique experiences … I’ve lived on my own, not in a dorm, not going to work, and I got to do programs and meet other kids from all over the world,” said Steele. “…COVID-19 was the reason that I took a gap year, but looking back I should have done it regardless. I’m glad [I was] prompted to do that.” 

Although both Steele and Smart share incredibly ambitious gap year plans, Redwood’s College and Career counselor Becky Bjursten explained that gap years can look different for every student. 

“It can be something as simple as having a job like working at Trader Joe’s for a year and earning money to help pay for college, or it can be traveling and adding something to your overall applicant perspective.”

Bjursten said that “losing momentum” is a common fear among Redwood students deciding whether to take a gap year.

 “You’re going to stop high school, have that in-between, and then have to start learning again, so I think defining what that gap year means to you is really an important

part of it,” Bjursten said. “A gap year is a time to grow, to pursue things that you’re interested in, to have new experiences…You’re going to be so much better and more mature of a student if you have this extra time to pursue something that’s important to you.”