Posts Categorized: Driftless Stories

Minding the Gap

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Spring 2020 Inspire(d)

“What are your plans after graduation?”

We’ve all asked this of a high schooler at some point. What we (often) mean is: “Where are you going to college?”

But what happens if your heart doesn’t thrill to the thought of lecture halls, dorm rooms, and unlimited soft-serve ice cream? Or if you’re not ready to invest in the cost? Or the move away from home? What happens when you have the feeling you haven’t seen – or done – enough in the world to recognize your truest career calling?

Enter the “gap year,” a year (or more…or less!) of independent living, travel, service work, or nontraditional schooling that can help folks get their bearings on the future and, ultimately, personal fulfillment. A number of people in Decorah have gone this route, and the movement has been growing internationally, with programming options as diverse as learning Native American herbalism in the Pacific Northwest to rock climbing in the Andes (see sidebar).

But “gappers” better be ready to explain it when people ask. Over and over. And over, again.

“The reflex response when you tell someone you’re taking a gap year after high school is, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh,’” says Decorah native and Decorah High graduate Maggie Schwarz. As she says this, she demonstrates a sideways, distancing look of bewilderment that accompanies the phrase “gap year,” followed by some awkward silence.

“Then imagine,” she continues, “when someone tries to recover the conversation by asking, ‘Oh! Where are you going?!’ and I say, ‘I’m not going anywhere. This place – the Driftless – and its natural history are super important to me. I’m staying here.’”

*Crickets

“Gap years” aren’t really that unheard of, according to the Center for Interim Programs of Princeton, New Jersey, which has been advising gappers since 1980. The issue is that popular culture generally assumes “success” requires an academic degree.

When 2017 Decorah High grad Indigo Fish went head-to-head with her mother, Tanya O’Connor, about not enrolling in college, the perceived implications snowballed. “All I could think was, ‘No way. College is going to suck. It’s going to be just like high school, and I’m not going to learn anything,” says Indigo, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and floundered in traditional classrooms if the instruction wasn’t hands-on.

Indigo Fish, pictured above, had a variety of experiences during her Gap Year. She got a job at Dragonfly Books in Decorah and participated in their Pride Parade float; traveled to Denmark with her best friend and rode skateboards everywhere; read a lot of books; and went canoeing and found magical things like a baby turtle. Photos courtesy Indigo Fish.

“I was fear-driven for different reasons,” Tanya explains, “afraid that if she didn’t take advantage of college enrollment and the scholarships available to first-year traditional students, she might miss out and college would become unaffordable. I was afraid that she would not have the opportunity to experience educators who would make her a fine critical thinker.”

The turning point, Tanya says, came in the fall of Indigo’s senior year, when her grades plummeted and her sunny demeanor vanished. “I finally realized she was internalizing all the expectations, all of the teachers, every adult asking, ‘Where are you going to college?’

“She just shut down, and that’s when I really started to listen, and listen to her, instead of my idea of her.”

Indi, as she’s known to friends and family, agreed to a “gap” year as a compromise. “I was ready to become a street performer,” combining her interests in acting, dance, and theater production, she explains with a laugh. “I just needed to deal with college and all that later.”

In her gap year, she got a full-time job at Dragonfly Books. She enrolled in ballet lessons, participated in community theater, and sought assistance from a life coach and vocational rehabilitation. She audited a theater class at Luther College, and traveled to Denmark with her best friend, Anna.

Most important, she says, she started cooking for herself (sometimes) and assumed responsibility for other hallmarks of independence, like laundry. When she enrolled as a theater major at Luther College in 2018, these accountability skills gave her confidence. “Time management is huge in college, and I’m horrendous at it,” she says with a laugh. “Taking a gap year helped me get used to making my own schedule.”

For Thomas Hendrickson, a 2019 Decorah High School graduate, it was his parents, Julie Strom and Karl Hendrickson, who suggested a gap year. “I was ready to go straight into college, but senior year of high school was really rough. I was passing some classes and failing others,” he says.

Top: Thomas Hendrickson took a Gap Year at the suggestion of his parents, and found he would earn how he wanted to learn. Photo by Kristine Jepsen Bottom: Thomas Hendrickson and his family at his Decorah High School graduation. Photo courtesy Thomas Hendrickson

“Kids think they have to keep up with their peers and go the same speed. I thought a gap year meant that I was losing my edge, or it was the beginning of the end, which is ridiculous,” he says, adding that he had always worked grades ahead in math.

“It got to the point where you were feeling you weren’t smart,” offers Julie, sitting next to Thomas. “That wasn’t ever the case. We just didn’t want to saddle you with college debt when your timing and preparation for it could be way better.”

Thomas, who also has ADHD and Asberger’s Syndrome, has been housesitting on his own in Decorah and learning to cook at home, when his family will let him. He was accepted to top colleges for engineering but decided instead to pursue a folk school in Norway in 2020-21.  “Without a gap year, I may not have learned that I had to learn how to study – and pursue work that isn’t about getting the grade, as the end product. Folk schools like this one don’t have assignments or tests. You get out of it what you put into it.”

Thomas illustrates the influence of a “typical” schooling experience for some people, smoothing out the edges ‘til you get to a square. Illustrations by Thomas Hendrickson

Gap years aren’t just for high school graduates, either. “As a girl in the 80s, it was always clear to me that I had to pursue engineering or medicine if I wanted to be ‘successful,’” says Rachel Sandhorst of Decorah. “But when I was waitlisted for med school – and ultimately wasn’t accepted – I had no Plan B. It threw me into a tailspin. Sure, I had many friends who retook their MCATs and reapplied to get in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. That rejection was really hard, but it was necessary to go through it.”

With time suddenly stretching before her, Rachel applied to AmeriCorps, a US-based service program only in its second year of existence at the time. “Even finding out about it was miracle,” Rachel says with a chuckle, “because ‘back then’ there was no Internet to research. I had to get on mailing lists – MAILING LISTS! – to learn about alternatives.”

Her first National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) placement was in South Carolina, where her service work, time for reflection, and people she met (along with the rigors of reporting for physical training every morning, in uniform, at 6 am) turned her on to education. One gap year became three, while she applied to graduate school in Colorado. “Instead of helping kids with their physical growth, I learned I wanted to help them with their cognitive and emotional growth,” she says. “And I needed a gap year to understand that about myself.”

Andrea Miller, a native of Austria, now resident of Decorah, adds that gap years can be natural transitions between career interests. Trained as a preschool teacher in Austria, she’s now considering a gap year with both her elementary-age daughters. “I feel like I’ve been taking gap years over and over again, learning about myself and what I can offer. Then my 9-year-old came to me with the idea, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute…are you old enough? What’s the age limit on gap years?’” Ultimately, she concluded, there isn’t one.

There’s also no time limit. Taking a gap “six months,” Maggie Schwarz traveled the U.S., worked locally to pay her rent and bills, established a healthy sleep/wake schedule, and cooked for herself. She and her partner, Dalton Brown (also a Decorah grad), bought a VW van they named Cosmo, and began rehabilitating it for long-term travel.

Maggie and her partner are rehabbing a vintage VW for long-term travel. At right are pressed flower artworks by Maggie from 2019. Photos courtesy Maggie Schwarz.

Now enrolled as a studio art major at Luther, Maggie considers her self-care routines her greatest assets for success in college, and the friendships she formed in Decorah – mostly with other professionals a decade or more older – remain important. “It’s sometimes hard to be the one ‘different’ person – in your class, in your family – but it’s empowering, too,” Maggie says. “You encourage people to think differently.”

She and Dalton are mid-project with the van, swapping out its motor for a more reliable Subaru model. “We’re working on the wiring right now,” she reports. “My dad [Luther arts professor Lane Schwarz] has been super helpful,” – and inspiring, she says. “I grew up hearing stories of how he packed a van full of friends and drove to Alaska a few times in college.”

After earning a degree, Maggie wants to create an arts program offering high-caliber studio training and building intentional community, like South Bear School for pottery and other studio arts, founded in the 1970s by her grandparents, Dean and Gerry Schwarz. “But I’m not naive about how far a bachelor’s degree in art will get me,” she says. “That dream will require collaboration, but I think we need that kind of space more than ever.”

Most of all, she says, she’s grateful for the opportunity to take ownership of her own interests and learning. “Dreaming and debt don’t go well together,” she concludes. “‘Finding yourself’ is really, really hindered by debt,” she says, especially the college kind.

Her advice? Save up a little cushion – to pay the deposit for a gap-year travel program, say, or to pay your living expenses while you learn new work skills, explore apprenticeships, or find mentors. But then, be brave.

If you get the chance to gap? Maggie is quick with her reply: “Do it.”


Kristine Jepsen is a grant/writer, editor, and business coach for her local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Her (unwitting) gap year after an undergrad degree in English and journalism included riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail and training sled dogs for a backcountry outfitter in Flathead National Forest in Montana. She’s been bridging unexpected careers and opportunities ever since.


Thinking about doing a gap?

Start here!

Center for Interim Programs | Gap Year Counseling Experts Since 1980

Gap Year Association | Nonprofit for advocacy and accreditation of gap programming

Gap-Inspired Schools and Service Opportunities:

AmeriCorps | Corporation for National & Community Service

Aprovecho Research Center | Intensive permaculture and green building program in Oregon

The Areta Project | Summer and gap year immersive programs in Alaska

Camphill Villages | International residential communities in service of disabled adults 

Classroom Alive! | An Open-Source Learning Model

Deep Springs College | Bishop, CA

EdVenture | A school for community enterprise in Frome, England

Expedition Education Institute | Gap travel to several bioregions on a bus with a small cohort of students

Foundation for Intentional Community | Locate communities for social connection, environmental responsibility, and economic equity 

Folk Schools in Norway, Sweden (and Norway again)

Global Citizen Year | International immersion gap-year program for leadership, service, and network-building

KAOSPILOT: 3-year program in Copenhagen, Denmark for “change-makers, leaders and social entrepreneurs”

Knowmads | Creative business program for self-development and entrepreneurialism in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Sevilla, Spain

LEAPNOW Program at Naropa University

Lost Valley Educational Center | Residency for sustainable living skills

Minerva Schools | Highly selective alternative college with study on four continents

Outer Coast College (Sitka, AK) 

PRAXIS | Competitive, one-year bootcamp combining liberal arts coursework with an internship

Rotary Exchange | International youth ambassador program for students age 15-19

School of All Relations | A Greek retreat program for interconnection: with self, others, and the Earth

School of Integrated Learning (SOIL) | Immersive off-grid sustainability programs

Team Academy | Business school for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands

Uncharted | Social impact accelerator program based in Denver, Colorado

Up With People | Performing arts service

Watson University | Boulder, CO

Weaving Earth | Nature-based education for action in Graton, California

Where There Be Dragons | Experiential learning, service, cultural immersion, and wilderness exploration

Wilderness Awareness School | Programs in ancient and modern ecological wisdom in Duvall, Washington

Woolman at Sierra Friends Center | Quaker program in the California Sierra Nevadas focused on social justice, peace, and sustainability

WWOOF | World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

Year On | Gap-year programming combining service abroad, skills focusing in San Francisco, and career coaching

YIP | International Youth Initiative Program in social entrepreneurship in Järna, Sweden

Youth Initiative High School & Thoreau College | Viroqua, WI

Read the Winter 2019-2020 Inspire(d) Online!

Winter 2019-2020 Inspire(d)

The Winter 2019-2020 Inspire(d) is all about winter fun and big ideas in the coming year! Inside, you’ll find:

Q&A with 5 Driftless Bakers: Sassy Baker • Fayette Sweets • Meringue Bakery • Newburg Vintage • Jo’s Coffee House – Jonah’s Hands, Paper Fortune Cookies, Big Ideas in 2020! Arthur Geisert, Organizing with Michelle Whitehill, Stay Active This Winter: Curling • Broomball • Sledding – & More!

A note from Aryn:

2020! What!

It’s the future, you guys!

It seems almost impossible that we’re approaching this new decade – and that we’ve been publishing this “experiment in positive news” for 12 years! But it’s not impossible…and, in fact, it never was. That’s always been one of our biggest goals: to remind you that big dreams start with that first step, a lot of hard work, and the willingness to jump in! Are you ready?! Let’s Make 2020 the Year of Big Ideas!

Of course, I just had to put a “Big Ideas” infographic together to give you some inspiration! Check it out on page 34.

We also want to share our infinite gratitude to all of our readers, and especially our advertisers, as we see our 60th issue of Inspire(d) roll out into the world. Woohoo! Time just keeps on slipping…so we’ve got to embrace every day.

This winter season, we hope that means embracing the fun, the cozy, and the notion that there is no bad weather as long as you’re wearing the right clothes.

One of our favorite things to do on a cold winter day is bake. In fact, we’ve got some of my chocolate chip cookies in the oven right now (see the recipe on page 26)! We loved reading Maggie Sonnek’s interviews with five Driftless Region bakers – Karin Sassaman from Sassy Baker, Kristy Donovan from Fayette Sweets, Jen Barney from Meringue Bakery, Irene Fishburn from Newburg Vintage, and Mikki Boyd from Jo’s Coffee House (pg 16) – and learning how things work in their kitchens.

Stay with the warm fuzzies while you read about Jonah Larson, an 11-year-old crochet prodigy from La Crosse, Wisconsin (pg 28). He has hooked the hearts of folks across the world with his beautiful crochet projects and kind heart.

Then get motivated for some winter adventures – you could head to the Dubuque Museum of Art to check out Elkader, Iowa-based children’s book author and illustrator Arthur Geisert’s work, on display through January 5, 2020. It’s a fun drive, and be sure to read all about Geisert beforehand in Kristine Jepsen’s story on page 38.

Or perhaps you’d like to add “try the sport of curling or broomball” to your adventure list! After reading about these sports on page 56, I really want to try both! At the very least, I’ll go sledding. It’s my favorite! Check out our tips for hosting a Sledding Party on page 64.

As we launch into this year of Big Ideas, a great first step is getting organized – read this issue’s Sum of Your Business, featuring Michelle Whitehill of Personally Organized, to get the de-cluttering ball rolling at your house.

Thank you so much, dear readers, for your support of Inspire(d). We couldn’t make this magazine without you! We wish you the happiest of holidays and the best New Year possible. You inspire us.

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

Click here to read the Winter 2019-2020 Inspire(d) online!

Read the Fall 2019 Inspire(d) Online!

The Fall 2019 Inspire(d) celebrates our 2019 Community Builders! Inside, you’ll find:

Community Builders – Luke Zahm, Emily Kurash Casey, Julie Shockey Trytten, Amanda Ninneman, Debra Lash – Driftless Mill History, Mid-Wisco Roadtrip, 12 Ways to Show Up for Your Community, Apple Orchards, & More!

A note from Aryn:

12 years! It seems impossible that much time has passed, yet here we are 12 years in on Inspire(d) Magazine, and 12 years in on our mission to make the world a better place, one community at a time.

In fact, it’s through communities that this mission has the best chance to succeed. Building communities is one of the most important things we can do on this planet, whether it’s through a book club or civil leadership or neighborhood networks or… you name it.

To celebrate that, and our 12-year birthday, we’re once again highlighting awesome Community Builders this fall. Congratulations – and a huge thank you – to the 2019 Inspire(d) Community Builders: Luke Zahm (Viroqua, WI), Emily Kurash Casey (Winona, MN), Julie Shockey Trytten (Decorah, IA), Amanda Ninneman (Caledonia, MN), and Debra Lash (La Crosse, WI). We love telling stories of folks out there walking their talks, and these people are doing just that. Check them out starting on page 34.

Anniversaries and birthdays often make us think about what’s important in our lives, what we’ve learned over the past year, and what we want to accomplish in the years ahead. The biggest, most obvious truth that comes to the top of our list every year is that people are what matter, and all people matter. I recently read an article that said, “It’s not self care we need, it’s community care,” and I realized this is the phrase I was missing. Community care! We need to Show Up for each other, in big and small ways, because often when we most need help, self care isn’t a possibility. I put together an infographic with 12 Ways to Care for Your Community – hopefully it inspires you to do some (intentional) acts of kindness in your neck of the woods!

Like every fall, there is A LOT a lot of fun to be had around here. Like heading out to apple orchards! Read about how Al Peake of Peake Orchards got his start 40 years ago in this issue’s Sum of Your Business, and see our list of apple orchards in the region – there are way more than we knew! Will you check one (or three?!) out this fall?!

Speaking of places you can check out, consider putting mills on your list! Benji Nichols explores these historic buildings dotting riverbanks in the area, and the grains they once processed (or might still today).

And in that spirit of getting out and enjoying every last lovely day, we put together a fun Mid-Wisco Road Trip for this issue. Check out what Benji and I did on our adventure from Viroqua to Richland Center to Spring Green and beyond, starting on page 56.

Thank you so much for reading Inspire(d) Magazine all these years, and for being part of this amazing community. You guys are the best. Here’s to creating a bright future together!

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

P.S. Please let us know if you’ve got a Community Builder you’d like to nominate for the Fall 2020 Inspire(d) – email me at aryn@iloveinspired.com.

P.P.S. Are you interested in writing for Inspire(d)? Shoot me an email! I’m on the lookout for experienced writers in the Driftless (extra bonus if you live in a place we don’t cover that often – we’d love to keep expanding our coverage).

Click here to read the Fall 2019 Inspire(d) online!