Posts Categorized: Inspired Ideas

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

21 Ways to Kick the Winter Blues!

Balloons

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Winter 2013-14 Inspire(d)

It’s tough to stay positive in the winter – when it’s edging on four feet of snow outside, the thermometer hasn’t popped above zero in days, and the only fresh vegetable in your house is a month-old potato, the force of the couch is strong. If it’s a blanket that’s made to be worn, it’s okay, right?

Wrong! At least not in the long-term. As Dylan Thomas said: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Use this winter to get happy, inspired, and ready for spring!

Try making some changes and goals that sound fun. It can really work, says Mary Jorgensen, of Decorah-based certified Rising Sun Life Coaching. Jorgenson believes making small adjustments in your day can make a big difference in your life, and we couldn’t be more on board! So we’ve put together a list of inspire(d) ideas to “kick winter doldrums in the shins.”

Jorgensen also added a great tip that we couldn’t resist sharing: “Smile, even for no particular reason; scientists know that smiling generates good hormones, uplifts your mood, and – an added bonus here – prompts other people to smile back, which gives you warm fuzzies to beat the cold.”

We love that.

Make time for YOU:

There really is no such thing as “no time”. There is definitely “little time”, though, so you have to schedule the things you enjoy most – literally put them on your calendar on a time/day that you set, and stick with it. Go to a movie, get a beer or coffee with friends, take a yoga or meditation class (read some tips on meditation here). If it were my schedule, I might get a massage, take a bath…maybe even pencil in a nap!

Move! (No, not south… your body!)

“Practice the best antidote there is: exercise, dance, move your body in ways that generate blues-busting chemicals for your body and mind,” Jorgensen says. We agree, and so do experts at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. An  article published by Mayo connects exercise and stress relief: “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. If you’re not an athlete or even if you’re downright out of shape, you can still make a little exercise go a long way toward stress management.”

Plus, there’s more!

  • Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, which puts more pep in your step every day.
  • Exercise pumps up your endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
  • It’s meditation in motion. After a workout, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements. As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do.
  • It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise also can improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression, and anxiety. All this can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.
  • Do what you love.
  • Make a schedule and stick with it.
  • Set realistic, smart goals.
  • Find a workout buddy.

(Be sure to consult with a doctor before beginning a new exercise program.)

At Inspire(d) HQ, we are currently loving spinning, yoga, pilates…and dancing, of course. Always dancing. Oh – and who could forget sledding?!

Play in the snow

Just embrace it. It’s here.
Sledding, snow angels, snowball fights, snow forts, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowmen. I’m already excited!

Shower

Play music while you’re showering

This sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed at how a little music can change your whole outlook on the day. Pick a playlist that is upbeat and makes you nod your head. Now just keep nodding. This is you saying “yes” to your day, even if you didn’t know it!

De-clutter your space:

If you’re going to be inside all winter, you may as well like what you’re looking at! Walk around your house with a basket, filling it with things that don’t have a home. (You might need a pretty big basket. That’s okay.) When you’re done, look around and see if you’ve missed anything. Be relentless; surround yourself with only things you love! Next go through the basket and make piles: to donate, to recycle, to trash, and to keep. Get the first three piles out of your house as soon as possible, then come back to address the last pile. Find solutions for storing these items so they will be easy to find and put away in the future. Then look around at your tidy house and all the things (and people, of course) you love. It’s a happy thing, right?

Livingroom

Move furniture

While you’re in house mode, maybe it’s the perfect time to rearrange! A new living room layout can feel like a new house! Take it a step further and learn a thing or two about feng shui. We enjoyed “Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui” by Karen Kingston.

Read inspiring books.

While you’re checking on feng shui books, why not check out some other books that are inspiring/happy/funny? We asked our Facebook friends and readers what books were their favorites – what a great selection we got! Report back if you decide to read any of them! (facebook.com/iloveinspired)

An Awesome Book of Thanks by Dallas Clayton
Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus
The Abarat by Clive Barker
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Little Princes by Conor Grennan
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Bossy Pants by Tina Fey
Be Here Now by Ram Dass
Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres
Chapters From My Autobiography by Mark Twain
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
The Art of Life: the Autobiography of Dan Eldon by Jennifer New
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl
The Geography of Bliss by by Eric Weiner
Following Atticus by Tom Ryan
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
A Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Reminder: Check with your local bookstore to see if they have what you want to read in stock!

Books

Put Pen to Paper:

Getting and sending mail feels good, and so does letting ink tell your thoughts to a piece of paper. Try it this winter!

Line up a pen pal
Write one thank you note a week
Write down all your crazy ideas in a notebook for future inspiration
Write a letter to your kids to open years down the road (or write a letter to your parents to give to them when you graduate or get married or just because).

HappyList

Make Happy Lists

This is something I started doing in college when I felt a little down or (shhhh) homesick. I would take a piece of paper – it can be big or little – and absolutely cram it with things that made me happy. From coffee to best friends to nice sheets to scarves to fresh snow to chocolate. Usually by the end I was feeling…gasp…happy! I also tucked the lists away. It was fun to happen upon them randomly later – (almost) as good as finding a long-forgotten $20 in a winter coat!

Plan a trip

Sometimes the best thing about winter is leaving winter. If you can’t swing a ticket to warmer climes right now, start planning for a “someday” trip. Make a savings strategy and a folder filled with sunny images. Even if it takes a decade to collect the dough, the anticipation and Trip Advisor reviews will pull you through many a chilly night.

Beach

Look at the stars (they seem even brighter in winter) and learn some constellations:

Roxie has just started shouting MOON at night, and that, we think, is a great way to celebrate this dark, dark season. Look at the moon! Look at the stars! Get out there in that crisp air and breathe it in and just look up. While you’re at it, learn some constellations – it’s fun! Our favorites in the northern hemisphere winter sky are: Orion, Gemini (Benji’s sign), Taurus (Aryn’s sign), Pegasus, and Cassiopeia. Check out the cool astronomyonline.org site to learn more!

Remind yourself how lucky you are

Sometimes it’s annoying to hear “Hey, it’s not so bad,” but generally it’s true. So try to remember it. And believe it.

Make pancakes on a weekday

Pancakes

Drink Coffee/Hot Chocolate/Tea

Okay, that morning cup of coffee makes you feel happy and awake, but a cozy warm drink, sipped with a friend or by yourself on the couch – that’s all about taking care of you.

Bake!

I’m pretty sure winter exists almost purely for baked goods. Few things are cozier than a warm oven sending out delightful wafts of chocolate or apple or lemon or pumpkin or caramel or (you get it)… through your house.

muffins

Take a class (art/language/welding/cooking/knitting/coding)

Check out your area college’s offerings – you can often audit courses, or even simply sit in (talk to the professor first). Also see what your arts organizations, galleries, and museums are up to, or even the local yarn shop or your chamber of commerce. You don’t have to wait until January 1 to tackle a goal or learn something new!

Dance. For real: Dance!

Even if you’re terrible. (You’re not…)

Bring a little color into your house:

I love to have fresh flowers on my table – that shot of color brings a smile to my face every time. But you could also make paper flowers or even a paper heart garland for a wall.

Flowers

Make a new friend

Easier said than done, but boy is it nice to have friends. This new friend can be useful for planning trips, throwing dinner parties, coffee dates, as an exercise buddy or pen pal, or if you need help moving a couch! Pretty sweet dividends, right?

Speaking of Dinner Parties…

Small get-togethers make long winters zip by. Make it a potluck and it’s even easier!

(Check out our the Great Dinner Party infographic!)

Blanket Forts

No matter if it’s one blanket or ten, “all the experts” agree a fort is a good activity. Even better yet, put together a little picnic and dine al tento. (< Totally a word.)

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Aryn Henning Nichols loves the first snowfall, but hates the 54th (you know, that one in May). Finding creative ways to get happy has been a life-long goal, and a big part of why she started Inspire(d) Magazine with Benji over seven years ago.

20+ Random Acts of Kindness

RandomActsKindnessLogo

We here at Inspire(d) often talk about changing the world…or, more accurately, changing the community. But what about simply brightening someone’s day? That, honestly, changes the world right there. We thought we’d put together a fun list of ways to easily bring a smile to your family, friends’, neighbors’, and fellow community-members’ faces. It’s not so hard, and, happily, it makes both the giver and receiver feel all kinds of good.

“Kindness Week” is celebrated in February, but we think any time is a great time for compassion and general good-ness! So click below for more than 20 ways to brighten your days (it’s gotta rhyme, right?!). Read more about “Random Act of Kindness” .

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