I wanted to temporarily step off the educational treadmill, enabling me to learn things I may never have otherwise. I was confident such experiences would actually enhance my success in college.
What comes to mind when you hear the term “gap year”? When viewed through the paradigm or lens of the conventional education system, “gap year” often correlates to a person who is directionless, is immature for their age, isn’t smart enough, doesn’t have the money for college, or will never go back to pursue a degree. It is drilled into learners in most conventional school models that life is linear—you graduate high school and immediately need to attend college to be successful. I decided to challenge those assumptions.
Throughout my gap year experience, I was asked, oftentimes with tones of uncertainty, why I chose such a path.
When answering, I often told individuals I was taking this gap year after high school to learn about myself and the world (and what it really has to offer). I wanted to temporarily step off the educational treadmill, enabling me to learn things I may never have otherwise. I was confident such experiences would actually enhance my success in college.
This Was No Easy Decision
In hindsight, my decision to forgo college for a year was a great decision. But, making that decision was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Once I began exploring my options, outside of college, it felt like I was putting a puzzle together without knowing what the final completed picture was supposed to look like. This decision wasn’t just about figuring out my next steps after high school; it was about identifying my purpose.
The challenge before me presented itself early during my senior year. The unavoidable question, “What are your plans for next year!?” was asked constantly. Early on, I would respond with, “I think I’m going to Iowa State University, but I’m not totally sure yet.”
As time went on and application deadlines crept closer, my answer was heading in the wrong direction. All I could say was, “I’m not sure yet.”
As each day passed, I saw my friends and classmates picking colleges with excitement, putting an end to the built up stress of the college search process. It made me feel like I was doing something amiss. I didn’t want to stymie the momentum I had built for myself through high school. I had designed a learning environment, created a youth-led initiative, worked on community development projects, and traveled the nation working to catalyze learner-centered education.
Jemar Lee leading the student panel keynote at iNACOL’s 2018 Symposium.
At the same time, I knew if I wasn’t careful about my next steps, I would give up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I had already scheduled for the upcoming year. I had speeches at national conferences, meetings I was asked to attend, workshops I was invited to co-facilitate, and learner-centered schools to visit. Additionally, I was worried about transitioning back to a school-centered experience.
Iowa BIG, a learner-centered environment in Cedar Rapids, provided me with the space to learn about myself, explore the specific things that were relevant to me, and experience real-world rigor by solving real problems in my community. If I went to college, I believed all of that was going to cease. It seemed completely backwards. How was I doing all these amazing things in high school and now, if I went to college, I would mostly be sitting in a desk being lectured at about what to know and expect from the “real world”?
We are doing learners a disservice by asking them, “What do you want to be?” rather than inviting them to answer, “What problems do you want to solve?” The higher education system, just like the K-12 one, needs to transform. It’s imperative we allow learners to discover and create a path for themselves, such as designing their own majors and learning in ways that work best for them—we have data showing that lectures work for a narrow slice of the population, yet that is how the majority of college freshmen spend their time.
This is Who Supported Me
As I continued reflecting on whether college was the next best step for me, it wasn’t until a few eye-opening conversations with mentors, community members, and family that I began to confidently explore what options would better serve my purpose.
One of these conversations was with a dear mentor and friend of mine, Dr. Trace Pickering. When I proposed my idea of taking a gap year, I felt as if Trace could tell I was carrying a stressful burden. I say that because, through that conversation, he opened my eyes to the possibilities the world has to offer and reminded me that anything is possible. He reassured me that, in today’s world, taking my own path is what typically leads to the best results—he pushed me to pursue anything and everything I was passionate about. Trace did not question or judge my thoughts on taking a gap year. Rather, he fully supported me; I was lucky to have a mentor like him during high school.
I also had many important conversations with my parents, who reassured me that I needed to do what felt best for me and my future. My parents constantly reminded me that I am the only thing standing between what I want to do in life and what I actually do. Unless I consider every opportunity I’m presented with, I may never know what I’m fully capable of. They reminded me I couldn’t worry about failing; if I did, I would never take any risks in life. These conversations pushed, inspired, and motivated me to continue trailblazing a path for myself.
This is What I Was Going to Do During My Gap Year
When I began confidently sharing my plans to take a gap year after high school, it was a constant battle between staying true to myself and blocking outside voices from friends and family who thought it may not be the best idea. They would ask, “What are you going to do for an entire year?” Of course, this was a logical question. There’s a difference between committing to a gap year and actually knowing what I wanted to do during that year. My ideas seemed endless.
During my senior year, I was working for Delta Airlines as a Customer Service agent and thought about working for the airline full time during my gap year. I could use my flight benefits to travel the country or use my free time outside of work to develop my own business plan. I also had ideas about how I could continue expanding the efforts I’d initiated at Iowa BIG. In particular, in partnership with a few other students, I’d launched a youth-led initiative—EdRevision. I could keep up the initiative’s work to amplify the growth of learner-centered education through the power of students.
I had visions of utilizing the resources and connections I’d made in my community to create a calendar of job shadows for professions I was interested in and those I had yet to gain knowledge about. This included sectors like community development, education administration, architecture, economic development, policy, business, and many more. I knew whatever I pursued, I would do something with a purpose to better myself or the world—or both.
I was interested in communicating with key stakeholders, including funders, in ways that would allow them to see the power and relevance of learner-centered education and how it was aligned with their own commitments.
Digging deeper into what moved me, I considered how much I enjoyed speaking about and supporting Education Reimagined and their mission to transform the K-12 education system during my time in high school. I expressed my interest in working on initiatives to design and execute plans that would increase and enable more learners around the country to become more involved in the organization’s work and the learner-centered movement as a whole. I was interested in communicating with key stakeholders, including funders, in ways that would allow them to see the power and relevance of learner-centered education and how it was aligned with their own commitments.
With all of these possibilities available to me, I hoped everything would fall into place, and I’d be put on the right path. I was less than two months from graduation when I received an offer from Education Reimagined for a part-time fellowship position to continue supporting their mission in a greater capacity. I was thrilled and immediately accepted the offer.
It didn’t stop there. Around the same time, at the request of Iowa Governor, Kim Reynolds, I spoke at her Future Ready Iowa Summit. I spoke about my work-based learning experience at Iowa BIG and how the opportunity to use my passion for architecture led me to design one of the Iowa BIG learning environments as a 16 and 17-year-old.
Little did I know that the VP of HR for Alliant Energy—a Midwest energy company—was in the audience. After the speech, he asked me to follow up with him regarding an opportunity to support some of their teams with the experience I already had. After many conversations with the VP and others within the corporation, I was offered a part-time internship working on projects to support the facilities team and to advance some of the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives—I had never even worked in diversity and inclusion before.
Jemar Lee speaking at the Governor’s 2018 Future Ready Iowa Summit
I was grateful and honored to work with Education Reimagined and Alliant. They were both putting so much trust in me to make a positive impact on their work, and they were willing to use their resources to further develop me as a person and professional. There’s nothing better than hoping an idea will pan out (e.g. taking a gap year) and then actually seeing it happen. The two internships would have completely satisfied my expectations for the year. However, more was brewing.
In 2017, after speaking on a learner panel at iNACOL, I began developing a relationship with individuals from Minnesota who were interested in advancing learner-centered education in their communities. During my senior year, we collaborated on ideas for projects and initiatives that would work to expand learner-centered education in Minnesota.
After many brainstorming sessions, they proposed an idea to the Bush Foundation. In June 2018, we received notice that the proposal was accepted and was going to be funded. Because of this, in the fall of 2018, the Minnesota Learner Centered Network (MLCN) would begin to advance learner-centered education in Minnesota by inspiring, equipping, connecting, and amplifying the leadership and voices of students and educators—the catalysts for school transformation.
My plate was getting pretty full, so I knew I would need to organize my time appropriately. But, the opportunities kept coming.
Later that same month, I received notice that I was a scholarship recipient for the Foundation of Blended and Online Learning. This college scholarship was for learners who had completed blended or online courses during their last two years of high school. Because I had done both through my community college, Prairie High School, and Iowa BIG, I had applied for the scholarship prior to making my gap year decision. I now had four different and amazing opportunities in front of me. I had to ask myself, “should I say no to some or find a way to make everything work?”
College is the perfect next step for some, but it’s definitely not for all.
Fortunately, my experience at Iowa BIG the past two years had given me the critical thinking and time management skills I needed to develop an action plan that would make all of these opportunities work. After receiving the scholarship offer, I spent the next few weeks communicating with the various companies and organizations to plan out my weekly schedule. Lo and behold, I was able to incorporate all four experiences into my gap year.
I would take Wednesday and weekday evenings to focus on my online classes (the costs of which were supported by my scholarship), work for Alliant in the mornings, and complete my duties for my Education Reimagined fellowship, along with my other tasks for the Minnesota Learner-Centered Network, in the afternoons and evenings.
This is How You Can Support Learners Who Don’t See College as the Next Step
Listening to my intuition and the advice from my parents and close mentors led me down the path that was right for me. And, although it all fell into place and might sound like smooth sailing, making the decision to take a gap year was incredibly stressful. I hope sharing my experiences will help both adults understand the struggle learners go through and young people figure out how to make those choices when deciding their next steps after graduating high school. It’s an internal and external battle that can make us choose the easy path, rather than the right one if we don’t have the right support.
College is the perfect next step for some, but it’s definitely not for all. We should be providing young learners with the opportunity to cultivate networks and resources that they can then utilize to create unique education pathways during and after their K-12 experience. Some, like me, will discover a gap year followed by attending college is the right decision. Others might discover a blend of internships, job shadowing, and unstructured meaningful opportunities will take them straight into a great paying job—potentially saving thousands in student debt.
Throughout my journey, I experienced first-hand that everything happens for a reason and my purpose of working for learners around this country who are yearning for a more effective, relevant, and equitable education system was not done yet. As I finish up my roles with each company and organization and head to college this fall, I will be back with another article, sharing about the knowledge and skills I developed during my gap year.
In the meantime, as young learners get ready to cross the stage, remember to support all young people in taking their next big steps. Remind them they don’t need to worry about the whole staircase—just take one step at a time and each day your puzzle will start to fit together. It’s crucial we ensure young people have a support system to pursue their dreams and goals—not anyone else’s. There’s no doubt in my mind you could be that person for someone. Think about how you can open the minds of a young person to the many paths they could take toward living a happy and successful life. I was fortunate to have the support of my parents, mentors, and community members, and I can’t imagine how limited I would have felt without it.