It more resembles summer camp, complete with bunk houses and mess hall. But at this little-known college at the farthest edge of Sonoma County, where some 30 freshmen arrive this week, "campus" is as small as its 10 woodsy acres and as big as the world.

It's wherever a student wants to go and their coursework whatever they want to experience or learn, from helping with a women's empowerment program in Uganda to working with orphaned baboon babies in South Africa to learning Kung Fu in China.

This eager group of 18-year-olds are students at LeapNow, headquartered in a former Camp Fire Girls camp at the edge of Knight's Valley. Here they will prepare for the adventure of their young lives.

Instead of racing right off to a four-year college, they are stepping off the educational train and into a "gap year," a common European tradition that is slowly being embraced in the U.S. as a healthy break between high school and college.

Many kids simply want to travel before cracking the books. Others will take up interesting jobs or public service opportunities in exotic locales. Professional advisors and programs are cropping up to offer formal services to help new grads set up internships, volunteer jobs and adventure experiences across the globe.

Some leading universities, like Harvard, are encouraging or accommodating students who want to delay enrollment. Princeton's Bridge Year program sends incoming students overseas for nine months of service work.

But LeapNow, accredited through Antioch University in Ohio, is a unique model that offers kids a gap-year experience along with college units, said Sam Bull, who founded the program in 1994.

<b>Explore the world</b>

A gap year, he explained, is a chance to explore the world in a real way, outside a formal classroom, while also gaining a sense of self and autonomy.

"It's a chance to follow your own interests," he said. "So many times in a high school or college, we think someone else knows better than we do about what we need to learn. Education is something someone does to us. That's backwards."

Bull's father, the late Cornelius Bull III, is credited with formally launching the gap-year movement in the U.S. after his efforts as a private school headmaster to counsel grads to take a time out after high school became the subject of a New York Times article in the 1970s. People began seeking him out for formal help, and in 1980, he created The Center for Interim Programs based in Princeton, N.J.

Bull himself took time off to travel and work in Europe before starting Princeton University in 1978. He found it transformative. But in creating LeapNow, he sought to create an even richer experience. Students arrive in Sonoma County for a two-week orientation, during which they prepare for 10 weeks of traveling and volunteering in India or Latin America with the group. After Christmas, they return to campus for a three-week retreat during which they engage in a rite of passage ceremony with their parents, "go deeply into themselves" and decide what to do on their own, in the spring, tapping into LeapNow's database of 6,300 programs and internships around the world.

Tuition, at $34,000, is not cheap, but because it's accredited, students can qualify for federal loans and grants. LeapNow also offers scholarships, Bull said. Many, if not all, the units transfer to college credit.

<b>Worked in Ghana</b>

Sarah McMahon, 21, of Willits enrolled in 2010 and chose to work in an orphanage in Ghana caring for babies.

"I was the only western person in this tiny little village," said McMahon, one of a half-dozen program alums who have returned for a second year, this time helping first-year students. In Ghana, she lived with a host family in a rustic apartment with no running water — only a big trash can of water she had to set out to refill whenever it rained.

Lizzie Carr, 20, of Napa was discouraged after being turned down by her top college choices after high school graduation. When she found out about LeapNow, she leaped at the chance. She wound up in Brazil, teaching English to young girls.

"I learned a lot of lessons about not taking what I have for granted. I learned how to source myself for what I need and not other people," said Carr, also on a second year. "I learned lessons about where joy comes from. I met people who in comparison to me had nothing. They have three outfits and a shack and a beat-up soccer ball they all share. And they're so happy."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at Meg.McConahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.