Taking a leap to explore the world

  • Sarah McMahon, left, Elizabeth Carr and Will Yarrington work in the kitchen of the LEAPNOW campus, near Calistoga, on Wednesday, August 28, 2013. McMahon and Carr are alumni of LEAPNOW, with McMahon spending her time in India and Ghana, and Carr spending her time in India and Brazil.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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."

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