The college process was just beginning 3 years ago, but Staples High School sophomore Johnny Donovan knew he wanted something different after graduation.
Last fall, Johnny was a senior. America’s mood darkened during the presidential election. Johnny — who had served as president of the Kool To Be Kind club — made the American University of Rome his first choice.
He got in. Immediately, he asked school officials to defer his entrance until next fall.
They agreed. A gap year, after all, is a European tradition.
His parents and guidance counselor — here in the US, where taking a year off before college is sometimes looked upon as strange, or even an admission of failure — were supportive too.
“I was only 17. I wasn’t ready to go right to college,” he explains.
Johnny loves the outdoors. He researched a number of programs, before choosing Rustic Pathways. It’s old, well established, and runs service programs in areas of real need.
Johnny’s gap year began this fall, with 3 components. In Fiji, he and his group — 13 American students, 1 Swiss, with 3 leaders (2 Americans, 1 Fijian) — would work with local communities. New Zealand promised adventure, while in Australia they’d work on self-improvement.
Johnny had no idea what to expect. “I just went in with an open mind,” he says.
Fiji proved to be the hardest month of Johnny’s life. His first homestay was with a family in the highlands. They had no running water or electricity.
But, Johnny notes, “my family was ‘rich.’ They had doors. And the toilet was inside.”
Johnny and his group built tables at a local school. He and most of his group also got sick. It was a bonding experience.
After weeks of living and working in the highlands, Johnny says, “all we wanted was a hot shower and clean clothes.” They moved to a beach village, where they reconstructed a community hall that had been destroyed by a cyclone.
It took leaving Fiji to appreciate his experience there. “When I looked at all my photos I realized how nice the family was, not how sick I got,” says Johnny.
New Zealand — where the group stayed in hostels — was filled with amazing experiences. Johnny went skydiving, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping and rock climbing. He went on the world’s largest canyon swing, and tried zorbing (climbing into a giant ball filled with water, which is then pushed down a mountain).
Johnny calls New Zealand “the prettiest country in the world, with the nicest and happiest people.”
But part of his experience was living with the same 14 people for 3 months. He calls it “a 2017 version of ‘The Breakfast Club.'”
In Australia Johnny earned a sailing certificate and a bronze lifeguard medallion (after taking a very demanding course). He surfed, ran on the beach, and celebrated his 18th birthday with “the best meal of the trip.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Johnny suddenly felt homesick. For the first holiday ever, he was away from his 5 siblings and parents.
“Besides Fiji, that was the toughest part of the trip,” he says.
But Johnny went skydiving again, and did 2 more bungee jumps.
The trip ended with a service day in Sydney — and a Jack Johnson concert at the Opera House.
The 22-hour flight home was a time for reflection. Johnny thought of how much he’d learned about himself, others, and the world.
“Now I know how daunting it is to be away from home for so long,” he says. “I understand things like culture shock.” He says he is more emotionally prepared for college than if he had not traveled. He looks forward to using Rome as a base to explore the rest of Europe, and north Africa.
But first — after Christmas — comes the next part of Johnny’s gap year. He’ll do 2 months of service work in Chile, then head to Cuba for more service. In both countries, he’ll live with local families.
Back in September, when his friends left for college, Johnny wished he was going too. Now however, he can’t imagine not having done what he did.
He recommends it strongly for others. “A gap year isn’t just for dropouts or burnouts,” he says.
“It would be great if everyone had the opportunity, support, and financial resources to do it. The rest of the world thinks a gap year is great. Here, people are a lot more condescending. They say, ‘What happened? You didn’t get into college?'”
Johnny Donovan certainly did. And when he heads off to college next fall, he’ll already have a year of coping — and learning — under his well-traveled belt.
Click below for a video Johnny created, about his month in Fiji: