Johnny Donovan Does Not Mind The Gap

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 Donovan (far left) and 3 group members, with one of the tables they built for a school in Fiji.

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 Donovan in New Zealand…

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.

… skydiving …

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.

… and at the Sydney Opera House.

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:


15 responses to “Johnny Donovan Does Not Mind The Gap

  1. What an extraordinary young person is Johnny Donovan. Thanks for the story. What an uplift with which to start the new year.

  2. Hooray for Johnny…a great story.

  3. Great story to kick off the New Year!!

  4. Julie Shapiro

    Love the idea but it’s only affordable for rich people. My daughter did the Fiji thing with Rustic Pathways and it cost us $8,000 for four weeks. Valuable expensive experience

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Lucky for Johnny that his parents had the means to pay for this trip around the world. I don’t understand gap years for kids who get to travel around the world and someone else pays for it. I do understand how an 18-year-old may not know what he/she wants to study or what career to pursue, but going on “service trips” where you surf, bungee jump, run on the beach – seems like a way for another opportunity for these kids to avoid the real world. If you need a year off to contemplate and to appreciate how good you have it here, get a job that pays you a wage. I’d like a year off to travel around the world with someone else paying. The lives that our children in this town lead are already privileged enough that one more year of the same (even if you are living in Fiji) just puts off the inevitable. This is not a comment on Johnny but rather the tone of the story – which just reinforces how lucky our kids are. Either get a job after high school or start college.

  6. My gap year involved going to MCRD Parris Island. When I sent my first post card home to my parents I told them that the travel agent really screwed up…they ticketed me for Parris Island not Paradise Island.. needless to say…it did not make my experience any less enjoyable! Gap years have come along way since my day.

    • Thank you for your service Jamie. Semper Fi

      With respect to the article. What was the point? That Westport has entitled kids? I realize a gap year can be a great experience for any young person and it’s very specific to the individual. Good for Johnny and I trust he’s a good kid. Read more like a “travel year” with a few service oriented events tossed in for good measure. I’m sure Bridgeport and other communities close by would have provided a more impactful “gap year” for the young man.

  7. Elaine Marino

    It is disheartening to read the judgmental comments being made. I did not come away with the sentiment: “This is just a privileged Westport kid getting to defer college for a year.” I learned about a young man who stepped far out of his comfort zone to live thousands of miles from home with a family whose home “in the highlands” (read: remote) had no running water or electricity. That fact alone – not to mention the community service projects he completed – indicates to me that Johnny Donovan is not someone who takes his privilege for granted. How many of us would give up our Westport comforts to live like that?

  8. In case people have forgotten there was a time in this country when people 17 – and younger were fighting and dying for their country, They were not whining that they were “only 17”. This is sad on so many levels and an embarrassment for his parents who I am sure do not see it that way.

  9. Nancy Hunter

    It’s called the “Grand Tour”, which is ironic since this young man plans to study in Rome. The Obama daughter deferred, too. Does deferment mean a placement for another student is lost? An empty seat?

  10. Shannon Nordlinger

    Congratulations Johnny! This sounds like an amazing experience that will impact who you become in the world. I commend you for realizing you weren’t ready for college and your parents for supporting your choices. For all the negative comments- honestly, mind your own business. If you’re leading with judgment of others, consider not hitting “post comment”.

  11. Melissa Augeri

    First, I love to read this blog each day and get different perspectives and learn about all of the people in and connected to our community. Next, I rarely comment but after reading a few comments here I felt compelled. I celebrate differences of opinions along with everyone’s right to be genuine and speak their mind. However, I do find it disappointing that we have forgotten a golden rule. That rule is to respect other people’s choices and to avoid rushing to negative judgements in such a public way. If you don’t have something nice or productive to say, it might be nice to take a pause and not say it at all. We need to remember that everyone is a human being with feelings and unless we know them personally, we don’t know much about the factors that contribute to their decisions and choices. And maybe it isn’t our place to criticize. While I personally do not have the means to take such a trip or send my children off on a gap year to travel, I don’t find it necessary to disparage those who are able to have this experience. Perhaps this young man saved his own money to fund the trip. Either way, that is only his family’s business. This story was simply an opportunity for us to learn about a young person in our community who went on an interesting personal adventure and made a choice that is slightly different than many Staples students today. Let’s celebrate our community, our neighbors, our children, our neighbor’s children and be positive.