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Delaying college for service can yield multiple benefits, students say

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by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It has become a small but significant Bethel College tradition for a certain number of graduates each year to choose voluntary service right after college.

Now Bethel is beginning to see a new but related service phenomenon – students who defer college for a year to do VS.

This fall, there are six such first-year students, and another half-dozen in their second, third or final year, who did service before college. They list many positive results from choosing this path, including definite benefits to college life.

Most of these students come from Mennonite congregations where they were exposed to service well before reaching college age, through youth group trips, hearing stories of service experience from others in the congregation, or both. They all chose either Radical Journey or Service Adventure, two programs of Mennonite Mission Network.

“I figured this was the time for it – it seemed easier with no college debt yet,” says freshman Laird Goertzen from Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, Goessel, Kan. “I knew I wanted to do a year and do service internationally.

“Radical Journey e-mailed me right when I was thinking about it. A [Mennonite Mission Network] representative had been at church and said: ‘Sign up for anything you think you might ever want to do.’” Goertzen spent 2011-12 in Nanchong, China, teaching English.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in college yet,” says freshman Tim Regier from First Mennonite Church, Newton, Kan. “I thought it would be good to take a break from school and regain focus.”

He also chose Radical Journey and spent the year in Paraguay, working with Alto Refugio, an AIDS charity that happened to be run by his father’s cousin (happy chance, since Regier was supposed to go to Bolivia but had to change countries when Bolivia refused to accept the service workers’ visas).

Regier came home still uncertain what he wanted to study. However, one of his tasks at Alto Refugio was working on its website and “that was helpful. I already knew I liked the work but I found there’s a lot of need in that area, especially overseas. A lot of the donations Alto used to buy medicine came though its website.

“Even though I hadn’t taken any web design classes, I could help them just with basic knowledge I had. I’m still interested in a lot of things but that is in the mix.”

For freshman Abby Schrag from First Mennonite in Newton, right before college was “a good time, because I thought maybe after college, I’d be more career-focused.” She was part of the Service Adventure unit in Philippi, W.Va., and worked in a clinic that served many low-income and underinsured clients.

“I got a lot of experience in the health field,” she says, “It helped me figure out if that’s something I want to pursue further. It affirmed for me that I want to be involved in something medical.” Working with two physician assistants at the Philippi clinic has put that career at the top of her interest list.

There were others who also found that a year of service affirmed an existing career focus.

“I had already planned out what I was going to do, what I was going to be,” says freshman Chris Wagoner from Bethel College Mennonite Church (BCMC), North Newton, “but I talked to both peers and older people and they all said taking a year off is better, to have a break between all the academic learning.”

He was in Service Adventure in Raleigh, N.C., where one of his service placements was working in a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Service Adventure “didn’t change what I wanted to do [at Bethel] – it reaffirmed it. I had planned on a psychology major – I want to figure out the best way to help people with psychological disorders. I saw some of that in the ReStore. There were people who, if they got you for a second, would talk your ear off and I’m pretty sure it's because they didn’t have anyone else to talk to.

“I knew that was the kind of people I wanted to [work with] and that brought it home. I was intrigued before Service Adventure – now, I really want to help people, because I’ve seen it.”

Liz Schrag, from Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, went to Service Adventure in Anchorage, Alaska, with definite interests as well. She did her service placement with Homeward Bound, an organization that works with homeless people.

“I was thinking about music education before,” she says. “I didn’t do anything music-related last year and I didn’t play my bassoon at all. I realized how much I missed that, and kept feeling like music ed was the way to go.”

In addition to help with vocational choices, Bethel students who choose service get a credit benefit.

“Service and learning are integral to Bethel College’s mission of ‘Seek. Serve. Grow.’,” says Marcia Miller, registrar. “Students can work directly with a faculty member before and throughout the ‘gap year’ experience – they share about their learning periodically with their faculty advisor through journals or blogs. When the student enters Bethel, they meet for the final time with that advisor to discuss and bring closure to the gap year.”

Students can earn an hour of academic credit for each month spent in the service assignment, Miller adds. “Service participation while interacting with a faculty mentor offers students a unique perspective, while they also earn college-level credit.”

Bethel also supports students doing a service gap year by holding all scholarships for one year until the student comes to Bethel, says Clark Oswald, associate director of admissions. “Students don’t need to reapply for any scholarships they received before doing their service experience.”

These students also derived less tangible benefits from their year of service pre-college.

“I grew a bit more socially,” says Wagoner. “My own spiritual beliefs became much more solidified and personal, more my own.”

“I feel like I haven’t done enough in my own community to serve,” says Liz Schrag. “I thought this would give me some of the tools to help impact my own community later.”

Plus, she says, “As a freshman, I’m not as concerned about fitting in. Lots of [first-year] students seem to have a hard time figuring out how to be on their own, doing own laundry, eating healthy – I’m confident about being on my own two feet.”

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA.

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