From Outside Magazine: College Kids Are Flocking to Outdoor Education Programs by Sara Harrison
When 19-year-old Sabine Blumenthal first left college, she was in denial. Like the rest of her classmates at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, she was sent home in March as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States. Even though she was stuck finishing out her freshman year across the country in Seattle, Blumenthal was sure she’d be back at school in the fall. But as the pandemic stretched on, she started to realize that college wouldn’t be the same when or if she returned. She wondered if she could stand another semester cooped up at home or if she would feel OK spending most of her time alone in her dorm room. “That was hard for me to picture,” she says.
So, in June, Blumenthal applied to a gap year program at the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado. The program includes rock climbing and an emphasis on public land conservation—topics and skills she thinks will be useful in the future, since she’d like to pursue a career in outdoor education. Blumenthal had done a semester-long program through the organization in high school but had never seriously considered taking a gap year. “I had this one-track mind: full steam ahead,” she says.
But in the wake of the pandemic, Blumenthal is reassessing what’s right for her. “I’ve been at home for four months now and felt really stuck and in limbo,” she says. “This is going to be really good for me to take a risk again.”
Blumenthal applied to HMI before her college announced it would resume an in-person fall semester, albeit with numerous COVID-19 protocols and many classes still held online. Now, as many colleges and school districts return to virtual or hybrid classrooms, many students are weighing other options. Harvard recently reported that 20 percent of incoming freshmen are deferring for a year, and one survey by Simpson Scarborough, a research and marketing firm focused on higher education, found that 40 percent of first-year college students and 28 percent of returning students were likely or highly likely to defer. In the meantime, outdoor semester programs for high schoolers and students taking a gap year are experiencing record demand. But there isn’t space for everyone.
Ray McGaughey, director of admissions at HMI, says he gets up to five inquiries every day for its gap year program, which normally has space for only 24 students. HMI added—and almost instantly filled—a third 12-student section, growing the program 50 percent from last year. McGaughey says they could probably add a fourth or even fifth section and fill those as well.
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