Having spent almost a month at Wesleyan, the class of 2020 is quickly adjusting to the school climate and settling into the rhythm of balancing academics, extracurricular activities, and social events.
As paper deadlines fly by and midterms approach, many students recall high school as the last time they had to take a test. Students who have taken gap years, however, have to look a bit further. Among them is Sydney Taylor-Klaus ’20.
A 2015 graduate of The Paideia School in Atlanta, Ga., Taylor-Klaus spent the equivalent of two semesters traveling in New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia and volunteering on a permaculture farm in Nicaragua. The Argus sat down with Taylor-Klaus to hear about her experiences abroad, as well as her insights from the past year.
When asked about her motivations for taking a gap year, Taylor-Klaus cited the need to separate her high school experience from college.
“I wanted to break out of the routine of ‘school school school,’ and since college is really the beginning of the rest of your life, I wanted to take some time and figure out who I was before starting,” she explained. “I knew I could enter college more confident about who I am, but I also knew it was going to be a lot of work, so I decided to learn more about myself as a person.”
More than five percent of Taylor-Klaus’s graduating class at The Paideia School opted to take a gap year, and she referenced her peers’ experiences as having helped her decision.
“I knew as a freshman [in high school] that there were some students who took a year off and did really cool things,” Taylor-Klaus said. “During my junior year, my Ultimate [Frisbee] co-captain took a gap year, and I knew a lot of others who chose that path.”
While Taylor-Klaus revealed her plans for a gap year to only a few of her classmates, she said she was pleased to receive their support.
“Even though I didn’t talk about it a lot at school, when I finally told my friends about my plan, they were really supportive,” she said. “That was a really big help.”
When planning out the finer points of her gap year, Taylor-Klaus searched for a cultural immersion trip that would take her abroad and engage her in community service. Opting not to take courses for credit, she signed up with Carpe Diem Education. Based in Portland, Ore., the company specializes in gap year programs and experiential education.
Signing up for the Latitude Year program, Taylor-Klaus embarked on a 14-person, three-month trip to New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia. During the second semester of her gap year, Taylor-Klaus enrolled in a Focused Volunteer Placement (FVP) program, which allowed her to intern on a permaculture farm in Nicaragua through Project Bona Fide.
“The essential project was applying permaculture principles to designing a piece of land for a hypothetical client,” she said. “We learned all about how these natural elements interact and about the strategies which promote sustainability and keep the Earth’s well-being as the first priority.”
Discussing permaculture, Taylor-Klaus commented on the universal applications of the field.
“It’s really a principle, or concept,” she said. “You can apply it to anything, like city planning, farming, or even which classes you take in college. For our purposes, we applied it to farming systems and structures, and agricultural design.”
Taylor-Klaus also elaborated on how the study of permaculture opened her eyes to the cyclical processes of nature and how technology doesn’t have to work against or be at odds with the Earth’s natural balance.
“Chickens are a great example,” she added. “They create manure that’s a great fertilizer for the soil and composting; they break down compost, produce eggs, food, and so much more. The food waste from the kitchen supports them, so you see the balance of elements supporting functions, and these functions supporting said elements. It’s multifunctional!”
Balancing resources is another key concept that Taylor-Klaus learned and then utilized in her field work.
“It’s a great way to use all of your natural resources, but not overtax them and have them run out,” she said.
Though she had never previously considered working on a permaculture farm, Taylor-Klaus realized that her favorite portion of her New Zealand trip was working on an organic farm. Building water troughs, for example, helped her see more clearly the interconnectedness of nature.
“While staying in a marae, or a Maori—an indigenous New Zealand population, that is—community, we toured another and saw how they planted native trees to rid surfaces of impacted soil and grass which caused a once-flowing river to become subterranean, and bring the river back over time,” she said.
Taylor-Klaus was struck by the foresight of the Maori community and their determination to bring the Earth back to its true wealth of natural beauty.
“My experiences on the group trip in New Zealand really helped determine where I would work during the FVP,” Taylor-Klaus said. “Because I had an affinity for manual labor and my interest in nature was there, my advisor strongly recommended the permaculture project. She recognized that it was a good fit, and I’m really glad that I ended up where I did.”
Braving weeks of limited contact with her family and friends while thousands of miles from home, Taylor-Klaus truly embraced the hands-on approach to learning.
“I’ve always known that I thrive on a mixture of classroom learning and hands-on engagement, and it was really something to go from one extreme to another, [and] for a year, at that,” she said.
Self-care also became a major element of Taylor-Klaus’ gap year.
“I learned so much about taking care of myself, and how to step back and take alone time,” she said. “I spent a lot of time sitting up in a mango tree, just reflecting and watching the natural beauty around me.”
The immersive experiences, she maintains, helped open her up and observe the differences between various cultures.
“When we got to Fiji, it was a first for a lot of people to not be in a First World country,” she said. “I could see my friends maturing around me, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, so was I. It was amazing to grow together, and so much of how I feel I grew is still inexplicable.”
Skyping her family from Australia on Thanksgiving at 6 a.m., after weeks of no contact, provided Taylor-Klaus some positive feedback.
“I remember that after the Skype [conversation], my family remarked on how happy, energetic, mature, and ‘me’ I sounded,” she said. “It’s not that I wasn’t ‘me’ before the trip, but I evolved, in a sense. It was truly incredible.”
Having completed her first month at Wesleyan, Taylor-Klaus reflected on how her gap year has already influenced her University experience.
“My gap year definitely made it easier to adjust, and I think that the confidence I gained by traveling made me much less scared,” she said. “I realized that if I could go to a Central American country by myself, without any knowledge of Spanish, and do well for myself, then I would be just fine in college.”
The experience drastically broadened her horizons before coming to Wesleyan.
“I really burst out of a bubble by leaving Atlanta,” Taylor-Klaus said. “Traveling the world, then coming to Wesleyan was bursting into an entirely new one, but the skills and self-knowledge I gained over the past year have stuck with me.”
Comfortably reclined on a couch in the Clark basement lounge, Taylor-Klaus intoned that the past year has solidified her sense of self, while also strengthening her resolve.
“I’m so much more at home in my own skin after the entire experience,” she said. “College was nothing to be scared of, and I’m now able to treat this as yet another adventure.”