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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

A Parent's Guide to Gap Years: Exploring Outward Bound with Stacy

Updated: Apr 29

Are you a parent curious about what a gap year can actually look like for your teen?

In this episode, we're joined by Stacy who shares her experience navigating her son’s gap year. From wilderness adventures with Outward Bound to unexpected life-changing moments, discover how a gap year supports future planning and the transition into young adulthood.

Topics Discussed

  1. Stacy's Perspective - Gap Year Parents: Gain insights into navigating a gap year as a parent firsthand, as Stacey shares her experiences and reflections on her son's journey.

  2. Outward Bound Adventures: Explore the transformative power of wilderness experiences with Outward Bound, discovering how these adventures shape young minds and foster personal growth.

  3. Developing Soft Skills: Discussing the importance of soft skills development, including resilience, teamwork, and self-reflection, as Stacey's anecdotes shed light on the invaluable lessons learned during a gap year.

  4. Communication and Understanding: Learn about the significance of open communication between parents and children when considering a gap year, fostering understanding and support for each other's perspectives and concerns.

  5. Exploring Alternatives to Traditional Education: Discover the potential of gap years as a meaningful alternative to traditional education, offering tailored opportunities for personal growth and exploration aligned with individual interests and aspirations.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Michelle Dittmer 00:00

As a parent, it can be really difficult to wrap your head around what it means for your kid to take a gap year. So today we've brought Stacy on to chat about her experience and her experience with an organization called Outward Bound.

So if you're a parent and you want to know a little bit more what it looks and feels like from your perspective, take a listen.

Michelle Dittmer 01:07

Hey everybody, welcome to the Gap Year podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert. Today we are bringing in a wonderful guest, Stacy, who is a mom of a gapper coming to bring you the real tea, the truth on what it's like to be a mom of a gapper and what some of the experiences she had as a mom as well as her young person in her life who was able to get out there and do some pretty incredible things including a phenomenal experience with Outward Bound.

So Stacy, welcome to the podcast!

Stacy 01:46 Thank you. I'm excited to be here. It's my first podcast.

Michelle Dittmer 01:55

We're taking minutes off your 15 minutes of fame here. So I gave her like a very high level introduction, but maybe you could give us a little bit of your background and some of the things that you want to highlight about yourself and maybe your relationship with your son and kind of what brings us to this conversation today.

Stacy 02:10 

Yeah, sure. Well, I grew up in Maine, a very outdoor minded state. I moved to Seattle in 1995. I got involved in outdoor activities. And then I started working for an outdoor education organization called Passages Northwest, which is similar to Outward Bound, but smaller scale, working with girls and women. And throughout that experience, I kind of moved up in the organization to be a program director and had an opportunity to do a bit of cross training with Outward Bound out of their North Cascades base camp. So I ended up doing a bit of training and a bit of work with Outward Bound in the North Cascades. And all of my experiences as a younger person kind of in our mountains and just having the opportunity to work and teach younger people how to be in our mountains was just something I loved. And so my husband and I met in a mountaineering class in 1995 and we have raised our children to be little outdoors people and so I was hopeful that my children would be able to experience something similar to what I did. 

Michelle Dittmer 03:32

That’s amazing, that connection to nature and that connection to the outdoors is such a healthy thing and I know a lot of people are really jonesing for that now. It was a gift during the pandemic to be able to be one of the few things that we could do and to be able to have that connection and to be able to pass it on to your kids. I think that's a really important point that we have our own intrinsic values as parents. And a family set of values that we want to cultivate and work through. And we have some opportunity to influence the values that our kids pick up, but they're also their own people. 

And so as parents, it's kind of this little dance of how do we navigate their unique personhood as well as sharing some of the things that are important to us as their parents.So thanks for sharing that and I'm curious if that upbringing and that outdoorsiness and that sense of adventure played into why you as a family are supportive of young people taking gap years.

Stacy 04:42Yeah, I think both my husband and I sort of have followed somewhat non-traditional paths in terms of, I mean, my husband's an engineer so his work life is very traditional. However, moving to the northwest and, you know, becoming a climber, all of these things, not so much anymore, but back in the 90s they were sort of fringe activities and I just feel like not every child is ready to go from high school to college and especially given the recent pandemic and the disruption to these young people's lives. Some of them just really aren't ready and the college experience has become so expensive and in so many ways so high pressure It just seems silly to me to force a kid down that path they're just not quite ready.

Michelle Dittmer 05:47

Yeah, and how did you recognize readiness or a lack of readiness in your son? Was there something that tipped you off? Because a lot of parents are coming to me saying like, I don't know if they're ready, they might be, they might not be. Was there anything that you can think of that kind of put that little light bulb on, saying that he might actually benefit from some time before stepping into college?

Stacy 06:12

Yeah, well, for us it was very easy. He was very explicitly clear. He, you know, he's a very passionate kid. He likes to move his body. And so school, sitting in a classroom, studying things that were not super interesting to him, sort of, even though he was a pretty good student, he just could not wait to be finished with high school.

And he was very clear that he was not interested in college. And you know I guess I would say to parents if it's not quite as straightforward as it was with us that just have a conversation with your kids and ask them if they feel ready because you know they'll tell you.

Michelle Dittmer 06:47 Yeah, definitely. I'm glad that he had that confidence and that you had that family culture of being able to advocate for yourself, because that doesn't necessarily always exist. Sometimes there's this fear that if they don't go directly, they're never going to go. Therefore, as we as parents, wanting what's best for them means pushing them. Forcing is a strong word but like really guiding them very firmly maybe force is the right word then but having them go in that way because we as parents think that's the right decision for them in my experience often when we do kind of use that heavy hands to get them to go there it often backfires in the in the long run because they know they're not ready and they're not interested and they need to mature And when we push them in there, then they have this catastrophic experience where they don't excel, they don't flourish and they're now coming with all this baggage of I can't do it, I'm too dumb, it's not for me.When if we can be proactive in that situation and give them the time and space, Then they can step in with more confidence and a readiness to take on that and to be more successful. So I really appreciate that in your family and I hope other families can do that as well.

Stacy 08:29 Yeah and I don't want to make it seem like it was a super easy thing either. Like there definitely was a lot of behind the scenes conversation like are we doing the right thing?Some conversations around encouraging him to go to school and then take some time off if it wasn't working, but in the end we just really needed to listen to him and he was communicating pretty clearly that he didn't want to go.

Michelle Dittmer 08:54

Yeah, I always tell parents, I said the only person that knows your kid better than you do is themselves. So us as parents, we see them, we know them, we love them, but sometimes they've got to be the ones that step up and we need to let them be in the driver's seat of their own lives.

So why don't you tell us a little bit about what your son did on his gap year that will provide some context for the rest of the conversation.

Stacy 09:24

Sure, yeah. So he graduated in June from high school. And he's a mountain biker.He had gone to a mountain biking camp in New Hampshire for a couple of years as a participant.

And one year he was there, he actually broke his arm on the first day of camp. Which was super sad, but it allowed a connection with the staff there and they actually encouraged him to apply as a camp counselor. So he started off his summer by going to work as a camp counselor in New Hampshire at this mountain biking camp and then came back to Seattle with an idea of like okay not quite sure had some plans to go to Europe and travel a bit but wasn't sure when that was gonna all play out and at that point we got an email from our amazing A gap year planner Erica Vaughn from The Intentional Gap and she suggested that there was an opportunity for Bodie, my son, to join an outdoor program.She had mentioned Knolls and Outward Bound and there were some fall programs and so we, I threw that out there to Bodie. He did some research and so he ended up doing a one month Southwest Wilderness Program with Outward Bound.

And then after that he got hired at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to be a ski instructor for the winter. So he's actually still in Jackson Hole, wrapping up there in about 10 days. He'll come back to Seattle and then he leaves about two weeks later to fly to Morocco where he's going to meet up with a friend. And then they're going to go travel around Europe for about three months.

And he just recently made the decision and took the step to enroll in Western Washington University for the fall.Yeah, super exciting. 

Michelle Dittmer 11:35

Yeah, so he is really taking on that spirit of adventure and getting out there and Full Circle has come back to deciding that there is a path in more schooling for himself. Yeah, yep.

Stacy 11:50 It was a bit of a surprise to me. I really have thought that he was going to go to college.I wasn't sure it was going to be next year. I thought we might be looking at gap years.But he had conversations with a lot of his friends in Jackson Hole who are all college graduates and they were very much encouraging him to give it a try and that it was a great experience and they loved it and so he's jumping in.

Michelle Dittmer 12:20 That's incredible. I love it. And for those of you who are listening who might not know what a gap year planner is, that Stacy was mentioning about getting that support, that is something that exists a lot in the US. So if you are interested, you can tap into those folks down there. And they are somebody that will help you suss out all of the different organizations out there, help you put together a plan that's going to help you achieve your goals.

So if you've been listening to the podcast for a while, that's the role that we fill in Canada, is helping folks decide what they should be doing on their gap time. So if you do need support, Please feel free to reach out to us. We offer free 30-minute calls and we can point you in the direction of some amazing resources like Outward Bound that provides phenomenal, phenomenal programs.

So back to our regular scheduled programming. So Stacy, your son has finished like three quarters of his gap time. What are some of the things that you notice in him that may be different than when he started out? So obviously there's this interest in pursuing more education, but what are some of the other things that you've seen within him?

Stacy 13:40 Yeah, I would say I would say I noticed a shift in him and it really started after his Outward Bound course so it was a 30-day wilderness course where they did canoeing and canyoneering. The cell phones were put away which was hard as a parent but amazing for him and he actually really loved it and I think we noticed a huge shift in him after that where he just seemed more I mean he's always been a thoughtful kid but he was even more thoughtful and intentional with the way he was moving through his life.

Just really reflecting on things and he started writing poetry and it just made a huge impact.And there were specific things I think that happened on his outward bound trip that sort of propelled him in that direction too.

Michelle Dittmer 14:38 Yeah, do you have any inkling as to what those specific things that happen on an Outward Bound trip that might have helped him to develop those skills and deepen that thoughtfulness and that ability to reflect? Because those are key skills to be able to function in this world and not everybody gets the chance to develop it. So what was it specifically about the Outward Bound experience that you think nurtured that and helped him to grow?

Stacy 15:07

Yeah. Well, I think Outward Bound does a phenomenal job of creating a container for kids to show up and reflect on the experience they're having as they're moving through it. Particularly for Bodie, he went into the experience, I think a little bit like, okay, this will be, you know, this will be fun. I'll get to go canyoneering. I've never done that before.He has a lot of experience in the outdoors, I mean he's been backpacking since before he could walk, so I think he kind of carried that with him a little bit, like I'm not going to get that much out I think he was kind of blown away by the educational aspects of the trip, the leadership that was turned over to the student, And a particular experience he had where he actually got really sick on course with a stomach bug during the canoe portion of the trip.There was another student on the course who had some physical challenges that made it hard for him to participate in some of the more physical things and I think at first Bodhi kind of was, I don't know, I think he would say a bit judgmental about this person And when he got sick and he had to lie on the bottom of the canoe for two days and had to rely on his team to essentially do everything for him, it really shifted his perspective in terms of, wow, here's this kid out here with these physical challenges that I don't have and he's still out here and he's still doing it and People are helping him but they're also helping me and so there was just an opportunity like one of those aha moments like okay you know just a big a big mind shift um and like I said I just think Outward Bound does an incredible job of not only teaching the technical skills that kids and young adults and adults need to be out there in these environments where they may or may not have ever been But they also do an incredible job of teaching people how to be in relationship with one another, which I just think is more needed now than ever.

Michelle Dittmer 17:35 Yeah, I got goosebumps when you said that about relationships. Because it really is so much about that. It's about the personal growth and the personal awareness that you were talking about.But it's also about how do we exist together? How do we get along? How do we navigate challenges or conflicts? How do we pick up the slack when somebody else can't?And forming those strong connections with other human beings. And I think something that maybe people who haven't participated in programs like Outward Bound don't realize how skilled the facilitators are and the chaperones or the leaders in the group at creating an environment that allows for challenge by choice but also challenge by default because there's 15 kids together and there is going to be conflict.

But those facilitators are incredibly skilled at Supporting young people in that self-discovery and in that navigation of relationships. And I think we don't celebrate that enough or we're not aware. We think that we're sending them or they think they're going, like you said in Bodie’s case, for this wilderness skill building adventure. A hard skill building adventure but often what they take away are those soft skills that are arguably more transferable than learning a great j-stroke.

There's so many things that you can apply that to and be able to take that everywhere you go in your life.So now there are many, many programs out there and many, many opportunities. Was there something specific about Outward Bound that stuck out to you as a parent to choose this program above any others that are out there?

Stacy 19:40 Well, I would say that certainly I think my own background and connection with Outward Bound was a little bit of an influence. I know how they run their trainings, I know they're really competent, I know they tend to be a more diverse, they tend to bring together more diverse participants.

And I really do appreciate the focus on the relationship building that, you know, and I'm not familiar with all of the programs out there, but of the ones I do know, I think that Outward Bound does the best job of kind of building those soft skills, so to speak. A list of keywords relevant to topics that may occur during the meeting

Michelle Dittmer 20:43

I think one of the things that's really important for parents who are listening to take away from that is the familiarity you have with the organization, the research you do with the organization can help you to feel more at ease in sending your baby somewhere without you, without their cell phone access and really spending that time to do your research.

So that you do feel comfortable in asking those questions of whatever program you're choosing so that you can get that information. Oh, Outward Bound has incredible facilitators. Oh, Outward Bound has diversity in the people who are participating in the program. Oh, Outward Bound has phenomenal risk management techniques. That I feel comfortable with for when my kid gets a stomach bug and is on the floor of a canoe. Having that confidence and asking those questions can give parents a little bit of peace of mind. Like don't get me wrong you're still sending your baby but at least you know that they're in very competent trustworthy hands.

Stacy 21:55Yeah, yeah and I would say exactly that like reaching out and asking the questions is super important because Even as a parent, I mean, I'm guessing I'm sort of one of the rarer parents in that I have intimate knowledge of the other side of the program. And even with that, I was like, oh my god, we're not going to talk to him for 30 days, right? Like, okay, so I know and I in my in my former job at Passages Northwest, one of the one of my aspects of my job was talking to parents whose kids were coming on our program. So I know that there's a lot of, or there can be a lot of anxiety about sending your kid out, especially if you're not a family who has a connection to the wilderness in the way that my family does. But talking to other parents whose kids have gone out on programs, as well as talking to the staff can really go a long way in easing some of those concerns that you have.

Michelle Dittmer 22:57

Yeah, we actually have a download on our website of questions you should be asking program providers. So if this is new to our listeners, if this is something that you haven't done before, we do have a download where you can get those critical questions around safety, around the demographics of people who are participating in the program, on the leadership.

All of those things and Outward Bound can answer them no problem, check check. And so we know that is a place that we can feel confident. So if you don't know what questions to ask, fear not, we do have that list to help guide folks. Through that questioning process and you may come up with other questions yourself that are valuable. So we will link to that resource in the show notes for anybody who needs a little bit of support. But it really is important that you feel that this is a place where your young person can be challenged and can thrive. And for you guys, Outward Bound was it. That was the best fit.

Stacy 24:00 

Yeah and I guess I would also just throw out there there's like there is the staff with the students and then there's the staff supporting the staff and you know so there's like many layers of support that go into making these courses happen and um yeah it's a it's a really well-oiled machine 

Michelle Dittmer 24:24

And it's got years and years and years and decades of experience behind it. And I think that does speak volumes that they've been able to navigate the changes that have happened for young people in how they show up. Like 20 years ago, there was no cell phone issue. There was no constant communication with parents. And to have that longevity really does speak volumes to the fact that they are adaptable and they are trustworthy and they can continue to meet the needs of young people as everything evolves.

Stacy 25:00 

Yeah, I think that there's, you know, there's always challenges and Outward Bound is no different, right? They're, as an organization, they face challenges and I think that they just continue to kind of come at it, all of the challenges from a place of integrity. And everybody that I've ever known at Outward Bound has been there because they feel passionate about the work they do and want to continue to move it in a positive direction.

Michelle Dittmer 25:27

Okay, so we've heard so much about your experience and what's going on. Now it's your chance to pass on the wisdom that you have earned from going through this experience and sharing what you know or what you wish you know. So basically, what would you tell other parents who are considering adding an outward bound experience to their gap year? What advice would you bestow upon them?

Stacy 26:00 Yeah, I would say do it. It can be incredible for your child. It can be life changing, like literally life changing. And if things go sideways, there are people there to catch your child and then to deal with it.

So it's just really such an opportunity to do something different, to give them a new experience. I would say that if You are looking at some of these programs and they seem quite expensive. There are ways to work around that.There are programs that offer scholarships. There are ways that your kiddo can pitch in and earn some money. There's just, there's, there's so much value in it. I think it's hard to put a price tag on that. I would say if you're, if you have concerns, do reach out to the organization and the other, they can give you a contact, a parent contact.

So you can have a frank conversation with another family who has done a trip like this. But I would say, I really don't think you'll regret it. So go for it.

Michelle Dittmer 27:17 

I think that's such sage advice to share and I really wish I could get a Nike sponsorship because the just do it comes up all the time. Just do it, just take that leap because I don't think parents understand how much of a transformation can happen during gap time.And it is just such a beautiful thing for me to witness on a daily basis, to see these young people bloom and flourish and discover about themselves in the world. And those are opportunities that sometimes don't exist when we're in the structured environment of formal education.

So taking those calculated risks is something that we need to do as parents and our young people need to do on their gap time as well.If nothing else, they'll get 30 days in the wilderness with no cell phone.If you don't think your young person can do it, neither do they, but I can guarantee you they can do it. You'll be shocked how many young people say how much they appreciate their tech-free time. And how much that gives them capacity and reduces their anxiety levels and gives them perspective on what else is important in life. So it's just such a beautiful opportunity.

Amazing. Well, Stacy, thank you so much for sharing your story and your son's story. It's been such a pleasure to have you on the podcast and to support other families in their gap year journey. So thanks for joining me.

Stacy 28:09

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the time.

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