- The Elon Gap Experience:A Transformative First-Year Experience
The Elon Gap Experience (EGE) was conceived out of our university’s most recent strategic plan, the Elon Commitment (Elon University, 2009). One theme calls for “strategic and innovative pathways in undergraduate and graduate education,” specifically “to launch a service program as part of a gap-year program” (Elon University, 2009; p. 6). The experience was founded with the theoretical understanding that many young adults seek to become more self-aware and independent prior to their formal undergraduate studies, experiencing the world and reflecting on their life goals through what many researchers identify as “high-impact” practices (Kuh, 2008). Initial work in developing EGE included careful examination of existing programs, but the implementation committee concluded that an Elon-developed and -run program, capitalizing on Elon’s strengths and established partnerships, would better meet the charge and expectations. Leadership, service-learning and global study are three of the five hallmark Elon experiences that are listed on students’ transcripts. Internship and undergraduate research are the others. These experiences are excellent examples of Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning model, which suggests the importance of gaining knowledge through concrete experience, reflection, and application. Elon sends a higher percentage of undergraduate students to study abroad (72%) than do any other master’s-level school in the nation and has been recognized for community service by the federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service (Towsend, 2015). With a deep, theoretical understanding of the influence these experiences have on students developmentally (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, 2015), the EGE was created and housed within the Department of New Student & Transition Programs.
WHAT IS THE ELON GAP EXPERIENCE?
The EGE selects 15 first-semester, first-year students to participate in a highly engaging and educational transition experience. Students self-select into the application process. After evaluation of their application and an interview, the cohort is formed and preparation begins for the experience.
The experience emphasizes three areas: leadership, service-learning, and global study. Students focus on leadership through a 26-day wilderness expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. During the expedition, students explore definitions of [End Page 755] leadership, methods and approaches to team-work, individual leadership styles, Leave No Trace principles, and useful outdoor skills necessary to survival in the backcountry. Students earn four academic course credits for this experience.
After completing the leadership school experience, students begin the service-learning part of the EGE. While traveling across the country, the group stops in four different communities for a week to learn about local issues and participate in community-initiated service projects. Each week, a faculty or staff member from Elon joins the group to facilitate the service-learning curriculum and to help connect the group to Elon. Students explore topics ranging from poverty and oppression to hunger and food systems, environmental management and culture, and homelessness and community organizing. With the aid of a EGE guidebook, a curriculum-specific text providing background information on each site, students think critically and reflectively about their experience by generating weekly goals and blog entries, responding to prompts, and engaging in daily structured group discussion. Students earn one course credit for this portion of the EGE.
After a fall break, students head off to the last area of focus for the EGE: a 6-week study-abroad homestay program in Costa Rica. To complement the coursework, students live with local families to improve cultural competence and Spanish language skills. Classes are held daily, and weekends typically include excursions to areas of cultural and/or historical significance. Students earn four academic course credits for this part of the semester. In total, students earn nine academic course credits through the EGE experience that aid in fulfilling graduation requirements. Students earn credits in the Elon core curriculum and also complete one of two experiential learning requirements needed for graduation. All credit completion is overseen by Academic Affairs, and a faculty member serves as the academic coordinator for the program.
TRANSITIONS BETWEEN EXPERIENCES
The transitions embedded in the...