Gap Year Education and Exploration
Students in Bennington’s Gap Year Independent Learning Program earned college credit for self-directed projects that explored Japanese-American family history, community organizing, women’s empowerment, dance and garment design, and more.
2020 has been an unusual year for college-bound students, who have had to balance their want for a traditional college experience against the potential impact of COVID-19 cases on college campuses.
For students who decide to take a gap year, Bennington College’s Gap Year Independent Learning Program offers a happy medium—the chance to earn academic credit at Bennington through pursuing an independent creative or research-based project during their gap year.
“This program gives students a head start on their Bennington experience,” said Zeke Bernstein, Dean of Research, Planning, and Assessment. “The process of developing a proposal, conducting independent study, creating a body of work—all of these things help equip students with the tools to succeed in the Plan.”
Now in its third year, the program’s structure consists of a student project proposal, periodic check-ins with faculty and staff, the creation of a portfolio, and a final presentation that takes place after enrollment and which is evaluated by faculty members.
The program’s current cohort is composed of 15 students, who will ultimately join Bennington in either Spring or Fall 2021.
“It will be interesting to see the kind of projects this cohort completes,” said Bernstein. “Last year, many of the projects that students did involved being out in their community or traveling, and those sort of things are not as likely to happen this year. We look forward to seeing how students respond to COVID-19 and this moment.”
For college-age and college-ready students looking for ways to engage in a Bennington education—no matter where they may be studying this year—the College also offers Bennington+, a new suite of credit-bearing offerings for learners at every stage of their academic lives.
In addition to the opportunity for students to take classes from Bennington’s core curricular offerings, Bennington+ also includes Bennington Unbound, a series of writing courses from the College’s acclaimed literature program, and CAPA Online: Building Community, a timely selection of social justice and public action courses.
Stories from Grandma’s House
For her Girl Scout Gold Award project, Lauren Yanase ’24 wanted to explore her background as a fourth-generation Japanese American and particularly document her family’s time in internment camps during World War II.
During her senior year of high school, Yanase dove headfirst into her research as she developed, filmed, and produced Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American, a 27-minute documentary about her family’s time in the camps.
Even after the documentary’s release, “I found I had so much more I wanted to say,” said Yanase. “I had filmed over 12 hours of interview footage, and I had archival footage and great stills from that time period.”
Initially, Yanase hadn’t anticipated taking a gap year, but in April of her senior year, she realized that taking time between high school and college would be both financially pragmatic and mentally refreshing.
However, even without a traditional academic structure, Yanase isn’t one to wait around.
“I’m someone who always needs to have something else that they are working on,” said Yanase. “Even though I had jobs lined up and things I was making plans for, I thought it would be valuable for me to dip my toes into Bennington’s Gap Year Independent Learning Program. I wanted to keep myself creative and productive, in a way I don’t think I would have been if I hadn’t had the program.”
Yanase first conceived of her gap year project as a continuation of her documentary, and envisioned a seven-part web docuseries about the day-to-day of camp experience. However, she soon found herself wanting to shift gears.
“Creatively, I was super drained from working on the documentary,” said Yanase. “I didn’t want myself to start resenting the work I was doing because I knew it was important to a larger audience—not just to me and my family—to have that connection with the material. So I started looking for other ways to showcase my research and the work I had continued to do.”
Ultimately, Yanase decided to create a written portfolio, encompassing both fiction and nonfiction, that explored different sides of her source material.
Her final portfolio, Stories from Grandma’s House, is capstoned by a novelette, Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow. The 20,000-word story follows a half-Japanese girl living in the Pacific Northwest during World War II and is heavily inspired by both Yanase’s own experiences and her childhood imagination.
“I am Japanese American, but only on my dad’s side; my mom’s side is white,” said Yanase. “When I was growing up and hearing stories from my dad’s family about the camps, I was always worried about what would happen to me if it were to happen again—because I wasn’t really Japanese, and I also wasn’t really white. I was especially worried about being taken away from one parent or the other, so I dreamed up these scenarios where I couldn’t see my mother, or where I wasn’t considered Japanese enough, but my brother or dad had to go.”
Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow grew out of these childhood fears, giving Yanase a creative freedom and personal perspective on the history she’d been researching.
From her documentary and gap year work, Yanase has also become recognized in her hometown of Portland, OR, as a local expert on the history of the Japanese Americans during World War II, speaking at events and writing articles for local outlets.
Now at Bennington, Yanase is integrating her gap year experience with her broader interest in history education and teaching. This fall, she took Governing America and Rakugo: Art of Storytelling, and she looks forward to taking more classes in education, psychology, and history.
“Coming from high school, I had a strict, concrete idea of how I viewed a student versus a teacher, and how the exchange happened between those two absolutes,” said Yanase. “But what I’ve carried over from my gap year is how individually motivated my learning is. I’ve given myself an opportunity to use material outside of the classroom as a chance to dive deep. Being my own teacher this past year allowed me to relax and explore more than I think I would have right out of high school.”
Community Organizing and Advocacy
Alexandra Brkic ’24 has been involved in community organizing since she was 12 years old.
I want to pursue the betterment of people who are like me, in solidarity with people in my community who have been disenfranchised by existing systems.
Alexandra Brkic '24
“I am Latinx, and I have always tried to represent the community I hail from,” said Brkic. “I realized that I want to do this for the rest of my life when I recognized the inherent responsibility and benefit of having my community represented on a national platform. I want to pursue the betterment of people who are like me, in solidarity with people in my community who have been disenfranchised by existing systems.”
While Brkic has long had a strong sense of her values, she opted to take a gap year after high school in order to make sure she had a passion for her future studies, even outside of the bounds of a classroom.
During her Gap Year Independent Learning Experience, Brkic served as a Field Fellow for MOVE Texas, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voting rights and advocacy organization.
“I basically spent six or seven months in the Texas heat, canvassing college campuses, block walking all sorts of neighborhoods, and talking to every person I met, including my Uber drivers and bus drivers,” said Brkic. “I got to engage with constituents, anyone who was interested in voting.”
Brkic’s interest in advocacy compelled her to attend the Not My Generation gun violence prevention summit in Washington, DC.
“After spending three days doing community organizing with gun violence prevention activists, I decided to apply to the national Not My Generation team,” said Brkic, who later became the National Field Director for the organization.
Now at Bennington, Brkic is focusing her studies on Politics and Government, with a particular emphasis on the history of progressive movements.
“This term, I’ve taken Governing America and Running for President in 2020,” said Brkic. “A lot of my classes this term are CAPA-based, and they have given me a general idea of present-day politics while in an academic setting.”
Though early in her Bennington experience, Brkic is already planning for her future career, in which she intends to attend law school with the eventual goal of becoming a political policy advisor.
“I want to help run campaigns and get Progressive elected officials into offices,” said Brkic. “Established Democrats and Republicans have political consultants readily available, but I see a need for Progressive organization, including Progressive political advisors, campaign managers, and policy advisors. I would like to be a collection of all three—to kick off that trend, start determining who we can get into office, and see what change we build from that.”
Empowering Women Around the Globe
After finishing high school, Rivers Holtzman ’24 felt like she needed some time to determine a direction for her path in college.
Through her Gap Year Independent Learning project, Holtzman gained a clearer sense of her own ambitions and hopes through talking to women around the world about theirs.
Women's empowerment is just the expression of passion in the face of adversity. By asking, ‘Who are you?’ I hoped to move the emphasis from someone's accomplishments to their passions and who they are.
Rivers Holtzman '24
“For my independent study, I researched different ways that women empower themselves around the globe,” said Holtzman.
Through interviews, podcasts, and collages, Holtzman explored her central question, which shifted during the course of her research from "How are women empowered in different parts of the world?" to “Who are you?”
“When I started this project, I thought I would be interviewing women who were already empowered—I thought I would see what they accomplished, and how they accomplished it,” writes Holtzman on her project’s website. “But I realized I didn't want people to tell me what empowered them with a sentence or a response to a question; I wanted a story. Women's empowerment is just the expression of passion in the face of adversity. By asking, ‘Who are you?’ I hoped to move the emphasis from someone's accomplishments to their passions and who they are.”
For the first part of her gap year, Holtzman interned in Nepal with Global Vision International (GVI) for three months, during which time she worked for a women’s empowerment program, teaching English to older Nepali women in the city of Pokhara.
“I got to talk to Hannah and Sita about their stories and their work for the organization, which was amazing,” said Holtzman. “From these interviews with older women, I learned how they empower themselves, and how that feels later in life.”
The second part of Holtzman’s gap year involved a solo backpacking trip through Europe, during which time she discovered the pleasure of interviewing women she met in hostels or while walking around cities.
“One of my favorite interviews is one I did with a family friend of a host family I had stayed with in high school,” said Holtzman. “Elena is an Italian woman who started traveling in the 1960s and 70s, and she seemed to see every big world event—she saw the Berlin Wall come down, she traveled to Soviet Russia. I have hours of content from my interviews with her.”
The COVID-19 outbreak curtailed the third experience Holtzman had planned for her gap year. Rather than return to work at her childhood summer camp in Sailsbury, VT, she came home to Ashland, OR.
“Instead, I started pulling from contacts I have in my hometown—friends, kindergarten and school teachers—to hear the sense they had about ways that younger girls empower themselves,” said Holtzman. “There was a bit of reimagining, but it worked out.”
Though she initially expected to pursue Journalism at Bennington, Holtzman now finds herself drawn to Literature, Storytelling, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her gap year experience has unlocked her passion for storytelling, and she has developed her skills in podcasting, narration, and editing.
“I did a lot of editing for the project once I arrived on campus, while I was also getting started with my Screenwriting: The Story Studio course,” said Holtzman. “I was surprised by the way that the narrative for a screenplay and the narrative for a podcast were similar. From this experience, I’ve become much more interested in narrative storytelling and different forms of visual and audiovisual storytelling.”
Exploring Movement, Affirming Self
Throughout their time at Bennington, Louisa Parker ’22 has studied Dance, Sculpture, and Garment Design.
“I have studied Dance my whole time here; sculpture was a little newer; and garment design is new as of this term, and inspired by my leave of absence—as a senior, it’s exciting to be incorporating an area of study that is so different,” said Parker.
Last year, seeking time off from their studies, Parker joined the Ponderosa Artists Residency in Stolzenhagen, Germany, where they joined 14 other artists who specialized in fields from dance to visual arts to photography.
As part of Parker’s residency, they developed both solo and group Dance pieces, utilizing the talents of their fellow artists-in-residence.
“In Stolzenhagen, I started studying this runway walk physicality, and I became interested in the deflated, genderless, almost dead attitude that this runway walk physicality holds,” said Parker. “It was fascinating to me that this is not a way you ever see a pedestrian walk, and it has such a specific physicality and attitude.”
Parker began incorporating the runway walk physicality into their dance pieces, and they taught a workshop to give participants the vocabulary and feeling of how to embody this attitude.
”What was amazing about working with these people was that they weren’t all dancers, so they all understood my instructions and held my idea in their bodies differently,” said Parker. “Once my ideas translated onto these nine other bodies, it was such a bouquet—interesting variations on the same concept. I became excited to bring what I learned back to Bennington.”
At Bennington this fall, Parker coordinated a group dance piece utilizing 13 students, all of whom practiced outside, maintaining social distance.
Additionally, during their residency, Parker developed a solo piece that branched off of the runway physicality and ultimately led to a deeper exploration of their own gender identity.
“The dance utilized a hyper-feminine character that I could put on and take off casually, like a jacket, which was exciting to work with,” said Parker. “I showed this solo at the end of the residency and got a lot of feedback that read it as me being a woman going through a journey. Hearing that feedback led me into my own gender exploration—I realized that I don’t identify as a woman, but I could use this hyper-feminine character, putting it on and taking it off. It was freeing and empowering to learn that I could do that just through movement.”
Following their residency and this self-discovery, Parker had a reduction surgery of their chest, which, while gender affirming, left their clothes fitting uncomfortably. In response, Parker turned to tailoring.
“Over the months of quarantine, that tailoring turned into a full garment-design operation,” said Parker. “By the end of the summer, I had a wardrobe of garments that I had made, and that work circled back to my initial interest in runway and fashion design.”
At Bennington this fall, Parker continued to explore garment design, incorporating it into their Plan. Parker took both Patternmaking: A Remote Class in Flat Pattern Development and Advanced Garment Construction.
“My work at Bennington now—in Dance, Sculpture, and Garment Design—has all become part of the same exploration,” said Parker. “I’ve been constructing clothing specifically for my body shape and with an understanding of how my body likes to move. I create big, low, open backs to accommodate this forward concavity that I return to a lot in dance. I have made these body-informed, movement-informed garments and then done dance studies in them, which I’ve filmed, and I’ve developed characters born out of the garments I’ve made for myself.”
For their senior work, Parker intends to do a hybrid project that incorporates an outdoor fashion show, dance piece, and sculptural gallery.
After graduating from Bennington, Parker would like to work with independent clothing companies and learn more about small-scale production.
During this upcoming Field Work Term, Parker will be delving further into their interest by working with 3 Women Co., a small clothing company based in Long Beach, CA, as well as pursuing remote work with a Brooklyn-based choreographer and costume designer.
“Clothing design has been a new experience for me, coming out of Germany,” said Parker. “I want to go into the business of garment design for the moving body—movement-informed clothing for moving people.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer