Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Editor’s note: Gap years have long been common in Europe, and they’re on the rise in the US. So what happens when a high-achieving Rowland Hall alum takes a break from the classroom? Read on for our 2018 co-valedictorian’s account.

By Allie Zehner ’18

Ever since middle school, I had my life all planned out: graduate from high school, launch straight into college, graduate from college, and immediately enter grad school or a career. Straying from this pin-straight path didn’t seem like an option; however, here I am, writing this piece at the end of my gap year.

At the end of my junior year, certain projects arose that I was extremely passionate about pursuing. However, I knew that juggling these opportunities with the intensity of school would be extremely challenging.

Looking back, I don’t remember the exact moment I said, “Hey, mom and dad, I’m taking a year between high school and college.” Because this option did not pop up on my radar until eleventh grade, the only way to describe my decision is as the perfect collision of four distinct circumstances. First: at the end of my junior year, certain projects arose that I was extremely passionate about pursuing. However, I knew that juggling these opportunities with the intensity of school would be extremely challenging. Second: in the fall of my senior year, my family hosted two young women, Priya and Winona, who were in the middle of taking gap years to travel the country, interview people about their intersectional identities, and write a book on racial literacy. Third: I met Abby Falik, the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, an organization dedicated to making bridge years between high school and university a socially acceptable norm. Fourth: after continuously pushing myself throughout high school and becoming co-valedictorian, I was afraid of burning out. 

So, I committed to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York last spring and asked for a deferral of admission, elucidating my gap year plans. Barnard approved my request, I filled out a one-page form, and just like that, I was taking a gap year. 

And so the year began.

In the summer, I worked part-time jobs and saved some money.

In the fall, I worked with Sonita Alizadeh (pictured top, right, being interviewed by Allie at a Surefire conference), a young activist who uses music as a tool to catalyze social change, particularly looking to end the detrimental traditional practice of child marriage. Through my work with her and a nonprofit, Strongheart Group, I conducted research, interviewed young activists from around the world, and traveled to the United Nations Foundation’s Social Good Summit in New York City. 

In the winter, I started focusing on curating a book about the next generation of young women. Formatted as a collection of essays, I will write about half of the chapters and other teen girls will write the rest. From omnipresent social media to an extremely divided political climate to gun violence, this book will speak to the most pressing, serious issues my generation is facing on our journey to adulthood. Learning through doing, I taught myself how to write a book proposal, draft a query letter, reach out to agents, and build a website. 

In the spring, I was extremely fortunate to travel to Colombia, where I used my Spanish (gracias, Señor Burnett), attended a women’s conference, and shadowed an incredible nonprofit, Juanfe, that works with teen moms in Cartagena. And, coincidentally, I met another teen who is taking a gap year to live in South American cities, work, become fluent in Spanish, and volunteer. I have also spent the spring loving (pretty much) every second of learning how to write a book. 

The other key aspect of this year is that, having struggled with a chronic illness since the seventh grade, I made time to see doctors and get necessary testing. While I still do not know the root cause of my health issues, I am better equipped to manage my symptoms and look after my own well being: two things I did not prioritize in middle and high school.

And that is my gap year in a nutshell. 

Spending a year outside the classroom has given me time to nurture other facets of my persona: I am an activist, daughter, employee, sister, and global citizen. 

Let me just say that taking this year and venturing from the extremely narrow life path I had envisioned has been one of my best decisions. From around the time I could walk, I was in school five days a week, seven hours a day. For 15 years, being a student was absolutely core to my identity. Spending a year outside the classroom has given me time to nurture other facets of my persona: I am an activist, daughter, employee, sister, and global citizen. 

I will be attending university this fall. Contrary to what is sometimes believed about gap years, I will be going back to school with an immensely stronger sense of self, more direction, and a readiness to return to the classroom. I could not be more ecstatic to finish my book throughout freshman year and continue to grow as a person.

Gap years are not for everyone, but they should be considered a viable alternative to going straight to college. My hope is that society recognizes the immense possibilities bridge years can hold.

alumni

Portrait of a Gap Year: Work, Activism, Writing, Self-Care, and Self-Discovery

Editor’s note: Gap years have long been common in Europe, and they’re on the rise in the US. So what happens when a high-achieving Rowland Hall alum takes a break from the classroom? Read on for our 2018 co-valedictorian’s account.

By Allie Zehner ’18

Ever since middle school, I had my life all planned out: graduate from high school, launch straight into college, graduate from college, and immediately enter grad school or a career. Straying from this pin-straight path didn’t seem like an option; however, here I am, writing this piece at the end of my gap year.

At the end of my junior year, certain projects arose that I was extremely passionate about pursuing. However, I knew that juggling these opportunities with the intensity of school would be extremely challenging.

Looking back, I don’t remember the exact moment I said, “Hey, mom and dad, I’m taking a year between high school and college.” Because this option did not pop up on my radar until eleventh grade, the only way to describe my decision is as the perfect collision of four distinct circumstances. First: at the end of my junior year, certain projects arose that I was extremely passionate about pursuing. However, I knew that juggling these opportunities with the intensity of school would be extremely challenging. Second: in the fall of my senior year, my family hosted two young women, Priya and Winona, who were in the middle of taking gap years to travel the country, interview people about their intersectional identities, and write a book on racial literacy. Third: I met Abby Falik, the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, an organization dedicated to making bridge years between high school and university a socially acceptable norm. Fourth: after continuously pushing myself throughout high school and becoming co-valedictorian, I was afraid of burning out. 

So, I committed to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York last spring and asked for a deferral of admission, elucidating my gap year plans. Barnard approved my request, I filled out a one-page form, and just like that, I was taking a gap year. 

And so the year began.

In the summer, I worked part-time jobs and saved some money.

In the fall, I worked with Sonita Alizadeh (pictured top, right, being interviewed by Allie at a Surefire conference), a young activist who uses music as a tool to catalyze social change, particularly looking to end the detrimental traditional practice of child marriage. Through my work with her and a nonprofit, Strongheart Group, I conducted research, interviewed young activists from around the world, and traveled to the United Nations Foundation’s Social Good Summit in New York City. 

In the winter, I started focusing on curating a book about the next generation of young women. Formatted as a collection of essays, I will write about half of the chapters and other teen girls will write the rest. From omnipresent social media to an extremely divided political climate to gun violence, this book will speak to the most pressing, serious issues my generation is facing on our journey to adulthood. Learning through doing, I taught myself how to write a book proposal, draft a query letter, reach out to agents, and build a website. 

In the spring, I was extremely fortunate to travel to Colombia, where I used my Spanish (gracias, Señor Burnett), attended a women’s conference, and shadowed an incredible nonprofit, Juanfe, that works with teen moms in Cartagena. And, coincidentally, I met another teen who is taking a gap year to live in South American cities, work, become fluent in Spanish, and volunteer. I have also spent the spring loving (pretty much) every second of learning how to write a book. 

The other key aspect of this year is that, having struggled with a chronic illness since the seventh grade, I made time to see doctors and get necessary testing. While I still do not know the root cause of my health issues, I am better equipped to manage my symptoms and look after my own well being: two things I did not prioritize in middle and high school.

And that is my gap year in a nutshell. 

Spending a year outside the classroom has given me time to nurture other facets of my persona: I am an activist, daughter, employee, sister, and global citizen. 

Let me just say that taking this year and venturing from the extremely narrow life path I had envisioned has been one of my best decisions. From around the time I could walk, I was in school five days a week, seven hours a day. For 15 years, being a student was absolutely core to my identity. Spending a year outside the classroom has given me time to nurture other facets of my persona: I am an activist, daughter, employee, sister, and global citizen. 

I will be attending university this fall. Contrary to what is sometimes believed about gap years, I will be going back to school with an immensely stronger sense of self, more direction, and a readiness to return to the classroom. I could not be more ecstatic to finish my book throughout freshman year and continue to grow as a person.

Gap years are not for everyone, but they should be considered a viable alternative to going straight to college. My hope is that society recognizes the immense possibilities bridge years can hold.

alumni

Explore More Alumni Stories

Sara Matsumura playing volleyball.

Haverford College senior Sara Matsumura ’16 added to her impressive list of achievements on September 9, when she was awarded the Centennial Conference’s Player of the Week after being named Most Valuable Player of the Ford Invitational only two days earlier. Then, on September 16, the NCAA announced that Sara was ranked third in Division III in total digs and seventh in service aces.

“I am over-the-moon ecstatic,” Sara said about the start of her senior season.

Despite the recent attention she has personally received, the Haverford volleyball co-captain remained focused on her team. “It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential,” she said. “I feel a lot of appreciation for the group of girls I get to play with."

I am over-the-moon ecstatic. It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential.—Sara Matsumura, Class of 2016

Kendra Tomsic, Sara’s former coach and Rowland Hall’s director of athletics, was not surprised to learn of Sara’s focus on teamwork. “Sara never cared about individual stats or accolades—she loved her teammates and celebrated their accomplishments as if they were her own,” she said of Sara’s time playing for the Winged Lions. “Her unmatched work ethic, positive attitude, fiery spirit, enthusiasm, heart, and passion for the game were an inspiration to her teammates and coaches.”
 
Kendra also praised Sara’s athletic prowess. “Sara is undoubtedly one of the most talented volleyball players to come out of our program. Her stats were tops in nearly every category, and she was instrumental to our winning several consecutive region titles,” she said. “I am so very proud and excited, but definitely not surprised, that Sara has continued to excel and has made such an amazing impact on her Haverford College team.”
 
Sara credited Rowland Hall for preparing her for success at the college level, both on the court and in the classroom. “The endless support I received from Rowland Hall’s coaching staff gave me the confidence I needed to gain an I-own-the-court mentality. As a back-row player, that is essential and has definitely been tested when facing strong teams,” she said. “Rowland Hall also prepared me to balance school and volleyball, as academics is our top priority at Haverford too.”
 
These balancing skills, first gained at Rowland Hall and then strengthened at Haverford, are essential to Sara’s success. When she isn’t excelling on the court, the chemistry major is researching microplastics and bioplastics for her senior thesis. After graduation, she plans on taking a gap year to work at an environmentally focused company, then earning a PhD in environmental engineering or chemistry. Armed with an arsenal of skills she has gathered as a student-athlete, we have no doubt she’ll continue to do great things, and we can’t wait to see them.


Top of page: Sara Matsumura playing in a Haverford College volleyball game. (Photo courtesy David Sinclair)

Alumni

Claire Wang in front of US Capitol
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


In her daily fight against climate change, Claire Wang’s weapons of choice include her bicycle, travel utensils, and reusable water bottle.

But the 21-year-old’s real arsenal is her character: her empathy, intellect, and contagious optimism that she wields to mobilize peers, negotiate with institutions, and drive environmental progress locally and nationally. Now, Rowland Hall’s first Rhodes Scholar graduates to the global stage.

There’s no choice but to be hopeful. We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.—Claire Wang ’15

In Claire, the daunting problem of climate change finds a formidable opponent: the former nationally ranked Rowland Hall debater loves what she does and refuses to be discouraged. “There’s no choice but to be hopeful,” she said. “We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.”

Claire was always interested in science and environmentalism; after coming to Rowland Hall in seventh grade, relevant curriculum furthered her interest in climate advocacy, while debate turned her into a policy wonk. In high school, she started volunteering for Utah Clean Energy through a school connection. “That was the moment I realized that I love this work and I want to do it for a living,” Claire said. “Rowland Hall was really supportive of that.” As a senior, she co-organized a press conference—held at the McCarthey Campus and covered by local news outlets—advocating against new fees on solar panels. And just before she finished high school, the Sierra Club asked her to help plan a national youth-led movement for renewable energy.

Claire Wang speaks with a broadcast news reporter at a 2015 press conference on solar panels, held at Rowland Hall.

Claire graduated as valedictorian and accepted a full ride to Duke University, where she majored in environmental science and policy. As a freshman, she worked with college administrators to secure Duke’s official support for renewable-energy policy reform. Then, Duke Energy—a large utility company unaffiliated with the university—announced plans to build a natural-gas plant on the university’s campus. It was the first of eight small-scale gas plants planned for the Carolinas. Claire spent two years fighting the campus plant proposal, and the university suspended the plans in spring 2018. Since then, none of the other North Carolina plants have entered the planning process. “Turning the tide early with the first plant ended up being really impactful,” Claire said.

Claire thrived in community campaigns at Duke and beyond—she even won prestigious Truman and Udall Scholarships in recognition of her work—and envisioned a career in national policy. But a 2018 study-abroad program on climate change and the politics of food, water, and energy spurred a shift. She visited a hydroelectric dam in Vietnam, and an ethnic-minority community displaced because of that dam. She also learned about how extreme weather impacts farmers, from drought in Bolivia to hail in Morocco. Now, Claire wants to reduce financing for fossil-fuel infrastructure, especially in developing countries. “We're not going to be able to achieve a livable climate future without cutting those back,” she said.

Eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” Claire said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”

That global perspective drove Claire to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship—the oldest award for international study, covering graduate school at England’s University of Oxford. When she learned she’d been selected, Claire was elated, but incredulous. “It was a mix of nervousness, excitement, pride, and a general sense of, ‘Wait, did this actually happen?’”

Claire will be at Oxford for two years, starting with a one-year master’s in environmental change and management. She expects to land in policy, perhaps working for the government or an international group. Regardless, she’ll be doing work that’s meaningful to her, and she encourages other young people to follow suit: eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” she said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”


Top photo: Claire in front of the United States Capitol. Over the summer, Claire interned with the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of the Truman Scholars' Summer Institute.

Alumni

Phinehas Bynum performs in Candide
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.

Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.

You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08

“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.” 

Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”

Actors on stage in front of orchestra.

Phinehas Bynum, second from left, stars in VocalEssence and Theater Latté Da’s March 2019 production of Candide. (Photos by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence)

Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”

Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.” 

Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”

Alumni

Jared Ruga '06 at whiteboard during writing session
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Rowland Hall lifer Jared Ruga grew up directing friends in eccentric homemade movies, including a “sci-fi space opera retelling” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for freshman English. The young auteur was self-taught, though he did glean inspiration from attending the Sundance Film Festival every year since age 16. One decade and three advanced degrees later, he founded Vavani Productions. And in 2018, Vavani’s first film debuted at Sundance—it was chaos.

Jared and his team crafted a stirring documentary in Quiet Heroes. It tells the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder, the only Utahns treating HIV/AIDS patients at the peak of that crisis. Vavani submitted a rough cut to Sundance expecting a rejection, so when it got in, they scrambled to finish it. Then came the thrilling-but-exhausting process of shepherding the film through the festival—Jared delivered his second Q&A with a 103-degree fever. He looks back on the madness and laughs, noting he’ll know to handle it if there’s a next time: “Maybe have the film totally done by the time you submit.”

Jared's time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain.

Still, Vavani’s bold moves paid off. Quiet Heroes secured three distribution deals. A TV showing qualified it for a Daytime Emmy, and in May, the doc won in its category—even edging out an Oprah special. Quiet Heroes was a challenging film to make over three years, Jared said, but his time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain. Plus, he knew the narrative deserved attention, and he was fueled by Salt Lake City’s supportive LGBTQ+ community. 

Three people standing together, around an Emmy award.

Jared Ruga holds his Emmy for Quiet Heroes, flanked by documentary subjects Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder. The trio visited Rowland Hall in May 2019 for Jared's speech during our annual Alumni Senior Breakfast—read that story.

Jared learned about Kristen and Maggie while earning his JD, MBA, and film MFA from the University of Utah (he credits Rowland Hall for sparking his interdisciplinary curiosity). As a gay man from Salt Lake, he was embarrassed he’d never before heard of the duo. “The scourge of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s is a crucial part of Queer history that we in younger generations must understand and appreciate,” Jared said. So he shared the story, and it moved local audiences to tears: people who’d lost family to the epidemic told Jared the film was a beautiful, meaningful portrayal of that struggle. Plus, the movie’s message extends beyond that crisis: it’s about standing up for your community amidst adversity, and creating a sense of family for people who are otherwise ostracized. 

There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward. Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.—Jared Ruga ’06

And that’s why Jared got into filmmaking. Upon founding Vavani, he wrote an ethos to tell compelling, socially conscious stories from underrepresented perspectives. The philosophy reflects his Rowland Hall roots: “Teachers were focused on making sure we weren’t just learning facts, we were learning how to be good stewards of our society,” he said. “There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward.” Jared and his team have already released another documentary, and eventually hope to have a few films out every year. They’re also exploring “impact campaigns,” which could involve sending movies on tour, creating survivor-support networks, and more—part of Jared’s greater goal of advancing the conversation. “Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.”


Top: Jared in a Vavani Productions writing session for narrative TV series Graduates, one of several projects in development.

Alumni

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