For two months, Anneke Sherry ’22 woke up every morning at sunrise and ran from the Chinese monastery where she was staying to a small creek.
Along with the other students at the monastery, Sherry would place a stone on her head and carry it back, where it would be used to construct stairs.
“It was just a way to start your day with meditation and find your inner peace,” Sherry said.
It was how she started each day at the small monastery, which had a Shaolin temple and kung fu and tai chi training for the monks and other students. Sherry was there to learn kung fu, just one stop in a yearlong global journey of self-exploration.
After the morning meditation and breakfast, Sherry and the other students would have three to four hours of training, lunch and a break, and then several more hours of training.
“And then after dinner it was dark, and I didn’t have a phone or anything, so I usually just read or went to bed. And then you’d wake up and do it all over again,” said Sherry, who is now a sophomore at Whitman College. “It was a very peaceful, very relaxing experiencing.”
Global Gap Year
Sherry’s trip to the monastery was part of her gap year — a year break between graduating high school and attending Whitman.
“I knew that I needed a break in terms of education — just getting a break and letting my mind reset so I could enter into college being excited to learn and feeling like I knew myself now,” said the Michigan native. “I felt like I didn’t know enough about the world.”
Her journey took her around the world — starting with a road trip from her boarding school in Massachusetts, across the U.S. to California, visiting national parks along the way. Then she went overseas, traveling around Europe for two months before moving into Asia. As she journeyed, she grew into herself and the experience.
“In Europe, I had a day-by-day schedule, especially around getting transportation. I didn’t feel comfortable doing last-minute bookings,” she said. “But then, as I got more comfortable with it and got a feel for international travel solo, I really wanted to lean in more to just kind of going off the cuff.”
In Europe, she also stayed in hostels and had a more traditional tourist experience. But in Asia, Sherry wanted to find community and explore deeper. In addition to the two months at the monastery, she used the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network to find other places to stay. Through WWOOF, she connected with families in Indonesia and Fiji.
Growing through Gap
The gap year wasn’t Sherry’s first time traveling. Through her high school, she attended two semester schools, courses that combine study abroad-like experiences with experiential learning. One was in Maine working on a farm, and the other was studying marine biology and ecology in the Bahamas.
“It was 40 to 50 students per semester, and you really engage with them because you also don’t have technology,” she said. The experience helped guide her to wanting to pursue a gap year. “I kind of connected with myself in more ways than I had in the rest of high school. I wanted to do that again before I entered college and decided on a life path.”
Sherry knew she was interested in attending a small liberal arts college on the West Coast, so she applied to and was admitted to Whitman before taking her gap year. Gap year students can defer their enrollment acceptance, guaranteeing themselves a place in the next year’s class. Knowing where she was going to end up helped Sherry feel more purposeful about her exploration.
“It gave me a structure, and kind of gave me some mental freedom,” she said. “Yes, I’m going to travel and do this for a year, and let that be this experience. And I didn’t want that gap year to hinder me from doing what I wanted to do with my life, like getting an education.”
The experience helped Sherry know her strengths and build confidence in her ability to deal with what the world might throw at her.
“I learned a lot about traveling solo. It can be really scary, especially as a female. But you have to really trust yourself that you will stay safe and you’ll make sure you do the things to keep yourself safe,” she said. “You build that confidence that you can do it. It might not be the easiest thing, but you have the tools and the skills within you to do hard things.”
After the Gap
Sherry had some trepidation about entering Whitman as a first-year student and being a year older than her classmates.
“I was just worried that I was going to feel out of place, and ‘too old’ for the college experience. But that isn’t a thing,” she said, with a laugh. “You have to take a step back and realize that everybody’s college experience is going to be different.”
At Whitman, Sherry’s found an environment supportive of gap year students, where faculty understand that the student has had a year off from academics and needs to readjust.
“I was definitely most terrified of going into an English class,” she said. “I think a lot of gap year students have this fear of getting back into academics. There’s kind of this gut-wrenching feeling that you haven’t been writing essays for a year.”
But her professor worked closely with her, and they met to discuss paper drafts over office hours while Sherry got back into the academic swing of things.
“I think Whitman professors are very aware of gap years, and they’re very accommodating,” she said. “I think the benefit of Whitman is that there are a lot of gap year students, and the faculty kind of know how to approach that in terms of knowing their level of preparedness.”
Now a German studies major with a psychology minor, Sherry is working toward a pre-health track, and wants to go to medical school or a physician’s assistant program after graduating from Whitman.