LEAPNOW Program Provides Non-Campus Learning

Article Susan Fotovich McCabe | Photography Brain Turner and Sam Bull

By the time high school students don a cap and gown for the big day, many already have a plan in place for college – even if they don’t know what they want to study. But for some students, like Leawood’s Matt Ladegaard, college plans are unresolved. In fact, many students find they need a “gap year” to make crucial decisions about the future.

Ladegaard, 19, is a 2009 Blue Valley High School graduate, and the son of Ed and Arlene Ladegaard. Unfortunately, he found that the closer he came to high school graduation, the less certain he was about college.

“At that point, I wasn’t interested in high school topics and I felt that college was a continuation of that,” says Ladegaard. “My parents and I had conversations about college, but I wasn’t really feeling it.”

Fortunately, Jim Herer, a private college counselor Ladegaard’s parents hired to help him explore his post-secondary plans understood what he was feeling and introduced him to California-based LEAPNOW, an alternative program that offers meaningful learning and college credit outside a traditional college setting. Specifically, LEAPNOW believes it offers“transforming educational programs,” often taking students on international adventures that provide real-life learning and can later be applied toward college credit. LEAPNOW Executive Director Sam Bull says the program helps to “develop the whole person and lead you toward psychological and spiritual maturity – or true adulthood,” adding that its programs aspire to keep students “on the cutting edge of human evolution.”

“I think it’s important to remember that although you’re doing what feels like a gap year, you’re exploring yourself and the world, and you’re doing it for college credit,” says Bull.

According to Bull, those students who choose the organization’s LEAPYEAR program are enrolled in Antioch University Seattle as full-time students and receive a year of lowerdivision college credit. Other LEAPNOW programs offer students a chance to earn credit through their home university or through independent study with Seattle Central Community College.

Ladegaard certainly got his chance to explore the world. He chose to travel to parts of India and Africa, where he worked in an orphanage, a zero waste community (organic farming), with Tibetan refugees – and even as a debt collector, literally going from hut to hut. As part of his requirements, he researched and wrote a paper on the topic of Voodoo religion vs. Christianity. Having spent some of his youth in Switzerland because of his dad’s job with Nestle and later studying French at Prairie Star Elementary, Ladegaard was enthusiastic about spending part of his time in the French-speaking, West Africa country of Benin.

“I’m not fluent, but I know enough to get by,” says Ladegaard. “There, I worked with kids from the orphanage. It was fun, but kids aren’t my primary interest. Still, I got a lot out of it.”

Such real-world experiences are at the core of LEAPNOW, says Bull. He says the program is unique because it combines three areas of importance: A focus on the inner person, the World and academic credit – at both the high school and college levels. LEAPNOW gives students access to more than 6,000 internships and learning opportunities in the United States and 126 other countries.

“In our society, our education system is designed in a way that we sit for 12 years in a row in a square room and have people talk at us,” says Bull. “The kinds of kids interested in doing a LEAPNOW year are those kids who don’t know themselves and the world very well.”

Not surprisingly, the program isn’t any less expensive than an average year of college tuition. According to Bull, it is less expensive than getting into any top-rated university. In Ladegaard’s case, his gap year experience and subsequent college credit cost him $30,000 – a little more than a year at the University of Kansas.

Ladegaard is convinced the experiences will help in his future education. Last semester, Ladegaard took classes at Johnson County Community College, and is now exploring colleges in Washington and North Carolina. This semester, he is spending three months working on an organic farm in Hawaii.

“When I apply to a college, they’ll look at what I did, my work experience and see what applies,” he says. “Right now, I think I’m heading down a path of environmental studies and the challenges facing underdeveloped countries.”

Ladegaard has three older siblings, two of whom went to college. Not following the traditional college route is tough for a student in Johnson County, he says, because the area has good public schools and a high rate of students pursing college upon high school graduation. Still, says Ladegaard, sometimes “we live in a bubble. Not everyone chooses the traditional route and works 9 to 5.” He’s convinced he’ll figure it out as he goes along.

Meanwhile, Bull likens the LEAPNOW program to a quote he once heard:“Before you get the rest of your education, get a life.”