It’s your life. You could spend it gazing out the office window, wondering how to break that long golden chain of prestige that shackles you to desk and fast-track.
Or you could let your body take wing with your imagination.
Between vast chunks of days laboring at the career grindstone, you might take a true sabbatical — some exotic adventure that redirects, and actually re-creates. If you find such an urge and courage, Holly Bull is just the person to help you with the lift off.
Since 1980, the Bull family’s Center for Interim Programs, at 145 Nassau Street, has placed more than 5,000 of students and working adults into projects in locales as near as Costa Rica, and as remote as Madagascar. The center leads willing souls far beyond the mere thrills of tourist-freight adventure travels. Re-creation involves more than splashing downstream in a rubber raft or standing in the shadow of some culture’s ancient pyramids in passive awe. Rather, CIP’s path takes you out of your milieu, lets you witness a novel society’s challenges, and invites you to roll up your sleeves with others and join in a solution.
Reassessing one’s entire life direction may stretch into a single program lasting three months, or it may be achieved in a series of few-day stints. A dip into the center’s 5,200 interim programs reads like a fantasy wish list: volunteer work and homestay with an exiled Tibetan community in Nepal; live and volunteer at a remote wolf sanctuary in the U.S., or one for big cats in Tanzania; apprentice with a mural artist in Mexico; build a school in Moldavia, Mongolia, or Peru; or study as an apprentice to a shaman . . . somewhere.
The center’s price for its consulting service is $2,100, and that covers a lifetime of access to its program options, information, and alumni. Program costs vary, from $6,000 to $17,000 for small student group programs with leaders, that run for three months, to the cost of rent and food during your time, according to the center’s website. Some costs can be offset by exchanging services for shelter.
Each program is a purge from the norm, bringing you time and stimulus to reconsider. “This culture is absolutely nuts about following the fast track,” says Bull. “The gap year, between high school and college, has traditionally been viewed as dangerously wasted time.”
For most of our lives, teachers and parents have preached the swift notching of our educational and career sticks. Those who deviate fall into the “Legion Lost . . . never meant to win,” as poet Robert W. Service wrote. They selfishly break their mothers’ hearts as they roam the world at will.
Such was the prevailing attitude when Holly Bull graduated from Princeton High School in 1980. And had it not been for one immense advantage, young Holly might have followed her classmates aboard the well-worn schooling express. That advantage was educator, adventurer, and father, Cornelius Bull III.
Bull was a man who feasted on life with both powerful hands. After graduating from the Lawrenceville School, he served in the U.S. Navy in World II. He returned home long enough to take a degree from Princeton University and to teach at his Lawrenceville alma mater.
Then came the call to roam. Bull successively took on the mantles of headmaster for the Robert Academy in Istanbul, Turkey; the Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona; the American International School in Vienna, Austria; and St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas.
Throughout his wide wanderings and career as an educator, Bull became increasingly convinced of the value of experiential learning. Life’s real riches belonged to those Huck Finns with the gumption to build a raft and push off into waters uncharted.
“It really all began in Sedona,” Holly recalls. With the shoe boxes.”
In taking over the headmaster’s position at Verde Valley School in Arizona, Cornelius Bull oversaw the successive field trip programs that the school’s founder had made part of the core curricula. He watched the big green buses roll out past the school’s iron gates, filled with students heading for Mexico, where they would perform various service projects. “Throughout the entire year, these projects were the only things the kids would talk about,” says Holly. From that point on, Verde Valley’s headmaster began placing gap-year program ideas into shoe boxes.
By 1980 Cornelius Bull, who died in 2004, had returned from headmastering in Austria and Texas and had launched the Center for Interim Programs from his Princeton home. He pulled out the shoe boxes and began matching them to students eager to experience life while young. Among the first of these life-yearning youngsters was his daughter.
Holly Bull swiftly traded cap and gown for Hawaii-appropriate togs and spent several interim months there as a technician in an aquiculture internship. Then, shedding that potential career choice, she took her first collegiate academic semester in Greece. She returned to the University of Virginia, as she terms it, “so much more settled, and knowing where I wanted to go.”
Where she went, two years later, was on a second academic/roaming gap trek through Nepal and India. After a series of adventures abroad and an anthropology degree from UVA, Holly joined her father in l986, furthering the gospel of the Center for Interim Programs.
“I see not just greater acceptance, but vastly increasing need for the gap year — at all stages of life — more than ever,” says Bull.
Children are groomed to focus these days. They grow together in a grove of slender trees, each striving to lift his head above his fellows’ and claim his piece of sunshine. In this societally nourished tropism, the young ones are given no time to grow broad rings of experience, to branch out toward other interests. They are encouraged to shoot only up, and so they do, creating a weak and ungainly cluster of forest, that leads passersby to look askance and wonder what’s not quite right with this grove.
Sadly, this undeviating spurt towards “up” carries on well after our academic “preparation for life.” Career paths turn young adults into old ones, luring them with every conceivable threat and promise into ruts. Youngsters see this map and reject it — or at least rankle under it. But working adults the age of those youngsters’ parents and grand parents are also beginning to lift their heads. To these, the Center for Interim Projects shines like a beacon.
One who caught this light was hard-grinding, 57-year-old doctor of medicine, Dennis Sinar. Born and raised in Ohio, Sinar is the son of an electrician who practices near his home in North Carolina. Dutifully, Sinar had done the drill of high school, college, med school, established practice, and a daily whirl of patients whose names he could barely remember.
Certainly, it was not that Sinar’s career was unhappy or unsuccessful. As a researcher at East Carolina University, he had developed several anti-nausea treatments, become departmental chief of staff, and entered “my real love — gastroenterology.” But for years, he has yearned for more than days in the white lab coat.
In late 2006 a trailhead opened. One morning at a hotel convention, after giving a talk, Sinar’s copy of USA Today fell open to an article about the Center for Interim Programs. “I believe in destiny,” says Sinar. “So I decided it was time to follow its lead.”
“You should have seen him when he first came into the office,” says Bull. “His eyes were focused down. He wasn’t depressed, exactly, but he was just listless, like a man going through the motions of life.”
That was about to change. After exhaustive diagnostic interviews, Bull prescribed a year of adventures for the good doctor.
Sinar’s choices were laid out for him by the center’s director of research, Kate Warren. Whenever Susan Butcher hits the news as four-time winner of the Iditarod, Alaska’s grueling dogsled race, it is Warren who makes the call to see if she would like an intern. (Butcher has agreed, and the center has supplied.)
When new program concepts strike the fertile minds at the center, Warren plucks them from the computerized shoe boxes, makes the contacts, and sets things up. “Of course you need students for your gunsmith course, your archaeology dig in the bush, your third world homestay,” she says.
Globe-scouring Warren not only unearths the new learning and serving opportunities, she makes sure they are safe, well organized, and scrupulously honest. Her attention to logistical detail comes from years as a court reporter and real estate sales person. She has been co-chair of the local juvenile conference committee and is lifetime leader of the Princeton, Mercer, and state fire companies’ ladies’ auxiliary.
With the center’s guidance, Sinar outlined a year of rebirth for himself beginning in 2007. Through the next year, that took him to Alaska, Thailand, Nepal, Romania, and back to Lambertville. The Doctor’s journal may be viewed at www.year-of-adventure.typepad.com.
From the center’s array of possibilities, Sinar sought something more gritty. “I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone. A place where I could labor hard and feel the effect of an entirely new culture,” says Sinar. Such was exactly what he got when his plane touched down in Talkeetna, Alaska, a former gold rush town whose 800 inhabitants dwell in the shadow of Mount McKinley and know well how to handle 25 feet of snow a year. “It quickly became evident why the old television show Northern Exposure took Talkeetna as its inspiration,” says Sinar.
Sinar was picked up at the landing strip by a gent named Brian McCullough who drove him to his cabin five miles out of town, on a hilltop. Like everyone else in town, Brian was an old-style individualist, employing his many skills to making his way in a variety of useful trades. Climbers have sought his premier mountaineering abilities to guide them to peaks in the Denali range.
Back at the cabin, Sinar began his apprenticeship under Brian’s other mastery — artistic stone masonry. “Brian and I would drive three hours to find just the right stone,” says Sinar. “Then we would heft it into the truck, and then lay out the stone on the site and mix the mortar. You would see the rocks go up — feel the exhilaration of physical exhaustion. This was a new side of me.”
A hitchhike into downtown Talkeetna brought Sinar a brief rest and a chance to rub elbows with these ordinary citizens of extraordinary resourcefulness. Long days with only labor and mosquitoes as distractions forced the doctor-on-leave to think. It fed his appetite for more.
His journey back to medicine took him farther east. And got worse.
“Going to Nepal was the toughest thing I have ever done,” says Sinar. “The poverty, the culture shock, and being so much on the outside.” For his first month Sinar lived with a family in Boudha, a Tibetan refugee haven a few miles east of Katmandu. Daily, he would sit with a Tibetan healer and greet patients, both Nepalese and Tibetan. “This man’s only diagnostic tool was a 45-second checking of the pulse accompanied by an intense visual examination,” says Sinar. “After one such analysis of me, with mysterious accuracy, he diagnosed hypertension, neck pain, and stomach reflux. To this day, I don’t know what clues this healer used to make such true and precise diagnoses.”
The following month brought Sinar a little closer into town and one step closer to western medical familiarities. He joined a clinic, studying under two doctors of Ayurvedic medicine, which blends some western methods with the traditional Tibetan. “Our approach to medicine is mechanistic,” he says of western medicine. Nepal has “a more naturalpathic, holistic, diet-inclusive approach designed to maintain body balance. We have a lot to learn from these alternative techniques of healing.”
Sinar rounded out his adventurous year with a Romanian archaeology dig, sifting through the remains of the 14th century. During his homestay he learned the lore of Dracula, and of the Soviet-sponsored dictator Nikolai Ceausescu (whom some still remember fondly). Then in Lambertville, Sinar bent his elbows polishing and restoring antique English furniture with James Kearn of J.K. Antiques — a skill he has since employed in his North Carolina cabin.
Today he is back practicing gastroenterology, seeing patients three days a week. “Am I different?” Sinar ponders. “Oh, yes. I understand my patients more thoroughly. I listen harder to the stories they tell, I see the background, and I search more for the story untold. I am a better healer for the experience.”
With the downturn in the economy, Bull finds that more mid-career adults are seeking the sabbatical alternative. “People out of work are quite naturally scared about regaining income,” she explains. “But once they realize that interims may be done in short pieces, and that many projects are fairly cost-free, trading labor for room and board, the idea seems more attractive.”
Downsized individuals are viewing their release from the workaday realm as a bit of opportunistic destiny — a chance to step back and consider themselves and their world anew. Even if they return to the same kind of work, it will be seen through redirected eyes and performed with a refreshed heart.
Of course, there are still those youngsters who want such an experience before the cubicle farm saps them. Princeton high schooler Bill Page is example of how interim re-creation may be purchased for the price of a plane ticket.
Page completed his junior year with all his SATs and college applications properly filled, but he was not quite content. His perceptive mother, Lisa, introduced him to Bull and Warren, and let him feast on alternative opportunities.
“I sought to learn in some faraway, new, totally foreign culture,” says Page. “I definitely wanted to stay away from some group oriented experience. I needed to be off on my own.” Both Page’s parents and Bowdoin College, which had admitted him, accepted his deferred year.
The summer of 2008 saw a stunned 17-year-old Page, fresh from Princeton High, wandering the streets of Dehli on his way to his northern India destination. The acres of unimaginable poverty overcame him. “I had traveled to Europe and Moscow before, but this totally swept me out of my comfort zone,” he says.
A few hours bouncing on a backroads bus took Page to his new home in Dharamsala, India, a town of 19,000 people crouched at the foothills of the Himalayas. During his homestay, he taught English in exchange for food and lodging. He met students of his own age who had fled from Tibet about 10 years ago, seeking refuge from the extensive Chinese persecutions in their homeland.
“They all wanted to learn English,” says Page. “Some of them had a few words. I had no English teaching skills. But we conversed continually and slowly worked to share each other’s languages.”
Later he taught monks.
But despite the warmth of the people, independence for Page had its price. “You are all alone,” he says. “You have no built-in friends, like at school. There is really no one to chat with at the end of the day, and no one to support you.”
On the other hand, during his two and a half months, he recalls such incidents as the old (age 54) Tibetan Buddhist monk who taught him about the faith he had been a living example of since age three.
After another month and a half traveling in India, Page was off for Bolivia, where he lived and learned Spanish “and so much more” during a homestay. Taking advantage of his father’s connections as Princeton University physicist, young Page ended his globetrotting year in Chile’s Atacama desert, working in a 17,000-foot- elevation observatory overlooking the Valley de la Luna. “It’s the driest place on the planet except for parts of Anarctica,” says Page. “It is well named. It’s truly surreal.”
Today Page wanders the campus of Maine’s Bowdoin College, concentrating on math and science. “If I have learned anything,” says Page, “it is that all cultures have their own benefits, and that my options are broad and wide open.”
The gap year, or sabbatical, adds rings of experience to life, and depth to one’s soul. By branching into other areas and cultures, new facets of characteremerge. Bull notes that the center’s failure rate of clients is near zero.
Yet, interim treks are not for everyone. Individual adventure is not for the faint of heart. Long, inescapable periods of new (and not always appetizing) foods may await. The novel of the primitive can swiftly wear into a disgust at the grunge. Blessed beer breaks may be spent invariably swatting vicious tsetse flies or bird-size mosquitoes. And is there anyone who could speak one wondrous word of English?
But there are those moments — sitting at the aged monk’s feet when he imparts his wisdom; standing, sweat-drenched and exhausted, beside the high stone fireplace you have erected; or simply that point in some strange city when all becomes clear. These are the times to branch out toward.
The Center for Interim Programs, 195 Nassau Street, Suite 5, Princeton 08542; 609-683-4300; fax, 609-683-4309. Holly Bull, president. Home page: www.interimprograms.com.