After 18: Willa Vigneault

Taking a year off before heading to college.

Willa with her father David, sister Ava and mother Sarah at the MVRHS graduation this past June. — Courtesy Willa Vigneault

Every year The MV Times asks four recent high school graduates to write about their experiences during their first year after graduation. Willa Vigneault graduated from MVRHS in 2017, and is taking a gap year.

With the majority of the summer diners at the Plane View gone and their waitresses having left for college, I find myself serving more and more confused-looking regulars as they realize that I’m not following my fellow 2017 graduates to commence our freshman year.

I had decided to take a gap year last April before I had even committed to a specific college. The subsequent college search was a fun process that will find me in the fall of 2018 at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, unpacking my bags and preparing for the all-American college experience, with the Greek aspect featured in most college movies dialed down to nonexistent. It seems that most everyone who attends IIT is a self-proclaimed and socially identified “nerd.” This was evident on my first visit to the campus, when I was surprised to encounter students who were genuinely interested in my father’s passionate architectural monologues — I mean “dialogues” — and took great pride in IIT’s architectural legacy, stretching from Mies van der Rohe to Rem Koolhaas. I look forward to studying materials science and engineering in such an innovative, application-focused environment, but also welcome a year to pursue my other interests — “other interests” being a personal code for travel and experience off-Island.

The first time I was away from home on my own was in Amman, Jordan, when I was 15 years old, having jumped directly over the sleepaway-camp phase to land in a foreign country for two months. Evidently, I had not found freshman year dramatic enough. My wonderful vehicle off-Island was a State Department program called National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), which supported myself and 19 other high school students living with host families and learning Arabic at a local language institute. A year after I returned, I was on another plane, this time through the Rotary Youth Exchange. The destination was Bordeaux, France, where I would spend my junior year of high school staying with three host families, attending French public school, and fully immersing myself in another wonderful culture.

A year ago, approaching the midpoint of my senior year, the idea of a gap year was a low internal murmur drowned out by the rush of college applications. Despite my love of adventure and less than ordinary use of my high school years, I was fully riding the conveyor belt from high school straight to college. As I began to hone in on what I wanted, the murmur grew and gained my full attention. I was ready for college, I was excited for it, but first I wanted to do a little more exploring before the gathering threat of debt and responsibility became a long-term reality.

Having invested a lot of effort during high school finding ways to leave Martha’s Vineyard and personally connect with foreign cultures and lands, my main incentive for a gap year was the promise of travel and experience in countries new to me. This year I will fulfill my promise by leaving Martha’s Vineyard in the optimal month of January, directly off the sugar-indulging, present-giving rollercoaster we call Christmas and strategically bypassing February and March when the winter goes from “cozy with a chill in the air” to “isolated with frozen bones,” to head way down south to Cusco, Peru. And yes, I am aware that despite my complaining of the cold, I committed to four years at IIT, and yes, I have been formally introduced to winter in Chicago, thank you for your concern.

In Cusco, through a program called Maximo Nivel, I will participate in a four-week course Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). For those four weeks, I’ll be staying with a host family and taking a crash course on how to teach a foreign language, while simultaneously trying to learn Spanish. Once I receive my certificate, I will be assigned to a language institute either in Peru or somewhere else in South America. Cusco’s proximity to archaeological masterpieces like Machu Picchu and TEFL’s 25-hour weekly commitment will leave me an abundance of opportunities to explore — I also hope to leave Martha’s Vineyard before the program starts to visit friends in various parts of South America.

At present, I am enjoying my last foreseeable autumn on the Vineyard, making some of the money I missed out on during a summer of “once in a lifetime” family adventures, scuba diving off the coast of Honduras and rafting 225 miles on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In addition to waitressing at the Plane View, I am substitute-advising the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) newspaper, the High School View, which I co-edited as a senior last year. There is some irony in my enjoying retracing my steps through the MVRHS halls toward the newspaper room every Monday, given the lengths I went to getting away from those halls in previous years.