program overview

As our flagship program, the Gap Year will bring twelve students each year into an immersive educational experience in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. Geared towards students who are mid-college or recent high school graduates, this accredited program will offer a year’s worth of college credit at a fraction of the normal cost. Students will be recruited from Alaska and from around the United States; special care will be taken to ensure a diverse cohort along multiple demographic axes.

Our unique gap year model brings students to campus in two cohorts: one of which attends from January through December and one which attends from July through June. Overlapping cohorts, each containing six students, create the opportunity for robust peer learning and leadership. Students who have already spent six months in the program will be well-prepared to guide and mentor the incoming cohort.

All students will reside at our campus in Gustavus, Alaska, where their labor projects will help to develop the campus’ infrastructure and physical plant.

The gap year is scheduled to begin in July 2021 or January 2022.


The academic program features a liberal arts and sciences curriculum of the highest intellectual caliber, taught collaboratively by fully-credentialed faculty members and Gustavus residents with expertise in particular local knowledge. While a wide array of courses will be taught, special priority will be given to courses that contribute to students’ understanding of the place, their engagement with self-governance questions, and the wisdom they gain through the experiential components of the course. The academic pillar thereby provides a space for students to engage in theory with the same questions they encounter in practice. What does the Federalist suggest about how a self-governance decision might be structured? How does the Tao Te Ching give us new ways of understanding nature’s dynamism? How does the region’s patchwork of geological terranes illuminate a very different kind of natural dynamism?

At the beginning of each new cohort, in January and July, all gap year students will take an intensive monthlong course together: the summer course will be a field-based science course focused on ecology, geology, oceanography, and/or glaciology, offering students an intimate understanding of their new home and a chance to participate in valuable original research. The winter course will focus on questions of ethical and political life within a community, opening onto the real decisions and dilemmas students face in the course of labor and self-governance. In addition to providing substantial intellectual content, these courses also serve to integrate the incoming cohorts into the student body, contributing to the formation of a shared campus culture.


The labor pillar integrates students into a lifeway common in Gustavus but radically different than that of most modern environments. This bush Alaska town is a do-it-yourself kind of community; many people build their own homes, chop their own firewood, and grow, hunt, fish, gather, and preserve their own food. Our students will do the same, partaking in a subsistence lifestyle that teaches competence in manual skills, the habits of mind that accompany this competence, and a profound sense of connection to the natural world.

Over the course of a week, students will spend 20-25 hours in physical labor and service work, including cooking meals, chopping firewood, tending the garden, preserving the harvest, building and maintaining infrastructure, and (of course) washing dishes. Because subsistence activities must follow natural rhythms, program schedules may be tweaked to accommodate salmon runs, favorable weather, and the tidal cycle. All students will have the opportunity to go on fishing excursions for salmon, rockfish, and halibut.

The labor pillar plays a crucial role in the Arete Project’s expansive vision of a liberal arts education. Our primary goal is not to train the next cadre of modern-day homesteaders. Rather it serves to broaden our students’ understanding of different ways of life; to invest them with the responsibility to care for their own community; to cultivate the virtues and skills that manual labor can instill; and to foster a sense of interdependence within both human and natural ecosystems.


Self-governance bestows upon students the authority to create and govern their own political community. Within the context of the program, students will come up against many of the same questions that societies encounter on a grander scale: how do we humanely and justly exercise power over one another? How do we share resources, especially when they are scarce? How do we navigate differences of opinion and experience? How do we balance the needs of the community against the needs of the individual? The other experiential components of the program create the circumstances for all these questions to arise. The academic pillar provides space for students to grapple intellectually with these questions. But it is within the sphere of self-governance that students must make decisions on these central questions of the human condition.

Self-governance also involves shared governance – the sharing of administrative power with the organization’s professional leaders. Students lead the committees (populated by students and staff) that hire faculty, set the curriculum, and admit new students. Students therefore have significant power and agency within the life of the program; the choices they make have real stakes for the organization.