Words: Grace Kenyon ’22
Photos: Laura Sattler
Elliot Chan at HoneyRock for the Vanguard Gap Year Program.
After growing up in New York City, the Wisconsin Northwoods seemed deafeningly quiet to Elliot Chan, Vanguard ’24. Gone were the cumulative noises of thousands of people jostling on the sidewalks, the whooshing of trains, and honking cars. Even in his apartment, many stories above the streets, the cacophonous symphony was like a white noise machine lulling him to sleep.
When Chan arrived in the Northwoods, the silence was one of the things that challenged him most.
“The first two weeks, it was very hard to sleep. It was just too quiet for me,” Chan said. Once, he even tried having his roommates come over and talk about random things so that he could fall asleep to a hum of background noise. “But eventually I got to adapt to that silence,” he added.
Now, halfway through Vanguard, Wheaton College’s gap year program, silence is something Chan cherishes. A competitive swimmer since 5th grade, he likes the water and often walks down the lake. At this time of year, he can walk out on the frozen water and the beauty of creation prompts him to consider where God is showing himself in Chan’s life. In these moments of practicing silence and solitude as spiritual disciplines, he is able to reap some of the benefits that led him to Vanguard in the first place.
Chan started looking into gap year programs after his first year at Boston University. He was struggling to find meaningful friendships and felt that his relationship with God was not as strong as it once was. The work was taking a mental toll on him, and he needed a break. When he received a Vanguard promotional email, it checked all the boxes: an opportunity to intentionally reconnect with God, a strong community, and a chance to slow down from the hurried pace his life had taken.
Hosted at HoneyRock, Wheaton’s Center for Leadership Development in the Wisconsin Northwoods, Vanguard offers an immersive process of learning about God’s purpose and design for work. Through outdoor activities, partnerships with ministries around the world, and seminars around important theological questions, the program helps students discern how they can embrace the sacredness of work with their unique gifts and challenges.
In Vanguard, the idea of vocation is based on the premise that work is created by God and therefore good. God commands us to both work and rest, so Vanguard students spend a lot of time doing both. During the fall semester, Chan’s “vocational track” included working in the HoneyRock kitchen, learning the ins and outs of preparing meals for large groups of people, sometimes up to 100 campers. Chan had done some cooking before, but this was a brand-new experience that pushed him outside his comfort zone and helped him develop new managerial, relational, and technical skills. He’s enjoyed the kitchen camaraderie and break-time shenanigans (like food-cutting competitions and playing golf with potatoes out back) so much that he’s even kicking around the idea of pursuing a culinary career.
“But it’s all in God’s hands,” Chan said. “And I’m just leaning on God right now to take me where he wants me to be.”
For Chan, spiritual growth and a tight-knit community have gone hand-in-hand. Through a month-long technology fast, an exhausting week-long hike, and regular communal worship, Chan says he has grown close to his fellow Vanguard students. He is particularly grateful for his small group. They make a point to pray together, checking in with each other throughout the week and supporting each other through the highs and lows. Chan says he can sense that every person is participating in Vanguard for a reason, and he can’t imagine the program without them.
And while one of these reasons is to take steps to discern God’s calling for their future, vocation can also be about the here and now. Chan has come to appreciate the simple things, like classmates offering their talents during worship, quiet reflection time in the mornings, or in the kitchen. He’s learned that even mundane things can be beautiful when offered to the Lord.
“Each day is different, even though you might be doing the same thing,” Chan said. “And even through the mundane, you can see God and all of this work is for him.”