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Gap years: Looking beyond the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ model


Gap years are elusive beasts. Some of us wish we had taken one (or two, or three). Others can’t shut up about them, while others have a difficult time seeing the appeal. No matter your opinion on gap years, if — like me — you haven’t taken one, it’s likely you’ve developed some assumptions of what a gap year entails and further assumptions regarding the kind of people who embark on them. In order to dispel any lingering Eat, Pray, Love stereotypes, I interviewed three current Stanford freshmen, all veterans of the gap year. As can be seen below, there is no single gap year model, nor is there a specific kind of gap year-taker, nor is it ever too late to take off on a gap year of your own.

When did you take your gap year?

Tessa Milligan ’20: After graduating high school.

Jonah Glick-Unterman ’20: After high school.

Caroline Moon ’20: So I went a little out of the ordinary, a little out of the box. I took it after my freshman year of high school, inspired by my friend who took it after his sophomore year of high school. He was just like “I’m going to take a year off formal education… ” He came back and described it as the best time of his life. My parents are very liberal and they support what I do, so [when I asked] they were like “Go ahead!”

Where did you go on your gap year and what did you do?

T: For the first few months I stayed home and worked to help my parents pay for it. I couldn’t pay for my whole gap year, but I wanted to at least pay for as much as I could. I worked in a juice bar for 3 or 4 months at home, alone. [laughs] Then I went to Mexico for three weeks to do my yoga teacher training, which was an intensive course, 6AM to 9:30PM every day. And then directly after that I went to South Africa for a month and a half.

First I was working as a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center. I was working with baby rhinos, baby hippos, baby monkeys — essentially just being animal caretaker/mother to a bunch of orphaned baby animals… Then after that, I took a wildlife course for a week and a half in another part of South Africa, out in the bush on a game reserve, camping style.

Then I went to the Seychelles where I worked for a month, again as a volunteer, with the environmental department of a private research island called North Island, working to restore the habitat, replanting endemic species that had been wiped out during the coconut plantation time and also working on the conservation of sea turtles and their nest sites, and also the Aldabra Tortoises which are endemic to the Seychelles and the Galapagos… just general conservation work. And then I came home again and I was meant to travel again in the spring, but I was pretty wiped out after all that traveling, so I changed plans and I stayed home. [I] did some landscape work, worked as a gardener, knit some blankets, taught yoga. And then I got my prenatal yoga teacher certification in San Francisco. Then I spent a month in the Rockies, horsepacking. And then I also spent two weeks in the San Juan Islands, sea-kayaking and camping.

J: It was this leadership training program, kinda. It was called Kivunim. It’s a Jewish program aimed towards making the next generation of Jewish leaders very open-minded and engaged with the world. I was in Jerusalem for around seven months studying Hebrew and Arabic and different cultures, meeting with human rights activists and politicians — Israelis and Palestinians. I also studied global history. I learned about the histories of different countries and then went to those countries. I went to India, all over Europe, Morocco, Jordan… probably twenty different countries. It was really cool! I was meeting with prime ministers and ambassadors and learning how to engage with these kind of changemakers.

C: I focused a lot on fencing and competing and also just traveling. I went to Serbia, Croatia, China, Japan, France, Spain, a lot of the US too.

How much planning went into your gap year before you embarked on it?

T: So while everyone else was doing their college applications senior year, I was planning my gap year. I sent out my [college] applications before I left for Mexico. So I applied when the rest of the [current] freshmen applied. It was a lot of planning, a lot of internet researching to find out where to stay, what places are good, what’s sketchy, you know? I learned a lot from that, from figuring out what’s legit and what’s trying to get your money or just kind of creepy. The second half [of my gap year] I just kind of wung it — that had less [planning], but also was a little bit more disjointed.

J: It was actually through a program, So I didn’t do any planning. [How did you find the program?] My best friend did it the year before me.

C: I think it was the most ridiculous thing I’ve done, ever, because I had already paid tuition for my school year, for the next year. I think it wasn’t even a month before school started. I was like, “Yeah guys, I’m going to take a gap year!” [laughs] I got reimbursed [for the tuition]. It was very on a whim and a lot of my friends were like “Oh my goodness, what are you doing? Are you okay?” Very worried about me. They thought I was going through some crisis. But I was not, I was just… I felt like this would be a good experience, so I did it, and it went perfectly.

What prompted you to take a gap year?

T: I think I knew that I wasn’t ready to go straight into school, you know, just like the typical… There’s so much I want to do in life, and like when else am I going to do it? Because if you follow the normal, cookie-cutter pathway, it’s just like there’s no time for you to explore, there’s no time for these things, you know? Especially after you go to college, then it’s just like you have to get a job, and also it’s harder then because you’re not as supported by your parents. Whereas at this point, your parents can still support you. It’s scary to travel alone and it’s good to have that experience early on, so then I would feel more comfortable doing that again. But also, I think looking back, because I don’t exactly remember why I was so sure, but looking back I think it gave me such a good perspective on all the different life paths you can take. I met so many people who took radically different life paths, and it just reinforced the idea that you don’t have to follow this whole one path, it’s a very like Western philosophy of the way to go in life.

J: I think I kind of realized I might regret not doing it, but I wouldn’t regret doing it. There’s this theory called the Life Expectancy Surplus, which means that our life expectancy now is thirty years longer than it was like one hundred years ago, and how we distribute that life surplus is up to us. So I was like okay, I want to add more years to the college age and before the college age.

C: After middle school and continuing on with high school… A continuous education was just, for me, a lot. I wanted a year where I could do whatever I wanted to do, and after freshman year it was just like inspired by my friend, who was a year older obviously, and it just felt like I won’t ever get the chance to do this. I mean, potentially after senior year, but why not now, why wait?

Did you have any concerns going into it?

T: I did. It’s hard to do something that not everyone else is doing. Gap years in the UK are very common, and almost everyone takes one, but I think out of my senior class of around 500 students I was one of the only people who planned on taking a gap year… It’s hard to go against the grain with something like that, and also it’s kind of lonely, especially when everyone was leaving for college and they’re all having this experience and, you know, you’re home working alone and you feel like a failure. So there’s a lot of hard parts about it, but then I think it’s more rewarding in the end. And I think I was also worried about coming into school being older, which is silly though because really you don’t feel one year at all.

J: When I started my gap year it was like a year after a war between Gaza and Israel, so it was pretty scary for some people. Like I remember when I walked into my apartment there were signs pointing to the bomb shelters in every staircase. So that was kind of freaky… And the first month that I was in Jerusalem we were on lockdown because there were stabbings every day right outside of our door, so it was definitely kinda scary. But nothing really happened to me.

C: While on my gap year it was like I had a midlife crisis… I had a lot of FOMO. It felt like “Oh shoot, I’m a year behind now!” And not doing academic work was also very jarring for me, because I was not used to having no homework, no essays, no projects, etc. I just felt like I wasn’t being productive. But looking back, I was being so productive in a different way. So in that sense I was very worried for a bit of the time during my gap year, but not the entire time.

What were some challenges you faced?

T: Ooh, so many. [laughs] So many challenges. Traveling alone as a woman is difficult, which I hate to say, but it’s just real life. I think we are at a disadvantage, and it’s sad that we are, but it’s just different if you’re a woman than if you’re a man. There’s different precautionary actions that you have to take, you have to be more careful, and you have to be much smarter and more aware of your surroundings. That was a challenge, but something that you master pretty quickly. Being alone was a challenge but was also rewarding because now I’m super great at being alone. 

J: I think living in the moment. Because at a certain point when everything is really awesome and new every day, nothing is really so spectacular. You get so accustomed to this fast pace and new things all the time that it’s hard to realize like “Wow, I am in the dunes of the Sahara in Morocco…”  or like “Whoa, this is the holiest site of the Hindu religion, how did I even get here?”

C: Not doing work. I tried to find different activities I could do to distract myself [from the fact I wasn’t doing schoolwork] and feel that accomplishment [of productivity] through other ways. In that sense, I think that’s why I focused on fencing a lot. Competing constantly and getting better results was a way for me to feel that sense of accomplishment.

What did you think was your biggest takeaway was from that time?

T: When you travel and do these things, it’s not always going to be young people or people who are like you or whatever. It’s gonna be a really diverse demographic who you’re working with, or just spending time with. Or you’re going to be alone, like completely. So that was interesting… to be really comfortable with myself, but also with people of all walks of life… And also, I guess perspective. And that sounds so cliché, but it’s really true because if you come straight from your little world of high school to your little world of college, it’s just a continuation of the same. Whereas if you break out of that, even for a second, it’s just like you’ve almost been cleansed of this like, you know, brainwashing. And then you come back, and I still am brainwashed sometimes and I have to remind myself like, “Snap out of it, Tessa!” 

J: I think one of [my takeaways] was that the way I can be most of service to the world is by taking advantage of being at Stanford and really pursuing everything as far as I can. Once that works out for me in however it will, I will be in a position that is pretty unique to be able to do something in a different way. Another thing I realized was that people are more similar than they are different. People are definitely different, but there are so many similar values. Everywhere we went, I saw that family was the most important value that everyone shared. And I feel that way too, so I found a deep connection — no matter where you go you can find people [that share that connection].

C: I think before my gap year I had a very narrow mindset on life in general. I only thought there was one path to take: Finish high school, go to college, get good grades, get a good job and that’s practically my life. But after my gap year, I kind of realized there is a certain stigma. Society creates a path for you that is perceived as right, but honestly diverging from that is a way to express your creativity. My main takeaway would be if something feels right in the moment, that’s probably a sign. For me, taking my gap year was probably the number one time of my growth and finding my personality and what I like to do.

Do you think you would be different or have a different approach to things if you hadn’t taken a gap year? Would you do it again if you had another chance?

T: Oh yeah, I think about taking another gap year all the time. Every time I call my mom I’m like, “I need another gap year!” [laughs] [I] definitely would take another one, there’s so much that I want to do that it stresses me out. [The gap year] definitely also changed my perspective and how I am coming into school. I think I would have hypothetically had these ideas and this perspective, but it wouldn’t be so concrete and I would still have this perspective of “There’s other things in the world,” you know, but that would just be words. Whereas now it’s concrete experiences which reinforce that.

J: I would totally do it again. I wanna do it again right now. [laughs] I feel like I definitely am different. My priorities are different from what they would have been. Before college everyone was like, “College! I’m gonna make so many awesome friends and have a great time and party and it’s gonna be so fun!” And I was kind of like, “Okay, college, I’m excited to make friends but I’m also excited to really step up the game — this is where I really get to prove myself and make a difference.” And I think, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but sometimes as a twenty-year-old living with some people who are seventeen in my dorm, sometimes you do notice the different priorities, but then you’re still friends with everybody, and I still respect everybody a lot.

C: Oh of course, yeah, for sure. One of my friends kind of criticized the idea of taking a gap year. They were like “What is the point of taking a gap year? Don’t you feel like you’re behind?” Something my parents told me was that a year is nothing. You’re going to live for so many decades, a year is nothing. If that year means you learn nothing, you just wasted a year and it’s fine. But that probably is unlikely and you will learn at least one thing. For me, it was a great learning experience and a great maturing experience and I would do it again anytime.

Any further thoughts?

T: There’s this preconceived idea of success that people have, and if they diverge from that path, it’s really scary. But I think that’s one of the benefits of a gap year — is that you have to let go of that a little bit because you’re pursuing things that are not necessarily a textbook path to success. And people will say “Oh you’re wasting your time” or “You’re never gonna go back to school,” but really it reinvigorates you and gives you real world experience that benefits you in the end. [Did you ever have a time when you thought maybe you wouldn’t go back to school?] No, I think if anything it really did reinvigorate my passions and also gave me a ton of new passions that I never saw coming, like prenatal yoga, like what? Pregnant women are fucking scary, but now that’s like one of my things and I’ve continued that here. I go to prenatal yoga every week just to observe a teacher who teaches here, but hopefully I’ll start teaching that again. It’s interesting to see these new passions being integrated into my life that would have never have been there in the first place. But also it’s never too late to take a gap year, at any point in life — can’t push that enough.

J: Something that I really thought about was how to talk to people about the gap year. I think a lot of people when they come back are asked “How was it?” Learning how different people describe how they changed or what they learned is really interesting to me. There are some people who really go for it and try to describe every moment. Personally, it was more of: “It was great!” but not going into detail, because it was hard to communicate that experience. How do you talk to people about your gap year? How do you try to communicate what you learned? That was the thing I thought most about. I was actually keeping up a blog for an online newspaper, so I was always thinking “How can I write about this so that people can understand what I’m experiencing? How can I even talk about it?” I found that for me, poetry was the best way to communicate what I was seeing or feeling. Writing poetry and sharing it with people. I think poetry is more about the intention and the significance rather than the specific meaning of every line.

C: When taking a gap year, I think it’s great to have a certain activity that you’re doing or something that you’re constantly coming back to, just in case you go through, like me, a crisis of: “Oh I’m doing absolutely nothing with my life…” For me it was fencing and a lot of photography. I was reading a lot too. Things I wouldn’t be able to do on a daily basis while in formal education. Having those activities helped and made me more appreciative of them.


Contact Cecilia Atkins with your gap year experiences at catkins ‘at’

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