What’s a Gap Year?

When prospective Yalies choose to matriculate, each is presented with the opportunity to take a Gap Year. Basically, all Yale students have the option of taking a full year off to take advantage of whatever their heart desires. There are plenty of programs and opportunities both in the United States and abroad. 

As much as I would love to describe what it means to take a gap year in between high school and college, I am not exactly the right person to talk to because I did not take one myself! At the end of high school, I felt that I was completely ready (and overwhelmingly excited) to begin college. However, there are plenty of students that choose to take a year off. 

When I came to Yale in August, one of the first people I met was Sally, who lives a suite on the floor above mine. I quickly learned that she took a year off to explore the world, and I’ve heard all about some of her awesome adventures over the course of last semester. But instead of me telling you all about her experiences, I thought you should hear it right from the source! Here’s an awesome summary of Sally’s gap year. Enjoy!  

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Last year, I tumbled off a mountain bike near Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan and spent a week looking like a bandage-wrapped mummy.  I climbed a volcano, got too close to the lava, and melted the soles off of my sneakers.  A burly farmer chased me off his flamingo farm in Argentina after I accidentally trespassed there.   A border patrol guard with only two teeth almost arrested a friend and me over a missing passport.  I wandered into the sketchy side of town, missed the last boat, got stuck in the mud, and was robbed twice.  It was the best year of my life.

When I told my teachers, family, and friends that I was going to take a gap year before starting at Yale, they warned me about such misadventures.  My grandmother spent sleepless nights worrying that I might get malaria or be killed by drug lords.  Worse still, I might “never want to come back to school.” But my mind was made up. Burnt out and tired, I decided that I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of Yale’s superb academic opportunities if I didn’t give myself a break. I signed up for three months of solo traveling in Buenos Aires in the fall, intent on pursuing freedom, independence, and fun.  I would spend the spring volunteering in Central America, something I had always wanted to do but never had the time for. In the summer, after taking a cross-country train home to Los Angeles, I would work two jobs to pay off my debts to my parents, and then, finally, start my freshman year.

So began a year of challenge and change. I spent those first months taking tango classes in historical halls, speaking Spanish in shops filled with dulce de leche, and learning to tightrope walk from my Argentine acrobat friends—a pretty glamorous life.  To be honest, though, I also spent significant amounts of time taking the bus for hours and missing my stop and doubling back and taking another bus and getting on a subway but losing my ticket and having to talk to the teller in Spanish but forgetting the verb “to lose” and finally just giving up and walking fifty blocks.  Adventure isn’t always pretty.  In Guatemala, I taught math, science, history, and writing to sixth graders—all in Spanish.  The volunteer group I worked with entrusted me with my very own class, though I had no teaching experience.  When I told my parents one day that I had taught a lesson on mitosis that morning, they were astonished and impressed—“how did you know the right words?”  Truthfully, I didn’t know all the right words.  I had a teaching book to help me, so I learned the essentials (prophase: profase, anaphase: anafase—it wasn’t too hard) and stumbled through the rest as best I could.  I learned lots of new vocabulary as I matured as a teacher, though “sit down” and “be quiet” were by far my most commonly used phrases.  By the end of eight weeks, I had formed a real bond with my thirty students, and hope to return to teach them again in the coming years.

A gap year is a tapestry of experiences, some of them exciting, some mundane, some annoying, some transcendent.  It comes in a hundred different shapes and sizes—you might travel or stay at home, hike in the wilderness or join a theater company.   The scariest part of a year off is deciding to take one in the first place.

That choice isn’t right for everyone; my twin sister is a current sophomore at Northwestern University studying theater.  She knows she wants to be an actress, and she was way too excited about college to take time off before starting. Both of us are 100% happy with our choices.  But I can say without hesitation that for me, taking a gap year was the best decision I could have made.  It has allowed me to start my college career energized, confident, and ready.

I always feel fear and doubt right before taking a risk, whether a big one like checking the box to defer my admission to Yale, or a little one like striking up a conversation with the person next to me on the subway.  But by forcing myself to take these risks, I created a space in my life and filled it with adventures. I climbed a mountain.  I saw the sunrise from a little rickety wooden boat on a topical lagoon.  I became fluent in Spanish, satisfying a lifelong dream.  I learned that I am a good teacher, and gained a possible new career path. Yes, sometimes I was tired and sunburned and hurt and lonely.  But now, my misadventures are my best stories and my most important memories.  I’d do it all over again, melted sneakers and all.

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For more information about gap year resources, feel free to check out their website at http://www.yale.edu/yalecollege/international/welcome/gap_year.html. Who knows where a gap year could take you!