When Mischa Frusztajer '89 was applying to college, he knew he wanted a break between his graduation from Andover and matriculating at Harvard. His father had taken numerous business trips to Japan, and Frusztajer had never visited the country about which his father talked. So, he decided, he would spend a year living in Japan and learning about the culture before coming to Cambridge.
Frusztajer is not alone. Every year about 50 people elect to defer admission and spend their socalled "gap year" far from books and libraries. Experiences run the gamut from chasing turtles in Greece to digging in the Cook Islands.
Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons '67 says that anywhere from 35 to 70 students decide to delay Harvard a year. Last year, 51 members of the class of '90 spent what would have been their freshman year engaged in a variety of peripatetic activities. The year before that, 67 students opted for membership in the Class of '89, not '88, Fitzsimmons says.
The Admissions Office encourages students to take a year-long break before entering Harvard and in fact, sometimes politely suggests the move to students whom it feels would benefit from an extra year's maturity. In addition, the Admissions Office sometimes offers students a deferred admit, saying that Harvard does not have enough housing to accept the person and suggests the student come back next year, Fitzsimmons says.
"We believe taking a year off is a great idea. I can't remember when a year off has been a negative experience," Fitzsimmons says. Nor has a request for a year-off ever been denied, the dean adds.
Only a few of those who defer Harvard choose to go elsewhere, so Harvard risks little in having such a liberal deferral policy. "I personally would like to see more students take a year off," says Fitzsimmons.
Whether the College asks the student to consider taking the year off or not, most say they come to the decision entirely on their own. Laura L. Blodgett '89 decided as a senior at Miss Porter's School that before she tried out Cambridge she wanted to sample life in Paris and California. During her senior year Blodgett was trying to juggle artistic endeavors, athletics and academics and felt that she needed a break from high-pressured school life.
I had never been to the West Coast or Disneyland and I wanted to see all these things without any pressure to get back to a job or school," Blodgett says. "I knew I had my place at Harvard, and I had a year to do whatever I wanted," she says.
Frank J. Vittimberga '89 was also sure that he would return to Harvard in a year when he decided to take a year off. Having lived in Massachusetts his entire life, the Lexington native decided he would take a year off and explore the world. After a raft trip on the Rio Grande, Vittimberga headed off for Raratonga, on the Cook islands.
For Charlotte R. Joslin '90, the decision to take a year off was spontaneous. While on a two-week high school trip in Greece, Joslin decided she was enjoying the country and did not want to go home. So she sent Harvard a deferral notice and spent the rest of the year travelling and working through Greece and the rest of Europe.
Although some of Joslin's coaches were disappointed that the superstar athlete would be unable to play last year, the Admissions Office was not perturbed at her last-minute decision. "During the year off, someone can enjoy broad educational and cultural experiences, think about the direction one wants life to take, and generally gain a new perspective on life," Fitzsimmons says.
Indeed, many of the people who take time off concur that their experiences alter their perspectives on the world. Vittimberga, who worked on an archaeological dig in Raratonga, lived with a Polynesian family during her year off. The Eliot House resident says this experience was the most worthwhile part of his year.
Vittimberga contrasts the society he encountered there with American culture. "There is a lot less emphasis on materialism there and a strong sense of community," he says. "Kids were sometimes traded within the community. While I was there a boy came over for dinner one night and just stayed."
Gradually, throughout the year, as Vittimberga continued to work on minor excavations, restorations and surveying of religious temples called Marae, his perspective on the village changed as well.
"I remember flying in and thinking that this place is only 25 square mile, but you really get into the laid back lifestyle," he says. "You get a totally different perspective on what happiness and life is. You expect everyone in your environment to have the same goals, the same outlook on life. The Polynesians certainly have different ideas about morality. Their attitude is if it's fun, go with it."