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."
Frusztajer discovered the opposite while he was living in a rural Japanese village, one-and-a-half hours north of Tokyo. He describes the area he lived in for four months as "Japan's equivalent of New Jersey."
In Kazo, the town where he lived, "the people are thought of as hicks by the ret of Japan." However, Frusztajer says, "I found the Japanese very status conscious. On the way home from the train station, I learned how much [my host father's] house, car and watch cost. It was very important for him to know the same things about my family."
Not only were the Japanese status conscious, but they were also very concerned with protocol. Frusztajer recalls meeting a local girl who spoke some English and he asked his host father if he could visit with her on a platonic basis. Although his host father always gave him permission to visit with the girl, one day Frusztajer said he could not see her anymore because she had acted improperly in not asking the family if she could borrow their American guest. "I thought I was being the perfect guest, but I guess I insulted the family by implying that their company was inadequate," Frusztajer says.
Other students also relate anecdotes about their becoming accustomed to a different lifestyle. Vittimberga recalls an incident where he adapted to the Polynesian mode of operations. "My host mother asked me to get the bananas off the tree, so I climbed the tree and started hacking them off, but all these ants began crawling over me," he recalls. "Then she came out laughing hysterically, and told me that I was supposed to chop the tree down, then pick the bananas off."
Frusztajer ran into problems because he did not know how to speak the language. "I went to a Japanese high school for three months, which was very difficult at first, because I spoke no Japanese," he says. "I used to spend a lot of time reading children's books. Everyone tried to be helpful, but most people knew little English. In fact one of my tasks was to help teach English."
To help herself maintain her athletic skills, Joslin played both field and ice hockey for local teams after her day's work at an international head-hunting firm. She became such an asset to the ice hockey team she played for that later in the year when she was vacationing in Morocco her club flew her back to play a match.
Blodgett's experiences come mostly from the world of American pop culture. Blodgett, who spent much of her year off modelling for a variety of agencies, travelled through Europe and spent the next six months modelling, taking classes at UCLA, and travelling along the coast. "I was exposed to the whole L.A. party scene, but kind of as an outsider. Bruce Springsteen and Madonna worked out next to me at the gym. At parties, everyone wanted to sign you. I learned so much being in the scene, but not getting into it," she says.
While most of these people say that they do not regret taking the year off, there are some hitches. For instance, students who are athletes, such as Joslin who plays lacrosse as well as ice and field hockey, had had to worry about letting her skills atrophy. Blodgett agrees, saying that her year without rigid training made it more difficult to be in "peak form" for the track team at Harvard.
Many of the students say that things that seem negative at the time become part of the learning process. Vittimberga, for example, recalls a rainy day on his rafting trip when he questioned what he was doing. "When you're out there working in the rain for hours, you wonder why did I come here when I could be nice and warm in Cambridge," he says.
But overall, students say, taking a year off affords them an educational experience they could not have had if they went to college directly after high school. Fitzsimmons concurs, saying, "Many students when they have travelled have a new appreciation for their classes for they have experienced life in a new culture."
Although Frusztajer says he experienced some doubts about his decision the summer before he came to Harvard, in the end his uncertainty was allayed. "I was concerned whether I'd be able to get back to studying at Harvard, but I found I had much more motivation as a result of being away from school. The year off gave me a better perspective on where school fits in the world," he says.
Vittimberga says that his fears came a little later, once he arrived on campus. He says he felt he had "a tougher time adjusting to the freshman scene," than those who had gone straight to college, but adds he thinks he knew better what "I wanted, what my options were." Vittimberga agrees with Frusztajer that "academically I was much more motivated than I had ever been. Now I looked at classes as a way to learn, rather than as an excuse for being in school."
Because Blodgett's parents wanted her to be financially independent, the Adams House resident had to work before she could travel. Blodgett worked for Seventeen Magazine in her native Manhattan and modelled in Paris as well.
"I gained a sense of independence, learning to live on my own, working and paying bills," Blodgett says of her experiences in the real world. "Because there were so many freedoms, I had to learn to impose the right limitations."
"People always said I would be behind my year, but I'm glad I didn't listen to them. The only time you can do all these things is when you are young," Blodgett says.
The students who take time off all agree that no matter what their age, opting to defer matriculation a year was the right decision. As Frustajer says, "If I were to do it again, I would do it again."