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Gap Years: A Chance To Explore The World

By Aisling H. Crane, Crimson Staff Writer

In the last four months, one Harvard student has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, visited the pyramids, witnessed lions in their natural habitat, and was even mugged on his first day in Tanzania—an experience which he describes as just one in a series of “pretty crazy adventures.”

Ben Yu completed just his first semester at Harvard before leaving in January to explore the world. Since winter break, he has traveled solo to eastern Africa, Egypt, and California, and is currently in China.

Yu, formerly a member of the class of 2014, intends to take at least another two years off in order to work on his start-up in California.

Although taking a gap year prior to matriculation is increasingly common, taking a semester or more off after starting college in order to pursue travel or work opportunities is a more unusual choice. But multiple students endorse the idea, saying that their time off has given them experiences they could never have gained on campus.

THE DECISION TO LEAVE

Yu credits the book ‘Travels’—written by former Crimson News editor Michael Crichton ’64—as one of the inspirations for his choice to take time off.

He says that while he had been attracted to the idea of traveling ever since high school, he made his decision to leave midway through his first semester at Harvard.

“So midterms roll around, and it’s then I decide that I’ve been in school all my life, I’ve done absolutely nothing else, and I’d probably gain far more from an experience in radically different cultures abroad right now, so I decide to go for it,” Yu writes in an email from China.

Nell S. Hawley ’11 had also entertained ideas of traveling before arriving at Harvard, but ultimately did not make her decision to leave until the spring of her sophomore year.

Hawley took a year off between her sophomore and junior years to live and work in India and Afghanistan. Originally intending to take an intensive Sanskrit course, Hawley ended up working for non-governmental organizations during her time abroad, educating at-risk youth in Delhi and helping to develop a program in Kabul for teenagers with ambitions to start their own businesses.

She says that she was glad she took time to travel midway through her college career rather than spending a year abroad after high school.

“You really are a different person at 20 than at 18,” Hawley says. “I had had more travel experience. I felt I was able to do more interesting things than just travel.”

She also adds that her two years at Harvard had allowed her to find her true passion.

“After two years at Harvard, I knew I loved Sanskrit,” she says.

‘GET UP AND GO’

Multiple students note that taking time off was not as difficult as might be expected.

“Harvard makes it really easy,” says Claire E. Kim ’12, who took off the fall semester of her junior year to work on a congressional campaign in New Hampshire.

According to Kim, Harvard has been very supportive of her and other students when they desire to temporarily leave school.

She adds that she knows a lot of other students who have taken time off school for a variety of reasons.

“It’s generally pretty common at Harvard,” Kim says, explaining that she knows many other students who have chosen to take time off in order to recuperate from large workloads.

Yu says that he is appreciative of the time-off policies Harvard offers its students.

“I could come back in 30 years now and still be able to attend the school, whereas had I taken time off before school, I would have to matriculate within one year or forfeit my spot,” Yu writes.

Hawley agrees with these sentiments, saying that arranging her time off was a relatively simple process, requiring her to speak with her Resident Dean and make arrangements for housing.

“It’s very easy to just get up and go,” Hawley says. “Harvard is very supportive.”

A POSSIBLE DOWNSIDE

But students say taking time off can also come with the disadvantage of being unable to graduate alongside their freshman class.

“Yeah, I miss my friends who have graduated,” Hawley says, adding that she was also annoyed to have been abroad for the election of President Obama.

But Hawley says that this should not deter those who are considering taking a break from college.

“Overall the advantages did outweigh the disadvantages,” she says. She adds that the timing of her year off was particularly important in minimizing the downsides, because when she returned as a junior, her former classmates were still on campus, albeit as seniors.

Kim says that she would not miss out on sharing her class’s senior experiences, such as senior bar and the other perks of senior spring.

Yu mentioned a less commonly cited advantage of taking time off.

“Older guys are supposed to be more attractive, so maybe coming back in two years will be even better.”

‘YOU CAN DO ANYTHING’

The three students agree that their time away from Harvard has been life-changing.

“For someone like me who has spent basically her whole life in school, it was great for me to know that I could go out into the world on my own, get work, do something interesting, and survive,” Hawley says. “Once you’ve arrived in Kabul airport and made your way into the city, you know you can do anything.”

She says that upon returning to Harvard for her junior year, it was strange to be reacquainted with the luxuries that students take for granted, including washing machines and dining hall meals.

“Things that pass us by here—like hot water, plumbing, electricity—you learn to value them,” she says.

Kim says that her campaign experience was integral in framing her time at Harvard.

“I felt like I hadn’t had a lot of experiences where I felt like I made a real impact on the world,” Kim says regarding her time prior to her semester off.

Many of those who have taken time off strongly encourage others to consider the option.

“Don’t be afraid,” Hawley says. “Go for it.”

—Staff writer Aisling H. Crane can be reached at acrane@college.harvard.edu.

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