Gap Years: A Chance To Explore The World

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.



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.