I first read the article titled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” by Dean Fitzsimmons of Admissions and Financial when it was sent along with my admissions letter, encouraging students to take a gap year: “Yet the paradox is that the only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself.”
Yes, let’s take a moment to chuckle at the irony that Harvard says we should define our own success, and ignore the recruiting coffee chats on our email list-servs, and dance to the beat of our drum around a fire lit by our transcripts. But then, I invite you to consider reading the letter again. Because if you’re reading this, I hope it means there’s a part of you that’s curious about taking a gap year or semester. Though the article seems radical or even contradictory for Harvard, there is truth in it, along with growing acceptance around gap years in America. In all honesty, isn’t it strange to transition directly from high school to higher education without any breaks, added experience, or new perspectives?
Let me first acknowledge there are many reasons, beyond our control, why students take a leave of absence, like for health or family concerns. And there are many for whom gap years are not feasible, such as for timing or financial reasons. Therefore a voluntary gap year is a luxury. It is a true privilege to deliberately carve time to dedicate to your personal growth. If you are lucky enough in this lifetime to have the means to consider a gap year — and have an inkling of interest — let me entice you.
Like my parents and my resident dean, I’m sure you might be wondering, “Why did you do it?” I will outline some of the main reasons why, big and small. To be clear, this is not a vent about Harvard. I only came to these conclusions because of a tipping point when I lifted my head out of the water and realized, in a rush of meta-awareness, that I was wildly off-track. My gap year was the beginning of contemplation, one I hope you will join with me, of the structures we exist in and whether they serve us, and whether we are serving ourselves.
I took a gap year because I felt a deep friction I couldn’t name until I was away. I didn’t have solid grounding in myself and was swept up in the fastest current, carried away by the lure of big money in big cities. Deep inside, I knew I didn’t want that, but what did I want? I had no idea what was fulfilling work to me. Everyone talks about a career path, but how can I be on a “path” if I felt aimless? I needed to experience what was out there.
I took a gap year because I wanted time with my family... and to sleep. I wanted to learn how to cook my mom’s best eggplant recipes.
I took a gap year because I had no idea what my values were. On this front, I think Harvard fails to provide a true “liberal arts education” that best prepares students for life after college. We are pushed intellectually, but what about the emotional, human part? The part when we imagine the kind of person, not professional, we want to become? There’s a reason why students have the attitude that general education classes are throw away “gem” classes and not places to further character or explore interests and issues outside of their major. Because of this, I strongly believed that anything I missed at school would be outweighed by the insight I would gain on my gap year. I would get the kind of education I need, now.
I took a gap year because I finally wanted time to write poetry.
I took a gap year because I knew I couldn’t continue at the pace I was going. My well-being and self-confidence were suffering and I was failing the people I love on campus.
I took a gap year because I couldn’t handle the constantly turning wheel of competitive productivity. I didn’t know my own limits and I lifted my head up on a Thursday, alone mid-dinner, and realized I hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone in the past week. I was living like I was just skimming the surface and everything was gliding by. I never strayed from my tightly packed Google calendar to consider the world around me. I never thought about how my actions affected other people or the planet or ventured to create things. I was never political. I never questioned what was established and I wanted to cultivate audacity and awareness to recognize needed change.
I took a gap year because I wasn’t mature enough to be at school. I wanted to seriously commit to understanding myself, but I knew I couldn’t do that at Harvard. I felt trapped underneath the labels of a “Harvard introduction” and a one page resume. I had to understand what I was like out of my element, when uncomfortable and meeting a new group of people. I wondered whether I could sit alone with myself and decided I would try solo travelling. When things came down to the wire, could I trust myself? Did I have an inner voice? What did she sound like and did I even like her? For the first time in a long time, when I decided to take my gap year, I listened to that voice.
If you have ever felt like this, consider taking a gap year.
Jerrica H. Li ’21 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.