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Dear Incoming Freshmen: Take a Gap Year!

By Jonathan L. Katzman
Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Dunster House.

I have one piece of advice for incoming freshmen. Don’t come. Yet. Harvard is a wonderful place and we are excited to have you. But right now, the Harvard experience is a shell of its typical self. Don’t be fooled by emails sent by the administration. The academic experience on Zoom is fundamentally flawed — no amount of summer planning will fix it. More importantly, the social experience is non-existent. As the chances of an atypical fall seem more and more likely, freshmen are presented with a pretty good alternative: deferring college for a year.

As a senior in high school, my decision to take a gap year was spontaneous. It was also the best decision I ever made. I spent most of the year at a Jewish learning program in Jerusalem exploring my roots and religion. For the first time in my life, I was in an environment with no academic pressure, no social pressure, and, most importantly, no strict supervision. I was free to explore any intellectual interest, spend nights with friends in Jerusalem bars, and travel every weekend. One week, I decided, along with some impulsive friends of mine, to make the four-day trek from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee — an experience that sparked my love for hiking (despite getting lost multiple times along the way, sleeping out in the rain with no tent, and hiking 28 miles on the last day to make up for lost time). At the end of the year, a few friends and I booked the cheapest flight we could find out of Tel Aviv. With only backpacks and a barebones itinerary, we arrived in Athens, traveled through Greece and the lower Balkans, and eventually ended up spending a week in my now-favorite city: Sofia, Bulgaria. My gap year was one of immense emotional and intellectual growth because of its spontaneity and lack of structure.

I suspect that deferring college is uncommon because an unstructured gap year seems strange to high school seniors — especially those coming to Harvard. Most freshmen get accepted to Harvard by following a strict regimen that resulted in academic and extracurricular greatness. In a world of immense expectations, the Harvard-bound are the few that rose above the masses. As a result, the high school senior’s self-worth is tied up with exceeding those expectations and they have trouble letting go of the toxic yet intoxicating pressure to advance and accomplish the next goal. Spending a year with no concrete objectives is thus unnatural. This is precisely why I think gap years are necessary and important. They allow incoming freshmen to detox from external pressures and are an opportunity for self-discovery and true personal growth before being consumed by the new pressure of college.

As a result of my experience, I believe that everyone should take a gap year — but everyone’s gap year should look different. A gap year should be a fluid, customizable experience that is a break from the conforming pressures of high school and college. Some may prefer travel, others an internship, more still may dedicate themselves to community service at home or aid work in developing countries. Or, you can do it all like graduating senior Ilan M. Goldberg ’20. Ilan backpacked through China, Cambodia, and Laos, was a snowboard instructor in Colorado, joined a Jewish learning program in Jerusalem, shadowed a Mexican government official, and topped it all off by hiking Chile’s Patagonia.

Gap years are essential now more than ever. This year, deferring college not only presents the opportunity for a valuable gap year but also allows hope for a normal freshman experience next year. Ridiculous orientation events, awkward dorm parties, and anxious meals in Annenberg that are the first-year rite of passage will likely not be available at the beginning of the Class of 2024’s college journey. The first semester at Harvard, typically a life-altering experience, should not be wasted away in front of a computer screen. Even if class resumes on campus in a limited capacity, many of the hallmarks of the freshman experience will be lacking.

A gap year now may not be able to include travel, at least initially, but, the COVID-19 crisis also creates unique opportunities and responsibilities domestically. Your communities need you. Elementary school students need individualized tutoring to help them fill the gaps in their education left by virtual school. Healthcare workers need help to look after their young children. The elderly and infirm need healthy people to shop for them. Homeless shelters need more volunteers as they struggle to provide services to the vulnerable and prevent the spread of the virus in their facilities. All gap year students can serve their communities initially until those that wish to travel internationally or intern at a startup are able to do so.

Currently, I am in a wait-and-see mode regarding my next semester at Harvard. If online learning continues, I will take a gap semester. My time at Harvard is too financially and experientially valuable to lose another semester to COVID-19 and Zoom. I am not afraid of “falling behind” further. These are the best years of my life and I refuse to give them up. I will find a more productive way to spend my fall through serving my community, securing an internship or research position, hiking, and seeing wherever else my time off will take me.

So, incoming freshmen, I hope you will come to cherish your time at Harvard as much as I do. And, if so, you may wish you took a gap year so that you too can experience a full four years in Cambridge. Also, what’s so bad about taking a year off? The Class of 2025 is waiting for you. It may just be the best decision you’ve ever made.

Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Dunster House.

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