Full Circle: Lessons From a Gap Year

August is a unique vantage point for me to look forward to life at Harvard and to reflect on my gap year away from it. Please join me for a last adventure through some of the landscapes of my memories and my lessons learned.

First, climbing mountains always leads to achieving good perspective. I trekked for four days on the outer rim of Kathmandu, Nepal, and my final climb on the peak was up a half-finished building with no walls. On the roof, I watched the sun set over hills draped in curling smoke. In Hong Kong, I scaled a sharp mountain path, the “Dragon’s Back,” that ended in a quaint surf town at the bottom. I cooled off drinking a coconut on the beach. I witnessed the sunrise over earthy plateaus and the Judean desert from Mount Masada. And from a perch in Puerto Rico, I looked over a pure rainforest amidst a cacophony of wild fauna. Each time, the physical height gave me an incredible life perspective, because each peak was a reflective moment when I could ask myself, “How did I get here?”

There was much more than the physical climb that led me to each peak: I felt the ways my heart grew more open to adventure, how my strength swelled to mount the physical challenge and inner fears. At those peaks, as much as I was flooded with gratefulness for the people who stay in my heart no matter where I travel, there was also gratitude to myself for giving myself this time. It was a long journey to realize for myself that “selfish” wasn’t necessarily a bad word, but meant prioritizing my well-being. For the whole journey there was no trail to follow: my gap year was rushing into doors when they fortuitously opened and when they weren’t, following my intuition down untraveled roads. And now, I realize that maybe I don't need a mountain peak to have these revelations and feel this gratitude. I can feel it at home and on campus.

Second, failure is inevitable so fail with more vigor each time! I contacted around 50 alumni to learn about their career paths, but only a few replied. On top of that, I applied to about 60 internship positions over the entire year (most in industries I simply wanted to explore) and received second round interviews in less than 10 of those. At first, sending those emails and applications made me embarrassed and fatigued. Some days I felt so nervous after an email burst I would wait a few days, too scared to read the replies, if any.

But slowly, I became good, almost adept at failing. The reward — a warm-hearted conversation about someone’s life story, a new exciting opportunity — was always worth it. In the end, the handful of alumni I had meaningful contact with led to amazing experiences: While I visited Jerusalem, I spoke with a member of the city council about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I visited local offices in parts of Boston I had never explored before. I spoke with lawyers, filmmakers, health care policy experts, and non-profit organizers. And the worst-case scenario — no reply — didn’t hurt at all after a while.


As for work experience, I accepted a position I never expected at a political media company. I used to avoid all political conversation before and I was completely out of my comfort zone, but it was a brilliant experience for me. It pushed me to be active, knowledgeable, and opinionated in ways I had never been before. And I was open to it because I took to heart the advice that was repeated to me in all those career conversations: Even if you plan your whole life out, it will twist in ways you could never expect. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Keep a kitchen cabinet of friends and mentors behind you who want the best for you. In the end, you decide your own happiness.

Third, there are kindred souls wherever you travel, but sometimes the best person to have one-on-one time with is yourself. Every new friend and learning experience, I cherished as a pure gift, one I only had because I dared to find them. At the same time, there are adventures I cherish even more because I did it alone: travelling through armed checkpoints in Palestine, impulsively buying a 12-hour bus ticket to Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, or realizing I had no cash at dinner and scrounging my way to my apartment in another city in Italy.

In some of those moments alone when I was brought to crisis, I completely fell apart and felt like a stranger to myself, a far cry from this image I had of walking back on campus with a poised, confident stride. And yet, there were also moments when I surprised myself with a flash of strength. There were moments I am still unable to express because of their deep, carving pain and moments I will never choose to express because of their precious beauty and secret holiness. Those, I can only have to myself.

It’s futile to explain all the takeaways of my gap year in one retelling. The very nature of what I learned rejects such a challenge. During the continuous journey of self-discovery and in the trials and tribulations that forge a career well-lived, there is never a well-marked linear path. It is not like climbing a mountain trail, when you mount the peak and say, “I have arrived. This is it.” Growth isn’t always in a direction: Sometimes it means pushing up against our hard corners in extreme times, and other times, it is pulling back to reveal an inner softness we forgot. At this point, I’ve given up on trying to label things. I just go where I feel is best. And Harvard, though always the ending place of my gap year, was never the final destination. The journey continues.

Jerrica H. Li ’21 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column usually appears on alternate Wednesdays.