Blog: Our stories
Are you a Harvard student or alumni who has taken a gap year? Want to share your story with us? Find our email on the contact page and send us an article to share.
After I accepted Harvard’s admission to the Class of 2022 and the excitement died down, my mind started to wander. I knew without a doubt that Harvard was the right place, but was I ready to go to arguably the best university in the world only a few months later?
As all Harvard students can attest to, getting into Harvard is a rigorous and draining process, but getting in is just a small trial compared to actually attending. I’m sure that the resources provided by Harvard would have made the transition and any stress more manageable, but I could feel that the relentless pressures and years of nonstop activities had taken a toll on me. After strong encouragement from all of my siblings, I decided to defer my enrollment for a year. I could feel my stresses for the upcoming fall melt away, and I became excited for all the options I could choose to fill my gap year with.
My sister and brother-in-law were Harvard '13, by brother is Stanford '19, and I am Harvard '23!
Next decision…what did I want out of my gap year and what experiences would help provide me with skills to thrive at Harvard?
As much as I wanted to receive something out of my gap year, I also knew that I wanted to give. Throughout high school I tried to provide services to my community where I saw a need. Now that I had an entire year away from school, I could serve in places outside of my community while immersing myself in other cultures. Being of Mexican descent, but never having visited, this was one of the first places where I knew I wanted to serve. I found a host in Mexico City where I taught English to young children in the Coyoacan District. While there, I visited many districts, and experienced the vibrant and welcoming nature of those living there. Not only did I love teaching English, but speaking only in Spanish for a month and a half made me truly bilingual – so much so that I even started dreaming in Spanish!
While in Mexico, I also visited my relatives in Guanajuato. Here I experienced a simpler way of life, unlike anywhere I have been exposed to. The absence of materialistic stress allowed for mindfulness which made me much more appreciative of the small luxuries (clean drinking water, heating, paved roads) that I had taken for granted in the U.S.
My stay with relatives in a small, rural town in Guanjuato called Manuel Doblado.
The other novel experiences I was fortunate to come across was being an au pair for a family in Italy. For two and a half months I was a “big sister” to their 14-year old daughter.
I was so happy that being in this position enabled me to pass on my knowledge and empower a younger female to go into a STEM-related field.
In my free time, I explored all that Milan has to offer and learned and improved my Italian every day.
Many of Milan's attractions including the Duomo di Milano, Castello Sforzeco, Arco della Pace, Banksy expo at the Mudac Museum, and a shot of the Alps flying into Milan.
In between my trips abroad, I had the opportunity to have a produce design/development externship at Capital One where my older sister works. During this time, I was able to learn so much about product design and development while building workplace skills like working with others and communication.
I also learned about my own interests and what concentration I might be interested in pursuing to achieve certain career paths.
After deciding on a gap year, I must admit that doubt started to creep in. I become worried I would fall behind academically after being gone for a year, I would lose the friends I had made that were entering into Harvard, or that I would ultimately end up regretting my time off. Ultimately, all of these proved untrue. By taking online classes, I continued learning about things I was interested in, and applied skills that I had learned in high school. I was able to keep in touch with friends that are at Harvard now, and I now see that the confidence and maturity I have gained in my time off will allow me to invest in relationships more fully.
I not only gained so much form my year off, but I now feel like I have so much more to offer.
The cultural awareness I had the opportunity to experience in rural, undeveloped Mexico contrasted with the posh lifestyle of the Milanese has enabled me to appreciate the different perspectives that different cultures provide. I have developed a worldly way of thinking that allows me to visualize issues from many different viewpoints, and I cannot wait to share this perspective with the community at Harvard and continue my education this fall!
Author: Andrea Beltran, Class of 2023
A gap year was not quite something I had expected to be in the cards in my future. I come from a small town in Massachusetts where I hadn’t known a single soul who had even considered taking a gap year, so as a result I never did either. When Harvard came back to me while I was on the wait list and said that I could join the class of 2021 (I was class of 2016 in high school) if I were to take a year off beforehand, I did not really know how to react. In high school, I was the oldest person in my grade by about 3 months because I had taken a second year of 7th grade when I switched schools. Why would I want another extra year? All my friends from home were already freshmen in college. I had a great set-up and was committed to going to Notre Dame where they have an excellent undergraduate business program and an outstanding sense of community. At the time, I did not quite understand all of the opportunities that a gap year would present me. I ended up choosing to accept Harvard’s offer more so because of the fact that Harvard was Harvard, not because of the gap year. At first, I almost viewed the gap year as a negative impact. I could not have been further from the truth.
I live my life in a run-and-gun, improvisational type of way. Even though I knew I was going to be taking a gap year in June, I never had a relatively solid plan for any of it until September. I wanted to just live out my summer the way all my friends were and get some work done to earn some money while staying local. In September, I finally started exploring some options for all the time I would have because now all my friends were off to college as either freshmen or sophomores.
I knew for sure that I wanted to explore the United States. Ever since I had gotten my first real taste of any part of the country outside of New England or Florida when my family took a week-long trip out west my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to see more. The book Into the Wild and my advisor, who happened to be the teacher who taught that class senior year, were my biggest inspirations to do so via a cross-country driving trip. When I took off on October 5th of that year, all I knew was that I was going to go up to Acadia National Park in Maine then hike Mt. Washington with my mother and head west. Every other part of the trip (that ended up being two trips due to a car crash in Portland, OR), which spanned about 12 weeks and over 15,000 miles in about 30 different states, was improvised with usually only a few days in advance. I drove about 13/14000 on my own, and it was the best decision I’ve made in my entirely life (maybe second by default to saying yes to Harvard and the gap year in the first place). I did go north to Acadia and then all the way west, a full coast to coast trip, in what would be the first leg. I stopped at essentially every major location along the northern cross-country highway (Route 90), at cities like Chicago and Seattle to national parks like Niagara, Yellowstone, and Glacier. I went all the way down the coast along scenic Route 1. I came all the way back off the coast to Denver after going through countless national parks in California, beautiful southern Utah, and Colorado. I stayed in cheap hotels, with friends, and really anywhere I could find. My second loop took me around the east coast and as far southwest as Memphis. I was averaging 250 miles of driving per day, visiting friends at colleges, and enjoying every second of it. The highlights are fun to mention, but what really set the trip apart was the autonomy of it all. If I wanted to go do something, there was no stopping me. I could do all my own research and set up my own itinerary each day. If I wanted to divert from my original plan to stop at some vintage thrift shop that I saw a sign for 5 miles off course, that didn’t matter. I could do it with no problem. Even the destinations can sometimes serve as a superficial glance of the trip. Some of the drives that I took were just as scenic as the destinations themselves. The aforementioned Route 1 on the west coast is all-time. Montana, a state in which I literally spent more time driving than actually exploring, was my favorite state. Southern Utah sunsets live vividly in my mind and I can recall them no matter what I’m doing. Getting a feel for the United States was my goal, but I ended up getting a feel for myself as well.
Since I still had a lot more time in the year, I decided to also head on over to Europe. I would end up spending another 12 weeks here as I took cheap trains around to about 15 different countries. I did have a small sense of stability here as I started off with a 2-week program at the University of Vienna, but I would soon return to my old ways with a freestyling period of about a 12 days in which I managed to go to Amsterdam, Hallstatt, Venice, Milan, Interlaken, and Scotland in quick succession. I was master of my own schedule, and only I could stop myself from going just about wherever I desired. I travelled for 3 weeks on a shell of a schedule at a very hectic pace with my friend from high school who was also on a gap year, hitting about 9 countries. It was an incredible time and there is a lot to be said about travelling with a friend and how well you get to know someone while also having an incredible time. My time spent travelling with someone, which was a stark contrast from the rest of my travels during the year, was what really motivated me into also trying FOP when time for pre-orientation here came around. As fun as travelling with him was, I was very glad to again be back on my own and explore the rest of Europe for my final two weeks. I managed to get Spain, Bulgaria, Croatia, and more of Italy under my belt in a very short span of time and met some amazing people along the way. It is a very cool scene over there because as long as you are 18, you are considered to fully be an adult. As a result, there are tons of kids (or I suppose adults) right around your age also travelling and staying in the hostels doing the exact same thing as you. It is a very cool scene to say the least, and I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to get back over across the pond.
My gap year was incredible but it was just that: my gap year. Everyone’s will vary not just on the places they go, but in how they approach it and how they execute. You do not need to travel to have a memorable gap year. You should figure out things about which you are passionate and explore them. You could stay home and write poetry or paint for a full year and still develop just as much as if you had explored the world. People underestimate exactly how much you can mature in a year’s worth of experience, and having that much time to explore my interests sped up that growth in maturity even more.
Author: Albert Giandomenico, Class of 2021
During her gap year, Emmaline Cook '20 took a trip to Costa Rica. She documented her experience in a video and uploaded it to YouTube. Take a look!
I have been saying I would write this all year. And, much like everything else this year, it has been easy to put off. No deadlines. No rules. No expectations. Sounds great right? Except for the fact that it is so impossible to go from on 100% 24/7 to off all the time without feeling a bit lost and a lot useless. There are many upsides to having to the fill the gap as well. However, most of the time, it sort of feels like you should be filling a void. While, I do not mean to discourage students from pursuing a gap year, I just have a lot to say about it.
To begin, I should explain how I ended up in this position. Not too long ago, I wanted to be a dancer. Yup. Like a real person that goes to NYC or LA and tries to “make it.” Quickly, my inhibitions stopped me. They stopped me from taking a year off between high school and college and I decided I would go straight to school. As my college process continued, I was deferred, waitlisted, and eventually zlisted to my number one school. However, due to the wait, I had already enrolled in another institution. Now, it is July 3rd the summer after my graduation and I have just about two months until I was to attend that institution. Upon returning home from a three day orientation, I received a phone call. Tired, irritated, and confused, I claimed I wouldn’t accept the offer to go in the fall of 2016. I was already going somewhere, I said. I had made some friends, I said. It was fine, I said. Well, two days later, I realized I was being foolish. I accepted the offer and let myself celebrate. The celebration did not last long as I had to plan out twelve months of activity now. Something that not too long beforehand, would have been lovely. In a very Emmamanner I put off planning the entirety of these days until I absolutely had to. I had a notebook of ideas too far fetched to pursue. I had various different things I could pursue but had very little desire to do so. For example, I worked one job for a whole eight hours and called it quits. (That I can explain. And will later.) I looked at this gap in one of two ways every morning, and every morning it changed. The year was either, “it is only a year,” or “it is an entire year.” Two very different things, one mind, millions of thoughts.
So, in September, I said goodbye to everyone I knew growing up. As each of my friends disbanded to various parts of the country, I was sort of glad I didn’t have to worry about packing or potential roommate nightmares. I was to be staying home with my catsmy original friendsand my parents who I was luckily very close to. I worked that wondrous eight hour job, and then crawled back to a job offer I had received in the late summer. My head still full of ideas and my weekends still filled with activity. The eight hour job was actually quite fun. I was working as an assistant to a radio talk show host. The only issue was, I had no interest in radio. Never had. So, as I started my day, the other interns asked me what I was majoring in, what I was doing and the other various 50 cent questions. As I answered, “maybe neuroscience,” “uh, figuring that out,” and “well, I’m only 18,” another intern asked me a very incredulous question, “then what are you doing here?” As I pondered that question, I realized, I had no idea. I looked back to an important guru of my day, Blair Waldorf, when she was yelling at Dan Humphrey about taking her position at an internship and said, “You wanted an internship, I wanted this one.” With the words of Miss Waldorf in my head that night, I decided my need to fill my gap should not come at the expense of someone trying to close theirs. I went back to work at a student center about three feet from my house. I knew most of the kids as I had worked with them at day camp over the summer as well. At the time, that is exactly where I wanted to be. The feeling of “fit” lasted about three days. I began planning later parts of my year so that I could tell myself working there was only temporary. Now, before I continue, I will forever be grateful for the student center and the welcoming arms they extended to me. It was, however, not how I wanted to spend my year off. You see, I realized in my time there how imperative it is to do something you love. I had a very extreme safety net of a college acceptance, I told my mom I wanted to put myself into a selfinduced coma for a year and then wake up refreshed and ready to learn. She said no. So, I kept an eye out. After two months of working at the student center, and three weeks of editing, I sent in my resignation email. I meant every word. I was thankful for my time there. But it was time for another adventure. Another way to fill the void I was still feeling.
At this point, I had plans in the future. I would visit my grandparents in Florida in January. I was going to Costa Rica in February and staying until March. In April I would visit friends in various European countries. But, it wasn’t that time yet. I quit work with two months completely unplanned ahead of me. This was, what would be seen as reckless. Would be, if you hadn’t heard me in the months preceding them. I woke up everyday with a pit in my stomach. I told my mom I hated waking up because I didn’t want to go to work. It wasn’t necessarily the job, it was something someone had said. Under their breath, whilst a discussion of my gap year was going on, someone said, “she’s going to waste it.” Unimportant at the time, it was just sort of annoying to hear. I did not realize in the months to come I would hear that sentence everyday. Reminding me not to waste this year. A year that really should have been seen as a gift. A gift that I had wanted to return. I began to have enough existential crises to last a lifetime. I wondered what the point of it all was. Life that is. Why do we get up everyday to go to work? You go to work, come home, eat, maybe watch TV and go to sleep? What kind of life was that? As I freaked out and broke out in hives at the prospect of there being no actual point, the people in my life had things to say. From the idea that if you have a job you love life would have meaning, no? Or, if you are with the people you love, whatever you’re doing doesn’t particularly matter, right? Whatever was said, I eventually got over it. I began to see what good I had already accomplished in these months.
If you do not know me, you aren’t aware that I was a near head case during my high school years. And, the other ones as well. My entire life I was striving to get into one particular school. It is not the school I am going to. However, the strive of that school, following a perfect older brother, and my own personal vendettas, I was rather stressed out. I had a number of tendencies that when discussed sound rather like mental disorders. While, I did exhibit, uh, habits, I was never diagnosed with issues. That is because most every high reaching, over achieving, pressure pushing teen has some issues. I used to scratch my face until it bleed. I just called it stress bleeding. I used to rip my eyebrows out until I had very few. I just saw it as an easy way to keep good eyebrows. I used to rip my nails off until I practically had none. I thought everyone did that? I never slept. I thought that was normal. I become accustomed to living on three hours of sleep, soothing my bleeding skin and dealing with my eyebrows. All of these things never stopped me from continuing my push. I was happy I thought. There were things that made me happy. So I was fine. While others may argue differently, it is in the past. It is in the past because I don’t do those things anymore. Aside from the occasional thing here and there, I have eyebrows now. I have nails. My face does not bleed. I sleep. I do not get the stress headaches that made it so I couldn’t see. I miss my busy life, but I do not miss the version of myself that I was during it. There are good things in this gap year. I just had to find them.
I took piano lessons, singing lessons, learned how to glass fuse, painted pottery, made pottery, went hiking, went hiking with my 82 year old grandfather, formatted the book I had been trying to write for years, wrote for a new magazine, interviewed various music groups for said magazine, went on endless adventures, visited friends at their colleges. I lived just a little bit. That little bit was just the first two months of this gap. I have so much more to fill.
November was a printed out calendar. I printed out one of those, there is nothing on this calendars from the internet and I filled in each day with promises to myself that I would do them. I would take more miscellaneous art classes. I would find cooking classes. I was going on a yoga retreat for a week. I would do things that I wouldn’t be able to do in years to come. I would not waste this year.
The issue came from the question. The “so what have you been doing?” I understand why people ask, I would ask too. It is a weird situation for a kid to be in. A lot of kids go on these (expensive) gap year programs to (fake FOMOinducing) places around the world. Why wasn’t I? It certainly would have been easier to avoid the question if I was. But I decided very quickly into this year that I didn’t need to. I did not need to “get lost to find myself.” I didn’t need to spend a year of college tuition to go somewhere and “help.” I don’t mean to downplay any of the efforts that people make on these trips. I am sure people do wonderful work and I am sure they feel like they have grown. I just didn’t need that. I knew who I was. I have always known who I am and I didn’t think I needed to Instagram various children of different ethnicities to prove it. Everyone seems to feel the need to go away. To get out of their hometowns and “adventure” to far off places, instill FOMO in their friends, and “find themselves.” The thing is, I do not believe traveling outside of your geographical comfort zones is the surefire way to discover the inner crevices of your soul. You are who you are regardless of your location. Now if you need to hike into the wilderness to feel “one with nature,” fine. But instagramming the peaks of mountains you had never heard of will not help you realize who you are. Life isn’t all about how you use your time. Life’s about time being useful. And I was doing a lot. I was also doing nothing. Everyday was different. Variety shouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Then again, I can’t say I didn’t debate just leaving. While I never wished to embark on a “rich white kid” program, I did want to get away. I had an overwhelming urge to just get in my car and go. Which like that’s great but where was I going? I know the point is to just go. But this is real life, not a novel. I am an eighteen year old girl from a tiny suburb in Massachusetts. While I am wholefully independent and can take care of myself (according to me), I can not just leave. I can’t live out of motels. I can’t pay for gas money with paper clips and smiles. I can’t get lost and then magically found. That isn’t how life works. Stupid, yes, but true.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t take time off. In fact, I think we should. I think we should have a year to drive our parents insane, let ourselves calm down a little, have some existential crises, figure out the inner workings of our minds. I just think we should do it with a plan. A little more conviction. My biggest, absolute number one disclaimer, defer a year from college. Have an acceptance from a school and then defer. My entire perspective on gap years would be very different if I didn’t have my guarantee for next year. If some people stop moving, they’ll do just that, stop. I have a friend that to no fault of her own could not apply to schools during her senior year. Thus, her need to fill the gap. She’s filling it with Nicaragua, and college applications. We are both in limbo, but her limbo stick is just a little bit harder to get under than mine. Life can be a bit scary without a plan. My plan is to not have one for this year and then go to school next. I like safety nets. I like my gap to be a ball pit rather than an actual pit.
Author: Emmaline Cook, Class of 2020
My year truly started directly after the summer of 2015. To kick it off, I travelled to France for the entire month of September. My first two weeks were spent in Nice, where I took French classes with students from all over the world and lived with a host family, with French becoming our common language. Then I spent another two weeks working on a vineyard in the city of Beaune, in the Burgundy region of France. I continued to further my French, as my hosts knew no English. To finish this trip, I spent my last weekend in Paris with family friends, and discovered the city and Parisian culture. Through this experience, I greatly improved my French (I still have a lot to learn) and learned what it is like to live outside of the US while making friends from all over the world.
In October, I used newfound time away from school and work to continue my interest in politics and to learn more about art and painting; interests that I’ve never had time to pursue. Since I live near Boston, I dedicated this month between work and travel to truly experience the opportunities that I’ve missed while living here, essentially finishing my “at-home bucket list”. I went museum-hopping, going to the many great museums and attractions in the area, and enrolled in a four week class at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston on Van Gogh’s life and his art. Among my favorite places for art that I recommend were the MFA, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Harvard Art Museum, which everyone should check out when they have the chance (this may sound like favoritism, but there is a fantastic collection here and now it’s only steps away). For continuing politics, I greatly enjoyed visiting the JFK Presidential Library, which shares JFK’s legacy, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which is a treasure trove of information about the senate and government. In addition, I attended many lectures at Harvard and the JFK School, including several special events featuring various Harvard professors, Secretary of State John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, head US negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, and also attended a Model UN event conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics in which former President Bill Clinton was the surprise guest.
From November to January, I interned at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent malpractice. There, I worked on online classes that gave information to healthcare practitioners and students across the globe on how to protect patients and make healthcare more efficient and effective.
Afterwards, in February, I embarked on my second round of travel for the year. Looking for more new experiences, I headed to Thailand. For this trip, I used a travel company that organizes trips for college-aged students, in which we travelled to the country individually, the twenty of us there, and did a loop around the country with a guide hired by the company. In this trip, we explored the culture, history, religion, and natural beauty of the country, with the highlights being Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. My favorite moments were volunteering at an elephant sanctuary, island hopping in Phuket, and marveling at centuries-old temples scattered throughout Thailand.
Upon returning to the US, I spent the rest of the year until July interning at Partners in Health, a Boston based non-profit healthcare organization dedicated to bringing modern medicine to those in poverty. There, I worked to help coordinate community-organizing and activism throughout the US, advocating for changes in laws to provide more foreign medical aid and spreading awareness of ways Americans can help make care available internationally.
In reflection, my year was certainly worth it, but I did have challenges along the way. The hardest part of my year was piecing together each aspect of it and planning and budgeting each step up until I started school. I entered my gap year with no overarching plan, but instead had to rely on one event leading to another. For example, my availability for travel was dependent on when I would be able to work, in both timeframe and financial flexibility. Paid internships made travel easier, and I would start planning trips only when I was sure of when I would have time to work, which I learned at the end of the internship. I learned of opportunities for travel only after finishing my first trip, as the first travel company referred me to the one I used for Thailand, and my first internship gave me experience that I could use to get the second one to finish out the year. I also found it difficult to find the right information to use for planning. There is a sea of information out there for travel opportunities and things to do for a gap year, but in consequence it is hard to personalize what I wanted to do for my time. For me, I did not want to spend an entire year travelling, but wanted to make sure I could pursue a variety of options. Finding flexibility and personalization was the most challenging factor of my year, and this difficulty was mostly fueled by a lack of school resources and guidance for gap year students. Because of this, I want to help future students be able to effectively tackle their gap year without the stress of not knowing anything about what it will entail.
I believe that my gap year has made me a more complete person. In my year, I explored new places and ideas, developed new skills from added work experience, and began new friendships everywhere I went. I believe that I not only grew as an individual, but also became more prepared for college as well. College no longer seemed like only a continuation of the same routine or an overwhelming challenge, but now was another exciting new experience to add to my list of seeing everything life has to offer.
Author: GA Attia, Class of 2020
A few days after graduation, and literally minutes after submitting my housing forms to Amherst College, a phone call from Harvard Admissions managed to throw a wrench in my perfectly laid plan. I had gotten so excited about going to Amherst, that I completely forgot that I was still on the wait-list at Harvard. The admissions office had just called to tell me that I had been admitted off the wait-list! Only, I was admitted to the class of 2020. If I wanted to accept their offer, I would have to take a gap year. Oh, and I only had one week to think about it.
Ask most anyone else what I should do and they would tell you that the choice was obvious and simple. But for me, that next week was one of the most stressful, heart wrenching, and difficult periods of the college process. (A process that I had thought was long over).
A gap year wasn't in my plan. I hadn't even considered taking one as an option. I was ready to go to college right away, and I had absolutely fallen in love with Amherst College. It was small, beautiful, and had programs that catered to all my interests. But I had to give Harvard a fair shot.
During the next week, I had to rethink everything that Harvard had to offer, and everything I thought I wanted in a college experience. I visited the campus and spoke with my financial aid officer. I took the virtual tour online and read up on the website about all the courses and extracurricular activities I could partake in. In the end, I finally realized that the benefits of Harvard simply won out. Among the list of benefits is Harvard’s absolutely unbeatable financial aid program. Besides, taking a gap year and attending Harvard was a once in a lifetime opportunity!
Then came the daunting task of figuring out what to do with myself for the next year.
Author: Rhea Bennett, Class of 2020