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.
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