Interview with Hong Liu : Founder and Executive director of PEER China

"The gap year had a huge impact on me...Without my experiences during the year of, all of the considerable things that have impacted my life today would not have happened."

An outline of the year...

Summer 2008:

  • Created a reading group for peers interested in Western Classics
  • Organized a conference in Malaysia for HPAIR (Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations)
  • Designed the second annual PEER summer program
  • Studied for the GRE

Early October 2008 - Summer 2009:

  • Worked as an assistant at the Institute for Advanced Humanistics at Peking University in Beijing, China

  • Sat in classes and grew familiar with Chinese historical texts

  • Volunteered at the Dandelion School for migrant children
  • Redesigned the PEER program; executed its first official recruitment of 50-60 volunteers
  • Registered PEER as an official nonprofit organization in Massachusetts; recruited an official board
  • Coordinated the third-ever PEER summer program

Q: Looking back, how did your gap year affect your life?

Without the year off, I would not have had the opportunity to immerse myself in the Chinese academic [field]. After I finished my undergraduate and masters, I eventually went back to the Institute for Advanced Humanistics at Peking University, where I worked during my year off. So really, the gap year unintentionally became a passage to my first job. **

The second thing is that it turned PEER from a student initiative into something serious. I didn’t start working full-time on it until five years from then, but without the gap year, none of [what PEER is today] would have happened.

Q: Did you get a clearer sense of what you wanted to do with your life after the year off?

I don’t think you can attribute that to a single experience. [Developing] your outlook on life is an ongoing, unfolding experience. But certainly, without my experiences during the year off—all of the considerable things that have impacted my life today would not have happened. What I can say for sure is that events during the gap year allowed me to see myself as not an observer but an active participant of affairs in China. The gap year really triggered major events that caused me to be where I am today.

"During a gap year, you get the opportunity to better understand how you can contribute to society."

Q: Do you think that everyone should take a gap year?

I’ve met so many people who have taken years off, both in China and in the U.S. As I see it, there are three types of people who take a year off: someone who wants extra time to achieve a certain goal, like reading or interning more; someone who feels “lost” and wants to search for or delve into interests; thirdly, people who need a break for medical reasons.

I think that taking a gap year for those belonging in the first category is definitely useful. In school, you don’t get many chances to see how your learned knowledge might be applied. But through [experiential, self-designed learning experiences] during a gap year, you get the opportunity to better understand how you can contribute in society.

As for the second type—for a number of people whom I’ve met in this category, it was for sure beneficial, but for others, not so much. A look at a beneficial case: my friend took a gap year after his freshman year at Duke. He was studying chemistry and was planning on becoming involved in research, but was also conflicted, as he was also interested in education. So he took the opportunity during his year off to learn more about the education field. Today, he is a co-founder of Sunshine Library, a nonprofit that distributes tablets. They later switched to become a Chinese startup, which—in my opinion—creates some of the best high-tech art you can find in China. None of this would have happened had he not taken a gap year with a hope of exploring his interest and developing his passion in the education field.

But the reason that I might be hesitant to say that a gap year would be entirely beneficial for these those belonging in this “second type” category is that I don’t think passion can necessarily be found. If you’re passionate about something, you have passion. If you turn your thoughts into action, you realize your passion. To have the purpose of exploring a preexisting interest is one thing. But if you hop around a whole bunch of different things saying, “Oh I’m going to try this, I’m going to try that” without particular reasons—well, I’m not sure how helpful that kind of year might be.

But then again, I think in life, experience is key. So if you can afford it—why not? I’ve seen numerous people change directions in life after their gap years, and most were for the better.