Adult Gappers Look Back

The gap year decision process is often rife with questions. Will it put me behind my peers? Will I be able to focus in college? Will future employers judge the break? From a development of a hobby to unexpected career changes, here is how a few adults look back on their gap years and the effect that the gap year had on their college lives and careers.

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Hong Liu | Founder and Executive Director of PEER China 

"Without the gap year, PEER would not be what it is today... All of the considerable things that have impacted my life would not have happened."

PEER China is an education reform nonprofit based in Beijing, China. It partners with schools in underserved areas throughout the country in order to strengthen general academic skills (such as reading) for students, especially those who choose to enter the work force directly after high school. Founded during Hong's college career, PEER has served over 4500 students through recruitment of 1100 volunteers.

Hong took his gap year between his junior and senior years of college. He spent it by: organizing a conference in Malaysia for Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR); volunteering at the Dandelion School for migrant children; assisting at the Institute for Advanced Humanistics at Peking University; developing PEER.

How has the gap year impacted you?

The gap year turned PEER from a student initiative into something serious; I redesigned the PEER program, registered PEER as an official nonprofit organization in MA, and recruited an official board as well as a first group of about 50-60 volunteers.

Had I not taken a year off, I also wouldn't ahve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the Chinese academic [field], as I did through the Institute for Advanced Humanistics at Peking University. My work there also became an unexpected passage to my first job after college graduation. Moreover, my experience in China during the gap year allowed me to see myself as not an observer but nan active participant of affairs in China.


David Friedman | CEO of Ayla Networks

"I look at a gap year as [having] a chance to reconsider a life perspective programmed from a young age, and to creatively live your life."

Ayla Networks is the number one platform for leading manufacturers, providing the industry's first Agile IoT Platform.

David took a year off at 25, after applying to business schools. He spent 2 months in Mexico, teaching at a language school; backpacked around Costa Rica; hiked the third largest peak in the far east of Nepal.

How has the gap year impacted you?

I couldn’t be more positive about what it did for me—it was mind-bending. The very best thing about it was I somehow was able to realize at a very young age that you only live once, and you need to live your life that way. Everyone you meet when you do a gap year is dramatically different than people in your regular life before.

I never did really well in school before, but afterwards in business school, I didn’t even think twice about [working hard]. I focused on appreciating things rather than just letting time slip by. I look at gappers not as lazy kids, but students taking a chance to [gain] a completely different perspective on life.

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Maddy Bazil | Digital Content Manager for She Leads Africa

"This was, quite accidentally, the beginning of my taking an interest in photography and in documentary storytelling."

She Leads Africa is a community that helps young African women achieve their professional dreams. By engaging online content and pan-African events, She Leads Africa's vision is to become the #1 destination for smart and ambitious young women.

Maddy took a gap year between high school and college. She spent the year keeping a blog, writing poetry, and photographing her new travel and work environments.

How has the gap year impacted you?

Adjusting to college abroad was made significantly easier (and even more appealing) after having spent a year travelling, working, and living independently. Later, spending summers during college interning and working in other places was also much easier - not only did I know how to settle into one specific location but I found I was very comfortable adapting and creating a life anywhere. I think that sort of cultural adaptability is a really useful skill and is definitely to some degree learnt, not innate, and it has benefited me a lot over the past several years to have acquired that skill at 18.

My gap year reinforced my existing interest in travel and living in other countries and cultures. During the year I also honed my interest in human rights work which is something I still continue to pursue. But my gap year was especially significant in colouring my sense of self and avenues for growth with regard to my artistic practice - I had taken AP studio art in high school and graduated feeling completely burnt out from something I had previously loved. Throughout my gap year I was very conscious of documenting all of my experiences: keeping a (retrospectively very cringe-worthy) blog, writing poetry, and taking thousands of photos. This was quite accidentally the beginning of my taking an interest in photography and in documentary storytelling. I didn't see any of it at the time but looking back now at where I am and where I'm headed, I see the trajectory clearly.

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Zoe Zelkha | Structural Engineer Student in Israel

"The year off helped me realize my love for the environment and what I specifically can study and do that will help future generations."

How has the gap year impacted you?

I actually decided to move to Israel because of my experiences there. I transferred to an Israeli university and am starting my life there, and will hopefully graduate with an environmental engineering degree. It helped me realize my love for the environment and what I specifically can study and do that will help future generations. My gap year helped me think as an individual by letting go of the influences of my parents, teachers, and communities. In college, compared to my peers, I had amazing study habits because I had a better idea of how I learn. I could go on and on.

I still remember my gap year very clearly, and some things that I wanted then still haven't changed. For example, I am still determined to one day grow my own food, own a biogas, and build my home with more natural, sustainable materials (engineering will make that last one easier to accomplish).

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Dan Birman | Stanford Psychology PhD

"Whenever I would get to a grad school interview, everyone would be a lab manager in NY, research assistant MIT, and I’m like living in my car in Las Vegas in a campground. That was really enjoyable."

How has the gap year impacted you?

I learned that I have better ideas about things when I can sit in the sun all day and think about them. My second year at Stanford I started a climbing group in my department so we can go climbing and talk about projects at the same time. That’s turned into a bunch of collaborations and has been way more effective than sitting in my office all day. I also have a lot of friends now who did not take time off and I think it’s going to be impossible for them now to ever take time off. That might be specific to academia, but they feel like they can’t stop working because they’ve never had experience of  forgetting about work for a year or even a few weeks.


Marit Björnlund | Program Associate at an International Development NGO

"The things I did were consistent with what I'm intrigued by, and they pushed me to explore my interests more... It also forced me to become more independent and fearless about [venturing] alone."

A gapyearly mentor, Marit took a gap year between high school and college. She spent a part of it in Myanmar, where she travelled with her family and later, a friend. She volunteered for a human rights nonprofit in Argentina; volunteered in microfinance in Senegal; studied French in Tours, France. 

How has your gap year impacted you?

I don't trace things directly to my gap year, but it definitely helped form who I am and was a good plan for me. I had spent a month in Myanmar on my gap year, and the rest of the time traveling, which made me less inclined to study abroad while at Williams to take advantage of on campus opportunities. I did spend two summers in Indonesia doing independent research, so as a program associate at my NGO I was put on projects in the Asia Pacific.