Adult Gappers Looking Back

The gap year decision process is often rife was questions. Will it put me behind my peers? Will I be able to focus in college? Will future employers judge the break? Here is how a few adults look back on their gap years and the effect the gap on their college experiences and work lives.

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David Friedman | Silicon Valley Entrepeneur and CEO

Why did you take a gap year?

I was much less mature than a lot of my friends but I did save enough money to pay for a gap year, so I just did it. I originally signed up for the Peace Core, but then they deferred my entry for a year and I had already quit my job, so I did my own thing.

What did you do?

I just set out with a lonely planet book and a backpack. That was it. It was awesome. I didn’t structure it that well because I was never a big planner. I spent two months in Mexico in a language school and backpacking, went to Costa Rica for a month, and was in the far east of Nepal until I got injured. I was going to ice climb in Bolivia, but then couldn’t do that.

How has it 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. It was just a completely different perspective. I never did really well in school before, but afterwards in business school I didn’t even have to think about it. I got to focus on appreciating things rather than just letting time slip by. I look at gappers not as lazy kids, but taking a chance to have a completely different perspective.

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Maddy Bazil | Photographer

Why did you take a gap year?

I was burnt out after working hard academically for years at a high school where it felt like everyone was competing on the same prescribed track to 'success'. I've always loved to travel and I wanted to see the world, work hard at things I couldn't learn from behind a textbook, learn more about myself outside of an academic context, and recharge my passion for learning before going on to university.

How has your gap year impacted you?

I definitely went into my first year of university feeling much more sure of myself and my personality and my needs and wants than I would have if I hadn't taken a year out. I felt like I was a more fully-formed individual with some lived experience (plus some good stories), and I was engaged with academia in a way I wouldn't have been otherwise. This made the transition much easier in some ways (I didn't struggle with living on my own away from home), but also challenging in others (I had a bit of a holier-than-thou complex being a year older and 'wiser' than many of my peers; I had to relearn how to settle down in one place and put down permanent roots without feeling claustrophobic).

Something that a lot of people would ask me during the gap year was 'Don't you think it'll be impossible to want to return to school after this?' or 'I could never have taken a gap year - I would've just never gone back to college afterward' and in retrospect I can see where people were coming from with comments like those, and the transition to school was hard at times - but in the big picture I truly did feel rejuvenated and more independent and ready to tackle university after taking the gap year, and in fact the things I did and places I went during the year continue to this day to impact my academic interests and pursuits.

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Zoe Zelkha | Structural Engineer Student in Israel

Why did you take a gap year?

My thought process was this: I've been in school for 12 years, and if I'm going to travel and explore this interest of mine, there's no better time to do it than after high school. My whole life was just following orders from different institutions, and the idea was that I would get 9 months to do whatever I wanted, learn about whatever I wanted, and go wherever I wanted. No one was going to tell me what to do, where to go, or how to get there. This idea felt extremely liberating and I felt like I would really be able to explore my interests in a deeper way.

How has your 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

Why did you take a gap year?

I spent my undergrad doing two things: trying to be a neuroscientist and mostly hanging out with mice, and rock climbing. And neither of those I was successful at doing as much as I wanted. So I really wanted to actually have a research project that would turn into something and I really wanted to just rock climb for a long time. So before grad school I thought I would just take off enough time to actually do a research project in a neuroscience lab which was half of my two years off, and run around rock climb which was the other year.

How has your 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 | International Development NGO

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.