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Preparing for Ethiopia

By Kate

Hello everyone! My name is Kate and I am from New York City. This month I am preparing to move to Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, where I will be interning at a boarding school known as the Haile-Manas Academy. 

Over the course of the semester, I will serve primarily as a peer leader for freshmen students, but will also sit in and co-facilitate discussions in their History and English classes. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to connect with my future mentees, and want to make sure that I am as prepared as possible to undertake the exciting responsibilities before me. So in preparation I have been reading a lot about Ethiopian history, culture, and national identity. I’ve also been exploring popular Ethiopian fiction and engaging in conversations with my future colleagues—both American and Ethiopianabout culturally responsive teaching. The months ahead of me will undoubtedly be unlike anything I have experienced before, and I am so excited to share what I learn with all of you!  

A Year of Firsts

Hi everyone! First of all, I’d like to introduce myself and explain a little about what I will be doing this year. My name is Sara, and I’m from Lexington, South Carolina. This fall, I’ll be staying at home to take online audited classes, hopefully get a job, and volunteer with an animal rescue and sanctuary. In the spring I’ll be studying in Spain at the University of Granada, assuming I can get out of the country. Thanks, Rona.  


 This year has and will continue to be one of many firsts for us all. Whether you are starting college online or in quarantine, going into your senior year of high school not knowing what you may or may not get to experience, or entering the job market, not knowing whether a position in your field will even be available this year or the next or the next. We live in a very uncertain time, and taking a gap year means that the next several months of my life will be even more so. As a result of my gap year, I’ve applied for a job for the first time. I’m going to be leaving the country alone for the first time. This is the first time in over thirteen years that I haven’t had a set plan for the next few months. Everything could change at a moment’s notice. This also means that many of us will experience firsts not just for ourselves, but for the world as a whole. We’ve had virtual graduations, virtual concerts, virtual trainings, virtual hangouts, virtual, virtual, virtual. We’ve even had a toilet paper shortage where I live in the United States, who would’ve ever thought.  

 All this to say, this year will be one of change, uncertainty, and a lot of firsts, whether like me, you’re taking a gap year, or you’re off on a different adventure. I, for one, look forward to the challenges and the surprises of taking a gap year in the age of COVID-19, because if there’s only one thing I know for certain; one thing I’ve learned over the past few months, it’s that uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also lead to growth, new adventures, and a whole lot of firsts. 

My Gap Year Plans and the PCT

By Ray

Hello friends, 

 My name is Ray, and this is both my first blog with the Duke Gap Year, as well as my first ever blog.  

 I should probably introduce myself; I live in the Bay Area (Marin County). In high school, I spent a lot of my time playing for the football (LB) and lacrosse (middie) team. I also participated in student government and Model UN. I’m in Pratt, but I have no idea what I will end up majoring in – a gap year will hopefully help with that.  

 I enjoy being outside. This summer, I have spent time hiking, biking, and trying to play golf. I’ve also been cooking a lot for my family; cooking is a hobby I never got the chance to explore in high school. I’m excited to watch the new season of Last Chance U, and I’ll listen to almost any song Spotify gives me.  

Me on the left – a triple bougie kinda day 

I’m hoping to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the spring/summer of 2021. The PCT is a pretty long trail; the goal is to average about 20 miles a day and finish within five-months. Am I trying to bite off more than I can chew??? Who knows??? 

 The Pacific Crest Trail Association manages the trail and distributes permits through a daily quota. It’s a competitive process that’s really similar to buying hyped-up sneakers. If I’m unlucky and don’t get a permit; I still hope to backpack (maybe the Bigfoot Trail, John Muir Trail, or the Tahoe Rim Trail). Regardless of which trail I end up thru-hiking, I think it would be a good idea to do some preparing. 

 While I wouldn’t describe myself as a backpacker, I do have a decent background. Last summer, I spent two weeks backpacking in New Mexico. It was pretty cool.  

I’m on the right, this is from the top of Baldy Mountain

Right now, I’m planning a short 30 mile trip at the Lost Coast. I’m hoping to finish the trail in two days. The Lost Coast is an area in the Kings Range Conservation Area in Northern California. The Lost Coast was slated to be part of California’s State Route One, but its terrain was deemed too rough to build a highway.  

The Lost Coast has a rich history that’s severely under-documented. Before European settlers reached California, the Mattole People thrived on the Lost Coast. Thanks to the ocean and the coastal climate, they gathered seaweed and shellfish and hunted native marine animals. Salmon played a big role in their culture. When white settlers reached the Lost Coast around 1860, they called it New Jerusalem and began to raise cattle. Despite numerous treaties, many of the Mattole people were killed by local militias.  Most who survived were sent to a prison in Humbolt county. In 1868, a measles outbreak almost eradicated the Mattole people. With such a small population, the Mattole language died in the 1930s. Besides death records written by white settlers, there’s little to no written record about the Mattole people.  

 I will be mindful of the Mattole people’s history on my hike, and I’ll share the knowledge I learned with my fellow hikers. I will keep the blog posted on how the trip goes.  


Why I Took A Gap Year

By Siddharth

Having been born and raised in India, the notion of a gap year has always been fairly restricted to a specific segment of students – those who are unable to perform up to their expectations in the cutthroat entrance tests to the most prestigious universities in the country. If one wasn’t spending their gap year preparing for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) or the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the idea of taking time off before college would be frowned upon by students and parents alike.  

 I, too, had bought into this prevailing herd mentality of going straight to college after high school; if you’re taking a year off and not studying for a test, you’re simply wasting your time – time that could be well spent earning an undergraduate degree. That is, until I came across the Duke Gap Year Program. It piqued my interest largely because it was an opportunity unlike that offered by any of the other colleges into which I was admitted. What started out as a mere curiosity to explore what the program entailed, transformed into a paradigm shift in the manner in which I view a gap year.  

 I came across an article by admissions officers at Harvard, which talked about how the increasingly competitive application process often leads to students ‘burning out’ before they begin college, and how taking time off can allow students to recharge and begin afresh their 4-year undergraduate journey. It was surprising how much I was able to relate to the content put forward by the authors, so much so that I showed it to my friends who also applied to colleges in the US, eliciting similar reactions. Soon enough, I was surfing the net for hours, scouring for opportunities to make my gap year an enriching experience, getting everything in order to pitch a concrete plan to my parents (who, unlike me, had not yet been disillusioned with the stigma around a gap year).  

 What drew me most to the idea of a gap year is that it allows me to freely explore my interests, both academic and non-academic. Having studied in a curriculum that structurally lacked an interdisciplinary component, I never had the chance to delve further into my interest in astrophysics and political science in school. The freedom afforded by the gap year will be crucial in helping me understand my interests and aspirations in a more comprehensive manner and providing me with a clearer picture about my future, which will consequently result in a more fruitful and enriching college experience. Having had the last 2 years of high school crammed with standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and the college application process, it would be a wonderful opportunity to have time to recharge and enter college as a much more enthusiastic freshman.  

 Although I’ve had limited experience with the gap year so far, the ability to plan an entire year of my life without having to worry about any school commitments has been truly enjoyable, and I hope that over the next few months I am able to expose myself to a range of new ideas and concepts.  

Getting Going in the Big Apple

By Zachary

Despite the initial challenges posed by the pandemic, my gap year planning is looking very hopeful. I will split my gap year into two main sections: City Year and backpacking.
The main focus of the beginning of my gap year is a program called City Year, which is part of AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is a program that supports national communities through service. AmeriCorps’ mission statement explains that its goal is to “strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based national and community service.” The program I am doing in AmeriCorps, called City Year, has the goal of helping at-risk elementary to high school age students. The term “at-risk” refers to students who are in circumstances that would indicate a lower likelihood of continuing school or graduating. There are many factors that can lead a child to be designated as at-risk, such as poor attendance, major shortcomings in a particular subject, not having a place to go home to after school, etc. City Year’s objective is to help these students through individualized and long-term attention from those participating in the program.
Zachary before heading out for that day’s City Year training.


I will be serving in New York City, specifically in the “East New York Brooklyn Zone.” I will not know my assigned school or age group until the end of my three week Pre-Service Training, which I am completing right now, but I am very excited to learn where I will be placed. I joined City Year because I hope to make a difference with students at a time when they need it the most. I am lucky enough to have a way to participate in online classes, as well as parents with stable jobs . There are many students who do not have these luxuries, and they are at the most significant risk in terms of their educational development and longevity. 
The second half of my gap year is currently still up in the air. I would really like to go backpacking, but, because of the pandemic, a trip outside the country is not likely. Under the circumstances, I am thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I still have a lot of research to do, so there is still a chance I will not be able to hike the trail. My main concern is being able to finish before school kicks off at Duke in August. To do so, I would need to start on the trail earlier than when most people begin in April, since the trail takes 5-7 months to complete. I would like to avoid a winter start because it requires specialized equipment and the possibility of harsh and snowy conditions. However, if it is the only timing that would work, I might have to consider another trail to hike. The one other trail that I am researching is the Long Trail in Vermont, which is significantly shorter than the Appalachian Trail. If anybody has any suggestions for trails to look into, I would love to chat!

Summer – The First Two Months

By Lukas

I had been considering a gap year for some time before the end of senior year, but nothing had catalyzed my desire to take the year to focus on myself as the pandemic did. I’m creating and re-imagining ways of bettering myself to become more mentally prepared in the fall of 2021. Every day, it feels as though plans could be drastically altered, for better or for worse. I have always loved spontaneity in my life, and I will try to let each day take its course in creating an incredibly unique year, as well as learning from my successes and shortcomings.  

This summer, I have been an intern at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) in the communications and media department. While VNSNY is not necessarily aligned with my academic interests, I have been able to find a niche and work with people with similar passions as my own. As part of my job, I have assembled and edited videos to be shown to staff and other employees. I have seen firsthand the incredible effort the entire organization put into managing the pandemic in the city. In April, I could not fathom the amount of work being dedicated by all the essential workers around the city to help save lives. Even the simple shared folder with photos to be included in videos gave me an idea of the bravery required to manage such a crisis. Seeing faces and humanizing the effort has been incredibly humbling.  

My fall has undergone a change of plans. I applied to one of High Mountain Institute’s semester abroad programs, hoping to push the limits of my desire to explore. Having grown up in one of the world’s largest cities, wilderness and conservation have been relevant yet intangible topics in my life. From September 20th to December 8th, I will be backpacking, camping, and rock climbing in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. It was a sudden change in my plans, but I am delighted, honored, and extremely excited to be able to travel in the fall.  

Deciding to Take a Gap Year

By Hannah

I clearly remember sitting at my brother’s high school graduation three years ago and thinking to myself, “I’m going to take a gap year.” I had never really heard the term until that year, but as soon as I saw his peers thinking about taking one, and some ultimately choosing to do so, the idea was locked in my mind. Since then, I’ve followed Instagrams and blogs of friends who have decided to defer their college admission, researched an endless list of gap year programs, and found myself drawn more and more to the idea of spending a year exploring and learning minus the stress of being in school.  

When it was my turn to apply to colleges, I kept these ideas in my mind but decided to make a final decision once I knew where I was going. For the first few days after I got my acceptance letter to Duke, I was so eager to move to Durham and join such a vibrant and passionate community that I told myself I couldn’t wait a year to start. Yet once the initial excitement dissipated—and the reality that my freshman year would be significantly different hit me—deferring was an easy decision. I always knew it was something I wanted to do, and I do not doubt that I made the right choice. 

Choosing to take a gap year was the easy part because once I decided, it became time to plan. In any year, trying to plan out a year would be tough. This year, I don’t just have the challenge of picking a program to join or a place to explore. I also have to consider whether a program’s COVID-19 precautions are sufficient, I have to have backup options, and most of all, I have to be comfortable with things changing at any time.  

After many iterations of an itinerary for the next 12 months, I concluded that “planning” this year has an entirely different meaning. There is no way to predict what the world will look like in a month, let alone 12. I’m learning that I need to be okay when things change and leave a lot of room for uncertainty. 

I’ve realized that even though it doesn’t seem like it, this may be the exact gap year that I need. Being able to make the most of an uncertain time will surely teach me more than anything else. In 5 or 10 years, I won’t look back at my gap year for the things I did or places I went (and honestly, I don’t know how well I will remember the specifics anyways). I hope, though, that I will look back at this time and realize that regardless of what I did or where I was, my gap year significantly impacted my life through college and beyond. I may not be able to travel to the coolest places or do all the things I had hoped, but I am confident that I will be able to grow as a person and gain as much from this time as I would have any other year.  

I look forward to sharing more updates on my year in the coming months! 

Embracing Unpredictability

By Valerie

4.5E14, 1.2E2, 94, 59… 

I sat stock-still with my body contorted in an awkward position, the tingling and prickling of pins and needles in my limbs hardly registering as I fixated my gaze on the screen with intense, sober concentration, for fear that everything would go awry upon the slightest falter. 

…32, 1.8, 0.04, 0.0015… 

Alongside the pleasant surprise of an acceleration in the numerical descent emerged a growing, albeit subdued, exhilaration. Prior disappointments had conditioned a wariness that prevailed over my innate optimism. 

“Come on…just a bit more!” With the solution literally on the brink of convergence, I prayed earnestly, as though sincerity could somehow tame wild and unpredictable digits into acquiescence. And as though in willful defiance, the numbers deviated off trajectory at that critical moment, lapsing into crippling stagnation– the prelude to eventual failure.  

To my uninitiated past self, finite element analysis (FEA) seemed fairly straightforward. Just assemble basic geometries to form a three-dimensional model, input some values and leave all the complicated and cumbersome calculations to the software. What could possibly go wrong? 

Well, as it turned out, just about everything. 

Running an FEA simulation as an amateur is analogous to orchestrating a battle against an ambiguous opponent without even being fully aware of your own capabilities. You cannot bear witness to the battle as it plays out in a virtual arena, only managing to steal glimpses of its progress through less-than-informative error estimates and iteration loggers– the sole basis for you to evaluate and revise your battle strategies.

Worst of all, when you encounter a protracted battle, you’re faced with a difficult choice. Either persist at the risk of wasting more time, or recall your troops and reconfigure a new battle strategy, though potentially letting victory slip away when it is almost within reach. Making an informed decision is well-nigh impossible when so much is shrouded in mystery. 

And just when you think you have it all figured out, you are caught unawares by unexpected results that instantly unravel the fabric of understanding you have painstakingly woven, thrusting you back into a helplessly perplexed state. 

My experience over the past few months of fumbling in the dark with COMSOL (an FEA software) has been a stark departure from the safe predictability and stabilizing control I am well-accustomed to, but I have gleaned valuable lessons from it. 

Identifying the root cause of a failed simulation by analyzing two dimensional cross sections and using a highly simplified model are but some of the strategies I have developed over time to overcome my inexpertise and unfamiliarity with the software. Countless troubleshooting attempts have cultivated courage, resilience and resourcefulness. Trial and error acquired a newfound appeal as I discovered such creative ways to expedite and refine what I hitherto dismissed as a crude and inefficient problem-solving strategy. Perhaps, most importantly, my innate aversion to uncertainty has given way to a thirst for the unexpected and I can’t wait to see what discoveries lie ahead. 

Starting My Gap Year

By Leah

I’ve only just started my gap year, but I’m already beginning to understand one of the most important skills that I’m going to develop this year: flexibility.

Under normal circumstances a gap year is an opportunity for spontaneity, adaptation, and occasionally allowing whims to take you wherever they will – it’s not possible to carefully plan out your every move months in advance; that’s what makes it so exciting! I feel like that effect has been amplified this year – now that the future of gap year programs and work opportunities and travel is uncertain, January of 2021 can feel like it’s decades away and there’s no way of knowing if things will be roughly the same, or if we’ll be living in a completely different world. I’ve come up with plans and backup plans and backup-backup plans, and they will all undoubtedly require some modification over the next several months; there’s a decent chance that I’ll end up doing something completely different that hasn’t even crossed my mind yet. I’ve established my long-term goals and expectations for the year with this uncertainty in mind: it’s not exactly realistic right now for me to hope to get a specific job or go to any particular country; 2020 goals have to be a bit more abstract. My main focus this year is learning how to get the most out of every situation I find myself in.

I’m starting off the year in my hometown of Alexandria, VA. This week I started working as a remote intern for a firm that creates political campaign ads. I’m working with one other intern as a production and research assistant supporting the work of four associates. I’m so excited to be involved with this work and learn about creating and conveying compelling campaign narratives, while playing a role in key races in this very important election year. I was nervous to start working with a team of people who I’ve never met and who I can’t interact with in person, but I’m already getting the hang of things – the most important thing is to communicate and ask a ton of questions!

I’m also staying involved with my personal interests by taking lessons in Chinese language, horseback riding, and violin. My desk will be my home base for the next couple of months, as that’s where I spend much of my time making phone and Zoom calls, doing work for my internship, and attending remote Chinese classes.

Towards the end of September, I’ll wrap up my internship and travel to North Carolina Outward Bound to spend two months backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, and kayaking. I’m working hard to keep myself in good shape so that I can get as much out of that program as possible – that means lots of long walks and time working out in our garage “gym”!

Right now my plan is to get home from Outward Bound at the end of November, spend some time with family, and then (hopefully) travel internationally in 2021, but I’m ready to adapt to whatever the world looks like in the coming months. I can’t wait to find out what the next year has in store for me!


Planning Amid the Unpredictable

By Christina

Long-term planning during a global pandemic presents challenges.  We have all asked ourselves what the world will look like in a month and a year.  Will elbow bumps replace handshakes?  Will meetings continue on Zoom?  Will travel return to normal?  There is a lot we don’t know, both about the future and the virus, and trying to plan a year in advance is essentially impossible. 

established my gap year goals from the beginning: travel and develop new perspectives, engage in meaningful local service, and participate in activities I love.  I had a set of plans that fulfilled these goals, beginning with an internship at a software company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam this fall.  However, the virus rendered my plans impossible, and I struggled to accept this fact.  The next year of my life was completely swept away by the virus, and I was left stunned. 

Then something clicked: I realized my initial fall plans were hopeless.  That total defeat allowed me to move on and see the opportunity that lay elsewhere.  I jumped to action and, knowing I needed money to pay for my gap year, I pursued and got a job at a restaurant serving takeout.  I started reaching out to anyone and everyone of interest, from my high school’s volunteer coordinator to politicians around the country.  Plenty of my emails went unanswered, and I received many no’s, but the number of people interested in helping me was shocking and a welcome surprise.  I pursued every opportunity available and of interest to me.  I began to realize that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to reevaluate what is important to me.  I had the chance to start over and examine what work would best allow me to achieve my gap year goals.  Being limited in location allowed me to see how much I don’t know about Atlanta, where I was born and raised and still live.  I plan to support and contribute to my local Atlanta community this fall through service and work.  am getting certified to teach reading through Reading is Essential for All People, or REAP. 

A REAP training class!
Previous volunteer work I did with a local Title I elementary school. When the pandemic closed schools in Atlanta, the school’s staff mobilized volunteers to pack and distribute school meals to the elementary students and homemade dinners to their families.
The case study I assisted my professor in writing.  Several universities have already asked to use our case study in their classrooms!

I plan to conduct free tutoring sessions for students, particularly for students at an under-served Atlanta elementary school that I have volunteered with in the past.  I have worked and will continue to work with their teachers and staff to support the school in the midst of the pandemic.

 I am working as a research and teaching assistant to an Emory University instructor teaching healthcare management.  I contributed to her business case study about a telehealth company in the pandemic that is in submission for publication in a peer-reviewed magazine. 

 After about two months of reaching out to MJ Hegar’s team (US Senate candidate in Texas), I now am a remote finance intern on the campaign.  Having lots of family in Texas, I see the diverse needs of people within the state and am delighted to support an American hero fighting for the everyday Texan.  My plans look nothing like they did five months ago, but I am excited to be involved with and serving communities of importance to me, particularly Atlanta.  After countless emails, interviews, and phone calls, I now have a plan that reflects what I want to achieve. 

 The pandemic has reminded me to embrace the flexibility of a gap year.  I am constantly learning and have the freedom to shape my gap year around what I learn, steering myself towards the person I want to be.  I anticipate a lot of my ideas about my gap year will change over the course of the year, but I look forward to constantly adapting and uncovering new opportunities.