Hi there! I start my first blog post with relatively little to reflect on, as it feels that my gap year hasn’t really begun. I’m floating in transition between child and adult, the end of high school and the beginning of my gap year, COVID-19 lockdown, and whatever the “new normal” looks like.
My summer began like most everyone’s: sheltered in place. While the initial adjustment was difficult to say the least, I’ve found that I genuinely enjoy spending this much time with my family of six (seven with the dog).
The kitchen has become my refuge. Cooking has allowed me to connect with my family without feeling suffocated by their constant presence. The endless supply of breads, muffins, tarts, and other foods, are my love language.
Best of all, this passion of mine has become a bridge between me and my grandmother—she’s teaching me to make paella. It’s both intimidating and incredibly comforting to make such a classic Spanish dish. Her lectures on the traditions of making paella remind me that while much of my heritage is still rather unfamiliar to me, I can still deepen my Spanish roots from across the world. While my lack of bomba rice and Valencian water (many swear by these two as the most essential ingredients) has been a bit frustrating, so far, I’ve been successful.
Cooking lessons I’ve learned so far:
- Never EVER take your eyes off the paella (not even for a second). And don’t forget things in the oven.
- A little bit of socarrat, the charred rice at the bottom of a paella, is a delicious accident, not a mistake.
- The taste test is key… In every recipe.
- Eyeballing quantities is okay (for most dishes), it’ll probably still turn out well!*
- Throwing spices that smell good in a pan is a bold move, but a good one. Know the risks.*
- Don’t forget the salt!
*these don’t apply to paellas!
As I learn to somewhat follow recipes (I’m an impulsive cook—I make adjustments on the fly), I’m beginning to view the gap year I had planned as a recipe, one that can be modified to my future tastes. I have no idea how much of it will pan out, but for now I’m planning, awaiting my first adventure (Outward Bound), and enjoying my family, my job, and my friends (from six feet away!).
Without a traditional graduation and the end of senior year festivities that lead up to it, high school seemed to slip away. One day I was watching my teachers through my computer screen, and the next I woke up as a high school graduate. I had always thought of graduation as a magical rite of passage, the official transition into adulthood, but despite having decorated my cap and ironed my gown, I didn’t feel much different the day I picked up my diploma. I yearned for more time, the opportunity to thank my teachers in person, a chance to say goodbye to people I might never see again. In short, a different ending.
With such an unexpected end to the year, it was easy to get caught up in the emotions that sudden change brings- fear, grief, uncertainty. It was also easy to wish for the sudden ability to time travel as a way of thwarting what was already unfolding. But all of those emotions were masking what was the most important thing that came out of this spring: gratitude. Instead of falling into the trap of thinking about what could have been, I began shifting my focus to what is. I began reflecting upon the great three full years I did have, the lessons I’d learned, the goals I’d reached, and all of the lasting memories I’d made. It wasn’t an overnight transition, but changing the way I viewed the unconventional last few months has made all the difference. In the end, it’s your perspective that matters.
Looking forward to the year ahead, I couldn’t be more excited to have a chunk of time that I’m able to dedicate solely to my interests, both those that already exist and those that are yet to be discovered. Taking a gap year is something I’ve always had in the back of my mind, but the year I’ve planned looks almost nothing like the year I would have planned six months ago. I’ve had to be creative in my planning, which has stretched me to consider new local and virtual opportunities.
This summer, one of the things I’ve had the most fun with is learning how to use Adobe Illustrator through an online community college class. I might not have explored graphic design this deeply otherwise, and this last month I’ve gained useful skills while really enjoying the process. While I’m not living out my dream of traveling the world, I am engaged in a different kind of exploration: an eternal one. Perspective is key.
Ever since Friday March 13th, the last day I stepped into a classroom, traveling to Israel to begin my gap year has seemed like my ticket out of the pandemic. I planned my gap year before the pandemic and luckily I have not had to change my plans. Knowing my next steps during a confusing time in the lives of many people has made me feel incredibly grateful for my circumstance and the chance to be a part of a cohort of Duke students on similar but diverse journeys. I see my year in Israel as a unique opportunity to learn in a different way and begin Duke with a better understanding of how I want to dedicate my time. I’ll be taking classes at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center for pluralistic Jewish thought in Jerusalem, and for the first time, I will focus on my studies without the added pressure of receiving a grade. Even though I know very little about archaeology, I would like to intern at an archaeological dig once a week, something I would never otherwise have the opportunity to do.
To prepare for my gap year, I am attempting to master a few recipes as I will have to cook for myself and others. For the first time, I am spending many hours learning Hebrew on Duolingo. I’m still figuring out how I will fit a year’s worth of clothes into one suitcase and I am nervously awaiting my two weeks in quarantine once I arrive in Israel. I choose to select that I am “averagely clean” rather than “organized and proper” on my rooming survey. I’ll be living in a three-bedroom apartment, with six people and I was hoping that if I presented myself as “organized and proper” my roommates may be neat and clean people. Unfortunately, my family has strongly disagreed with this description of my cleanliness guiding me to honestly describe myself as “averagely clean.” Hopefully, my roommate will have a more generous opinion, and maybe at Duke, I can finally define myself as “organized and proper.”
In less than a month I will be living with a group of people, Israelis and North Americans with different backgrounds and experiences including religious observance. I’m looking forward to adapting to living with people who have grown up very differently from myself. I know I will likely be eating kosher food and maybe I will choose to accompany some friends to religious services. At the same time, I have no way of anticipating the everyday challenges and meaningful moments that will define my year abroad. That’s the daunting and great thing about taking a gap year.
Our lives move so fast, we don’t even get to enjoy a transition. Without this pandemic, I would have gone straight from graduating to being an 8-week camp counselor to possible going straight to Duke. I would be jumping from one experience to another, without even realizing that I’m heading into the biggest change in my life. The pandemic has forced me to slow down, given me a surplus of time to reflect and prepare. I was talking with my friend, who just came back from the hospital after almost dying in a longboarding accident on the road. He told me through his bandages, “You never know when your life can completely change, so take it slow.” I gave him some advice too: “Don’t longboard.”
Many of my other friends complain that time is moving like cement these days, but graduating seniors have been given an opportunity to transition — an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future before plunging in, taking the time to realize our lives will really never be the same.
“You’re taking a gap year? Seriously? Don’t you want to start college? Why are you putting your life on hold?” These questions repeated themselves throughout the end of high school, as my friends tried to understand why anyone would delay the college experience even by a year. I wouldn’t back down: “College will still be there in a year…Imagine learning and living in Israel! … Will you ever be able to have an experience like this again?” After a few more of these arguments and colleges releasing their 2020-2021 plans, I had convinced 6 of my friends to join me in Israel.
I realize now, even without the pandemic, that a gap year was always the best decision. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A unique experience. Most of all, a transition. I don’t know who I’ll be in a year or how I’ll change during the gap year, but I know that I’ll grow. I think it’s important to really know who you are when you get to college, so you can’t let anyone else tell you who you are. A year in Israel is a transition that I wish everyone can take, but it feels so unnatural to many Americans. Our culture pushes on us the same general goal to success (which apparently means happiness): work hard in school, go to a good college, get a good job, make money. Delaying that process by a year doesn’t make sense to many. In other cultures, like in Israel for example, kids are not pressured to grind for a couple more points and a letter grade. Instead, they accept the reality from a young age that at 18, they’ll be putting their lives on the line for their country in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). The culture creates a different type of people, in my opinion, happier and more genuine people, without this standard path to success. People, believing that the study/work/money process is the only real path to happiness, argue that taking a gap year is putting your life on hold. But that standard success story isn’t everyone’s future, especially outside of America. Surrounded by that Israeli culture and new experiences I’ll undergo a transition. I’ll reflect on the past, but more importantly, I’ll discover what my real goals are in life, my real priorities, and who I’ll be when I enter college. That’s not putting my life on hold. If anything, that’s discovering what I’ll make out of my life.
Hi! I’m Lizzy from Austin, Texas. I can’t believe I’m already one month into my gap year—I have loved every moment and am so excited to see what the rest of the year will bring!
Despite my enthusiasm, I hadn’t seriously considered taking a gap year until about 6 months ago. I love the stability and organization of an academic schedule, so taking such a risk would have been out of character. Even though I dreamed of taking time off school and travelling the world, I never thought I would be brave enough to follow through with it.
So, what changed? At first, my structure-craving mindset remained stubborn as ever. I was bent on choosing the most practical option– and taking a year off school never seemed practical, no matter how much I thought I might enjoy it. As schools began closing in March and my meticulous plans for freshman year melted away, so did my fear of taking a gap year. I was faced with uncertainty no matter what I chose to do, so I abandoned hopes of practicality and stability and chose what I had truly wanted to do all along. At the time, taking a gap year felt like a huge risk, but I have it immensely so far and am incredibly pleased with my choice.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of taking a gap year so far is the freedom it has granted me. Throughout middle and high school, I would plan obsessively, scheduling every hour of every day– including weekends– with tasks to complete for school and extracurriculars. Now, for the first time in 7 years, I am not tethered to such a schedule. I am finally free to explore the things I felt too busy to do during high school, and I am beginning to learn the merits of letting go of structure: had I forgone a gap year and adhered to the college schedule, I would be fretting endlessly over class registration and roommate pairings right now. Instead, I fill my days with my favorite activities, like cooking elaborate dinners for my family, water skiing on Lake Austin, and going on hikes with friends.
In fact, despite taking time off school, I have found even more joy in my nerdy, academic passions than ever before. I’ve spent countless hours studying math, physics, and chemistry on my own, and I’ve joined a logic puzzle-solving club in Austin. In my internship, I have delved into optics and engineering, working outside paid hours to complete my project. Along with a few friends, I’ve challenged myself to learn the names and mythology of the major stars and constellations in the night sky. When we camped at Enchanted Rock, a massive granite dome in rural west Texas, we even brought along a telescope (which admittedly looked a bit strange in the rugged wilderness, as pictured below)! As we located Jupiter’s red bands, Saturn’s rings, and the moon’s craters through the telescope lens, I realized that learning voluntarily in the company of friends and nature is a far greater joy than I ever experienced from mandatory school assignments.
Inevitably some of my old stability-seeking habits will return come fall of 2021 and I am once again facing the regiment of a school schedule. However, I am hoping I will carry with me what I have already begun to learn from my gap year: that taking risks and letting go of structure can be both fun and rewarding.
I love making lists, whether it’s a post-it note to-do list or a messily scrawled grocery list. There is simply nothing more satisfying than a document that clearly conveys information.
Unfortunately, that is not the Israeli way; my program has not communicated what I should pack or what I should expect. In fact, almost everything I know about Mechinat Beit Yisrael is thanks to American alumni of the program. All alumni have their “two cents” about useful supplies, but everyone has recommended I bring Blundstones.
Consistent with go-with-the-flow Israeli culture, Blundstones are boots suitable for a morning of hiking, an afternoon of shopping, and then an evening of dinner and dancing. To Israelis, Blundstones are not merely boots but their own category of shoe. The only lamentable thing about them is that I’ve always found them quite unattractive.
Typically, I’m not one to succumb to social pressure; if I learned anything in high school, it’s to be proud of my quirks. I was prepared to show up in Israel Blundstone-less until the one other American girl doing my program said she had them. I rethought the issue; maybe they will give me some semblance of fitting in as one of four North Americans among 70 Israelis. The truth is that despite studying Hebrew for 15 years, mine is far from fluent; and, given my inability to follow American pop culture, who knows when I’ll understand Israeli cultural references.
A trait that comes with my love of list making is an inclination to be prepared, so I researched and wrote down possible Ulpan classes I could take to brush up on my language skills. The first Ulpan – literally meaning instruction, teaching, or studio – began in 1949 in Jerusalem to introduce new olim (immigrants) to Hebrew and Israeli culture. They are now widely offered at multiple levels, and I just completed an advanced virtual class through my local JCC (Jewish Community Center). Although the first few three hour zoom sessions were utterly draining, by the end of the four weeks, I was used to being in a Hebrew environment for that long.
One practice I found helpful and will continue is keeping a Hebrew word journal. Whenever a fellow student or I asked what a word meant/how to say a word, my teacher would write the Hebrew word in the chat. Throughout class, I diligently, yet sometimes frantically, wrote down every word so I could review them later. I am so glad I took the Ulpan class, but writing down 150 or so new words every day made me acutely aware of how much I still have to learn.
Now my Blundstone opening was not a red herring; if you haven’t guessed already, I caved and bought a pair of (not so) shiny, new Blundstones. The truth is, my Ulpan class will probably make a much bigger difference in my adjustment than my Blundstones, but who knows?! I have been dreaming of taking a gap year in Israel since eighth grade; even though I am beyond ecstatic for this life changing year, I never expected to be so anxious that I would buy a pair of boots in an effort to acclimate.
After seeing the Blundstones in my room every day for a couple weeks, they are no longer an eyesore and may even have grown on me. Now that I’ve cobbled together a packing list, studied my vocab words, and brainstormed activities to busy myself during quarantine upon my arrival, I feel I’ve prepared enough and am ready to rip the band-aid off. I know that after the initial language and culture shock, I will view the year that lies ahead not as a daunting challenge but as an eye-opening adventure.
It feels surreal that, in just over six weeks, this five-and-a-half month period of sitting around at home will finally come to an end. I’ll be stuffing my 65-liter backpack full of the essentials (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, water filter, bear canister, ultralight stove, cooking fuel, and food to last at least a week) and heading into the Northern California wilderness.
My plan is to backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake to Donner Summit, a 65-mile stretch known as ‘California Section K’. This will be my first real backpacking trip, so in preparation I spent three days earlier this month doing a practice trip with my family. I packed my backpack, sealed up my bear canister, and drove about three hours to Long Lake (near the Plumas National Forest). On the first day, I hiked about two miles to the end of the lake to set up camp, then spent the second day doing an 8 mile out-and-back hike (with a full pack on, don’t worry!) along the rocky Palisades Trail. I have to admit that, after startling a rattlesnake on the first mile of the trail, I almost decided to turn around and give up on backpacking altogether. I’m glad I didn’t because, in spite of the snake scare, the scenery was beautiful and being surrounded by nature made the feeling of isolation (something I think we’ve all experienced at some point during the last several months of quarantine) almost normal. On the third day I hiked back out, tired and in desperate need of a shower, but feeling at least a little more confident in my backpacking abilities.
I hope that my PCT trip will be a chance to really get to know my home state – although I was born in California and have lived here my whole life, there’s still so much I have yet to see. I hope to learn not only how to survive for a week on supplies that I can fit in a single backpack, but also how to spend time truly alone and independent from society. Most of all, I hope that this backpacking trip will be the first of many!
Thoughts on Flexibility: Advice from a Gap Year Student Whose Plans Were Fractured, Jolted, and Smashed to Smithereens
Dear Future Duke Gap Year Student,
First off, I want to congratulate you. You have successfully graduated high school. You have been accepted into college. You’ve completed one of the hardest chapters of your life and now you have so much to look forward to. I know our current climate seems a little daunting, a little disappointing too. But don’t let that stop you from being optimistic about the future. You have so many incredible journeys ahead. Some of those journeys will be planned, the ones you dream about months in advance. But I promise you, some of the most incredible journeys you have will be the unplanned, the unexpected.
In fact, it’s often been said that a true traveler is one who understands that rarely do things go according to plan. That beautiful itinerary that one spent perfecting on Microsoft Word late-at-night, weeks before the scheduled trip… well, one who has spent time traveling knows that things will happen on the road and some of those perfectly outlined plans will be thrown out the window.
However, in terms of unexpected, this spring has been one of the most life-altering experiences of them all. From the moment COVID-19 arrived in the headlines, plans all over the world have been met with the same response:
Cancelled. Postponed. Next Year. See you later, alligator.
My gap year was no exception. Yes, I was disappointed when my South American adventure was cut short after only two months. Yes, there were tears when I had to leave my new group of exciting, intelligent, and hilarious friends. But I’m here to tell you there is always a way to look on the bright side. Upon returning home, I was able to keep in contact with my friends through a virtual book club and online game nights. I kept learning Spanish through online resources. Although it may seem like the end of the world when plans change, adapting to new circumstances is just a reality of life. No year has taught me that better, and I’m sure you’ve already had your fair share of adapting to change this semester.
So, my advice for you as you plan for your adventure next year (whatever it may be), make sure to leave room in your suitcase for the most important commodity of all: flexibility. Being able to “go with the flow” is an incredibly important mindset when it comes to a year off (and also just life in general). When trying something new or following a path unknown, have malleable expectations. Let them be bent and twisted. This way, you’ll avoid disappointment when your expectations are not met exactly and instead be energized by the new opportunities and experiences provided by change.
This wasn’t the spring any of us had predicted. Far from it. But that will not stop us from continuing on our individual journeys. So, let’s all pack our flexibility and trek on into this uncertain but exciting future before us.
Best of luck,
I used to be afraid of taking steps forward. I could endlessly perfect something, and still, never truly put myself out there. I felt metaphorically and literally confined by the bounds of my environment, which was founded on school, stress, and overall a narrowness that I was highly aware of due to my impending transition to college.
I wasn’t unhappy. In fact, I think I probably had an average level of sleep deprivation, anticipation, and excitement for a typical high school senior. However, the same perfectionism that prevented me from fully jumping into things made me reluctant to “figure it out” once I was “in it.” I felt I lacked a framework that would make me feel more connected to work and creating and this esoteric notion of “purpose.”
Making the most of college hinged on building that framework. Now in the time of quarantine, I have an indefinite amount of unstructured days ahead of me. The framework I built through the varied experiences of my gap year is helping me utilize time and progress with a more open perspective.
Taking a gap year was a big step forward for me. Initially, it represented a commitment to my growth and investment in my future at university and beyond. It fulfilled that, in expected and unexpected ways. As I sit at my desk now, the salt lamp and humidifier glowing through their rainbow sequence in tandem, I feel that sense of tranquility and connection that I desired so deeply in the beginning. Despite this feeling that the world is holding its breath, raging with fear and infection, it is like if I close my eyes and sit still enough I could be anywhere. Standing on the beach in Bali, the tide rolling bright orange rocks back and forth along the shore. In an enclave at the top floor of the WeWork building, floating above the pulsating networks of San Francisco
All throughout my time in those amazing places, I was inspired by even more amazing people making a deliberate commitment to their days. Taking steps forward didn’t always look like I expected; though I am a fan of the dramatic, much of the love and connection I witnessed in others were subtle. Those profound moments were woven together from circumstance and past and passion and future. At the intersection of these, I began to find a deep sense of purpose.
Whether it was a methodical, mindful daily routine, like that of Balinese salt and fish farmers, or the continuously evolving projects of the San Francisco startups and business community, there was never any stagnancy. I saw people dancing with life, moving forward, but more importantly, doing so despite fears and doubts.
I think I’d always felt this intense fear of failure. I thought that if I was prepared enough then I wouldn’t have to feel the pain of fear and uncertainty. Overall, I know I’m one of many who felt unprepared to jump in and “figure it out.” Now, with the circumstances of a pandemic, it’s the only option. I believe people want to move forward but are often unsure of how to do that. We’re all existing in our respective spaces, forced to rely on our frameworks, and move in a positive direction according to our sense of purpose. For me, that means getting up every day and pushing myself to create and explore. I can thank the advice of my mentors for helping me to understand new ways of doing that. I enjoy making art and coding and learning online, but this time I feel a new connection to my work that invigorates me.
Looking back, my fear was whether or not to take a leap. These days it isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of how. I can’t help but feel connected to my past self and other students, both at Year On and in school, during this time. I was offered the opportunity to expand, mentally and emotionally, through experiences not available to everyone. I hope that others who feel as I did are able to see this time as a space to prepare and learn more about themselves. If I could consolidate my lessons learned into a useful message, it would be to develop an attitude of compassion and encouragement for oneself. Recognize that there is still so much opportunity and potential in every day, and make a deliberate commitment to finding those things that resonate. Try a new class. Join a group call. Make a painting. But more importantly, try to seek out resources and outlets that allow for the expression of that purpose. Never doubt that you have something to give, and take a bold step forward.
The importance of packing light was apparent within the first few hours of our two-week trekk as I soon regretted bringing five pounds of trail mix. No matter how many times my instructors advised me to pack frugally, I needed to experience the hip bruises and aching muscles to truly understand what items were essential.
I did a mental inventory of my backpack in attempt to identify all the unnecessary items dragging me down: the set of ten colorful MUJI pens, a four hundred page Stephen King book I don’t even enjoy reading, a five dollar rain jacket that is most likely not waterproof, and two sets of extra batteries for my headlamp. As days passed and I got strong enough to help carry some extra items for my struggling group members, I realized the heaviness weighing me down the most was emotional baggage. I wasn’t able to sort through “good” and “bad” thoughts, leave the unwanted, burdensome behind and shove only helpful ideas into my backpack to bring along. The strain of spending the majority of the eight-hour hikes alone with my thoughts became too much. One day, I just sat in the middle of the trail and cried.
Trekk challenged me both physically and mentally. I cried a lot, coughed up blood, walked until my bloody blisters throbbed, lost feeling in my fingers at night, and contemplated giving up too many times to count. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of trekk. Of summiting a mountain just to go back down again. There are a lot of things you have to do in life that may be confusing at the time, but it is important to reflect on those experiences and always ask, “why?”.
It took me a while, but I believe the “why” of trekk was to learn a little bit more about yourself, show up for your group and help redistribute the weight when life gets to be too heavy, and forge deeper connections with the sacred Himalayas. Humbled by the immensity and beauty of Nepal, during trekk we came together as a family and made life a little lighter for one another.
When returning from Nepal, the most strikingly obvious difference was my physical surroundings. Nepal was lively and colorful; I would spend ten-hour bus rides mesmerized by the views. The vibrant cities gave way to lush hills which turned into the breathtaking Himalayas, whereas December in New Jersey was gloomier than I remembered and everything seemed to be washed over with a pale, cold grayness.
I missed the noises, too. I missed turning off my futile 7 A.M. alarm after waking to the sound of scrappy stray dogs and the monastery bells. I missed the shopkeepers shouting across the street to one another over the background of Nepali moped horns. I missed the extensive bargaining that preluded each and every purchase. I missed debating with my friends how to best spend our two dollars at the grocery store. The jarring silence of the suburbs was eerie.
In an attempt to assimilate back to life at home, I offered to run errands for my mom. Upon walking into ShopRite, I was immediately overwhelmed with the surplus of food. My eyes darted all over the store, trying to absorb everything at once. In Nepal, fresh daal bhat is a daily ritual eaten for lunch and dinner. Now, there was too much going on. Too many options. I walked down each aisle slowly, so that I could focus on small sections at a time.
An hour later, I realized my cart still only contained ten items. I looked around at the carts filled with mounds of food and thought about how Nepal grocery stores didn’t have shopping carts, nor was there a need for them. As I paid, the cashier made a comment about my refusal to put my produce items in individualized plastic bags. And for the first time in my life, I thought about where my trash ends up. Once I bring the bins to the end of my driveway every Tuesday night, I never think about where it all disappears to. In Nepal, I didn’t have to wonder. When the trash piles would grow too high, they were set on fire to free up space. Acrid smoke from burning plastic fille dour nostrils, quite literally forcing us to choke on our own trash.
I rushed to my car and cried in the parking lot. I cried because no one in the grocery store had talked to me besides the cashier. I cried because I missed all of the honking annoyed motorcyclists, inviting street vendors, and human interaction involved when making a trip to the local ten by twenty grocery store in Nepal. I cried because I was dumbfounded as to why I wanted strangers at the grocery store to smile at me, something I probably would’ve considered creepy in the past. I cried because I knew my homestay family, living in a small village in the outskirts of our consumer-driven society, was more influenced by climate change than anyone at the store. I cried because I felt misplaced and lost in a town that I had lived in my entire life. I cried because I was confused about who I was. I cried because I knew a piece of myself was still in, and always will be, Nepal.