After spending some quality time with my family over the holidays, it was time to embark on the next part of my gap year. After a dozen iterations of where I was going to be for the next few weeks, I am writing to you from Stowe, Vermont. I flew across the country the first week of January to live with my friend who I met on my semester program in the fall (and who is going to Duke next year!). With COVID-related restrictions becoming stricter in many places, traveling out of the country was out of the question. The two of us got talking a few weeks ago and planned to live together for a few months and spend our time cooking, skiing, and working at remote internships. While I’ve only been here for a week or so, I thought I would share what a typical day looks like.
Around 9 I wake up, have a cup of coffee (or two), and get dressed to head out skiing. I usually eat a quick breakfast before heading to the slopes to get a couple of hours in. I’m grateful that the mountains have made skiing possible this year, it has been such a nice escape to be able to safely do something I love.
Around lunchtime, we head in from skiing and make ourselves something to eat. After that, I spend a few hours working at my internship. Every day is different, usually I have a few meetings and then do some work after. Having this experience working at a start-up is another gift that this year has brought. I am learning a lot about working on a team and it has been really rewarding to see how my work contributes to the bigger picture.
After finishing up some work we work out and cook dinner. We’ve been experimenting with lots of fun new recipes and they have (almost) all turned out great. After dinner, we usually watch an episode of The Great British Baking Show or work on a puzzle.
While I can say with certainty this is not at all how I expected to be spending this portion of my year, it has turned out to be very enjoyable. If I have learned one thing throughout this time, it is that you don’t need to be in the coolest place to find meaningful ways to spend your time (though I must say, Vermont is quite beautiful). I would urge future gap students to keep this in mind. Wherever your year takes you, find a routine that gives you balance and meaning in what you’re doing. For me, that’s a mix of being outdoors doing something I love, and learning through real-world experience at my internship. Find what that means to you, and I guarantee your time will be rewarding.
This year I got to spend my week-long winter break in my grandparents’ vacant apartment in Tel Aviv. With very few expectations and very many Corona-related restrictions, four friends and I arrived in the apartment on Thursday night, and after resetting our screwed-up sleep cycles we decided to make the most of our vacation and explore the city. We scootered from one side of the city to the other along the picturesque beach at sundown, saw our first Christmas tree of the year in Jaffa, joined our Tel Avivian friends from the program to explore the famous Rothschild Boulevard and Neve Tzedek artist neighborhood, and swam in the freezing Mediterranean Sea. With a little over two days left in our vacation, my friends were all packed up to return to Jerusalem, but I decided to stay behind for the rest of the break. My roommate exclaimed with a worried expression, “You’re going to be all alone for two days,” and I responded enthusiastically with a grin and excited eyes, “I’m going to be all alone for two days!”
These last few months in Jerusalem have been packed with so many memorable and fun experiences, but spending almost every hour of the day with friends who live with me got overwhelming at times. What I needed most of all during this short winter break was some quality time to myself. Although I wasn’t able to explore Tel Aviv fully during my two solo days because of the lockdown, I still had a bike and an apartment to myself. On the first night I watched just about every Disney Pixar Short ever made, ate lots of popcorn, and grilled a fish for the first time. The next day I went for a long bike ride (we’re allowed to leave a one-kilometer radius only for exercise) along the beach and through Hayarkon park (like the Central Park of Tel Aviv). Spending time alone, without so many distractions, gave me the clarity of mind I needed to fully appreciate all of the amazing things that have happened to me this year. Additionally, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more adult than those few days where I was living alone, making all my meals, and doing whatever I felt like doing with no one else to tell me otherwise.
As I approach the midway point of my gap year, I can say that this year has been nothing like I expected. This is definitely a good thing since I spent a lot of time preparing myself for things to fall through and for this year to feel like nothing more than a way to pass the time before college.
I am happy to say that none of that is the case. While plans did fall through and continue to change, this year so far has been rewarding to say the least. I thought I would take this time to check-in and compile a list of some of the things this year has made me grateful for.
Twenty things I’m grateful for…
- That my family is healthy and has been able to work through these tough times.
- That I had the opportunity to take a gap year.
- That I’ve gotten so much extra quality time with my family this year.
- My dogs.
- All the people that hosted me and my 10 peers in Hawaii, Oregon, and California.
- New friends and memories.
- The instructors on my trip who put up with said 11 teenagers for two months.
- Zoom and Facetime for keeping me connected to my extended family.
- My grandparents.
- The extra time to improve my cooking (see below for some of my recent favorites)
- Driving around and looking at holiday decorations.
- Good coffee.
- Sunrises and sunsets.
- The time I spend with friends, even 6 ft apart.
- Being able to vote this year.
- All the beautiful nature that’s so close to home.
- All the adventures to come this year.
- Being able to look forward to the next four years at Duke.
While this list is far from exhaustive, it captures what I’ve been thinking about lately. Even though I don’t know exactly what the next few months hold for me (I think I’m on iteration 6 of a plan at this point), I know that by the end of the year this list will only grow. I can’t wait to see how this year unfolds!
I have had exactly one math tutoring session in my life, and I remember it in vivid detail. Sitting across the table from my tutor, I could feel the heat rising in my face as I struggled to answer one of the questions that he was posing. A million thoughts began to crowd my head: “I’m sure he has the answer in his head by now”…“He knows I’m here for help, so why is he letting me sit here for so long”…“I wonder if his other students can answer this”…“Why can’t I just figure out the operations I need to do to get the answer”. By this point, the storm of thoughts had made it virtually impossible to focus on the question at hand. As this whole saga was unfolding in my mind, my tutor stared at me from across the table, stone faced. I wasn’t used to being lost in math, actually quite the opposite. A year prior, I had made the decision to enroll in a pilot class that combined Algebra II and Pre-Calculus into one year. We sped through some of the curriculum, and I was left with holes that were beginning to show through in my Calculus class. These days, my mom and I laugh about that day all the time, reminiscing about the fact that I showed up at the car red as a beet, an unfortunate side effect of being in the hot seat. In the moment, however, I vowed that I would never go to another tutoring session again, even if that meant putting in ten extra hours to learn each concept on my own.
It is with this story in mind that I show up to Mathnasium every day. I have been working there since mid-July, doing both administrative tasks and a lot of teaching. While I tutor math that ranges from kindergarten all the way through Calculus, there is one common thread that runs through all my sessions: I never want the student to feel like they can’t tackle the concept at hand. This often means coming up with an alternate explanation when my first approach doesn’t work. Whether that means drawing a picture, using physical objects, graphing in Desmos, or showing a diagram off the internet, I strive to teach in a way that works for the student, using approaches that make them comfortable.
I know from experience how frustrating it is to be lost, squirming in your seat when faced with an explanation that seems like code. I can imagine how that feeling could spiral into indifference for kids who experience it every day in class. I also know that many people write themselves off as bad at math when that’s not really true. The real issue is that they’ve never understood the concept in a way that clicked. It is incredibly rewarding for me to watch the transformation when my students realize that they don’t have to view themselves as inherently bad at math.
A few days ago, I celebrated my 19th birthday. As most of you may know, turning 19 is quite odd. In the United States, turning 18 represents adulthood, while 21 represents being able to consume alcohol legally. In Japan, turning 20 represents both adulthood and being able to consume alcohol legally. In both countries, 19 serves as an odd middle step, where you don’t gain any legal rights but still think to yourself, “damn, I’m getting old.”
As a result, I didn’t expect much out of my 19th birthday. Living away from my parents and friends, I didn’t have anyone to hang out with, not that the pandemic would have let me anyway, and as I mentioned before, 19 just represented getting older.
Here’s how it went:
December 16th, 11:55 pm: Get handed a soccer-ball-shaped cake while proceeding to be immersed in a shower of voices screaming “happy birthday!”
December 17th, 12:00 pm: Wake up to a phone call from the postal service, regretting wasting half of my birthday sleeping. Go downstairs to be handed a huge box filled with cupcakes sent from my family in the US.
December 17th, 7:00 pm: Go to my grandparents’ house to eat sushi and cake.
Though I do love my family and friends, I don’t write this to boast about how great they are. Rather, having a surprisingly eventful birthday in a time where events are hard to come by, really helped me reflect and appreciate the value of friends, family, and personal connections.
Before blowing out the candles on my cake, a friend asked, “What kind of year was 2020 for you?”
To me, 2020 has been a year of new encounters, both physical and metaphorical. I was able to meet this school, the wonderful community it offers, this country, a place I always held a connection with, and friends, new, old, online, and offline.
2020 has been a difficult year, but it has taught me to appreciate and be thankful for everything that I have. Though not everything has turned out the way I expected, I am thankful for the way it did, and look forward to what the rest of my gap year and 2021 has to offer.
On October 31, the French government imposed a 6-week national lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. Considering the rapidly-increasing case count, the strict measures were absolutely necessary. However, since I was living alone in Paris at the time, this meant I would have to spend the next six weeks quarantined in my 12 x 12 foot apartment with no human interaction besides the cashier at the grocery store.
I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the isolation— and I was even considering returning to the US— when I received a call from a family friend who lives in Belgium. Having heard I was in Europe and realizing I would be quarantining alone, he offered to let me live with his family during the lockdown. So, 3 hours later, I had packed up my apartment in Paris and caught the last train for Brussels before the lockdown began.
My friends live in a renovated 150-year-old barn in the Belgian countryside about an hour from Brussels. While they live on a small plot of unfarmed land, their house is surrounded by independent farmers, and I frequently see tractors plowing crops outside my window.
I have found that the Belgian countryside is the ideal setting to spend a lockdown— farmland stretches for miles, and the rural culture provides little opportunity to catch the virus: for instance, instead of going to a crowded grocery store, we bike to a nearby farm for meat and eggs, and we buy bread from a bakery in a tiny local bakery which is almost always empty. I have especially enjoyed taking advantage of the outdoors during my time here, as the landscape is incredibly beautiful!
Additionally, while the house is far more isolated than my apartment in Paris, my French has improved during this time more than it ever would have had I remained in Paris, even if there hadn’t been a lockdown. The children in the family I am staying with speak only French, so I am constantly immersed in the language as I communicate with them.
Though this certainly wasn’t how I imagined my trip to Europe, it has been an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I am so grateful that my friends have allowed me to stay with them during this time!
When I embarked on this Hawaiian journey I hoped it would be filled with amazing experiences and adventure, sunsets, surfing, warm evenings and the maybe even sounds of a ukulele playing in the background. Looking back, it was nothing like I expected. Yes, it was spectacular, and of course it was warm, but some aspects of adventure and companionship were more nuanced than expected. I knew some things about everyday life when camping on a remote farm were going to be wildly different from home, but I never expected three of my passions – driving, surfing and simply meeting friends would be so complex in Hana.
Our host purchased a 1998 Ford Ranger for us to use and we were all so excited for this freedom and mobility. I got a taste of the craziness that lie ahead the moment we left the airport. We drove two and a half hours home along the Hana Highway to get to our new residence. This road is world famous for its 620 curves, 59 one lane bridges, and the breathtaking views from this treacherous road. I got to experience that road 24 more times over the course of 3 months. Sometimes I would be the white-knuckled driver, other times I’d watch fearfully from the passenger seat, and every third trip from the bed of the truck – looking backwards, lolling back and forth on the verge of vomiting with unrelenting rain showers pouring down on me. Seeing that road the first time set the tone for the trip and forced me to wrap my head around the twists and turns to come. The journey quickly evolved from something cool and visually mesmerizing to a nauseating rollercoaster that seemed to never end. But by the end of the trip we had trimmed the drive to two hours and felt like masters of the jungle stock car race.
While Hana is known for its plentiful natural resources, people are few and far between, and US mainlanders even less so. We had hoped to make some local friends eventually, and after several days in a row of playing Frisbee and making diving football catches in the waves after work with a group of locals curiously looking on from afar, someone finally came up and asked to join in our game. We were so excited. Before long we were grilling out on the beach with about 20 other “woofers” (Working-On-Farm) from the Hana area. That initial connection turned our rather predictable farming and swimming routine into Frisbee Fridays, Volleyball Sundays, Soccer Wednesdays, and big wave Thursdays. It was awesome and it was a game changer for us. They were great folks loving the land the way we’d hoped to, leading us on cliff jumping expeditions deep in the rainforest or along ocean coves, searching for secret beach spots and trading farming secrets over an evening fire. Their willingness to befriend us and share their own network and adventure took us to all corners of the island.
Surfing was something we all learned to love very quickly and occupied many weekend hours. Saturday afternoons we would finish work, throw our day packs, cameras and surfboards in the truck and hit the winding road in search of waves. We would drive all over the island chasing breaks appropriate to our abilities. As our surfing skills grew so did our appetite for bigger waves. Pacing the wave or standing on a board was easy in the grand scheme of things. Our understanding of where to set up in the lineup, how to read the water, identifying consequential landmarks became critical areas of focus. Many of those tasks did not come easy, as the help from the local crowd was nonexistent, not very welcoming to outsiders and far different from the Hana “woofer” crowd. Every new break we went to posed different problems and challenges, whether it was the paddle out, navigating the crowds of surfers, finding non-deadly exit points, or avoiding the ever present reefs. One by one, through much trial and error we were able to steadily progress without getting killed and soon were catching waves beyond our wildest dreams. Some of my best memories from the trip materialized from not just surfing but the adventure of finding secluded spots, beating others to the break after a rainstorm and checking out the sights from various parts of the island.
Our host had suggested that dietary changes were coming our way upon arrival in Hana, as were eating schedules, work routines, bathroom protocols and basic daily hygiene. I will admit that all of those required some measure of adjustment, but the act of simply getting to and from the beach, meeting new friends and surfing waves ended up being far more challenging than I could have imagined. But everything we learned in that arena was worth the additional effort. I can now drive with laser focus and have perfected the hairpin turn as if driving a golf cart. I can size up a surf break and manage to navigate the water, natural obstacles and enthusiastic inhabitants like a native. And I have learned most important of all to embrace new and different people, to realize how everyone loves to play, and to keep putting myself out there in search of new relationships and experiences. The easier stuff somehow became the challenging stuff, but it made Maui a better experience and will stay with me forever.