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My last blog! It’s really long but I go into great detail to provide a complete summary of the whole year. I share why I decided to take a gap year, how the year went, how I felt at every stage and my concluding thoughts. The fact that I am submitting this blog a month late expresses what I am trying to say with this blog perfectly. This year hasn’t been perfect. Far from it. It was a challenge and it kept me on my toes, and that’s why it was better than my idea of perfect. This sounds cringe, I know… But if you read the blog it might make sense 🙂
This month I began work as a lift operator at a ski resort in Utah. I maintain the ramps that you ski on to load or unload the lift; manage the buttons that start, stop, and control the speed of the lift; and bump chairs on fixed-grip lifts, meaning I hold back the chair to slow it down for you on lifts where the chair remains at full speed in the loading zone. My job is simple. My life is really simple. When work ends, I stop thinking about it. There is no homework or work outside of work. My headspace is free on my off time. On my days off, I ski, and all of my energy and thought goes towards existing presently in those moments. I love my job and I love what my job enables me to do: ski. I am simply and purely happy. I worry that this happiness is situational and that when I go back to a higher-stress, faster-paced, more real-world environment I will revert back to a more stressed, closed-off, success-oriented version of myself. My environment here has changed me: I am less anxious and stressed, I live entirely in the present, and I have built stronger foundations for friendships and hobbies than ever before by prioritizing them. My goal for this winter is to keep identifying the ways that my environment has changed me and solidify these changes into who I am so I can keep being this better version of myself no matter my environment. I am still figuring out how to accomplish this goal, but I think the answers are consciousness and habit. If I’m aware of how I’m acting and changing, I am in control and can consciously make choices that are in line with who I want to be. Making those positive choices over and over again will make acting on those traits and values habit, which will make those traits and values a part of me with time. My current environment is one of a kind: my colleagues are ski bums, our work attire is Under Armor, we ski on work breaks and days off, and I have boots and a helmet in my backpack instead of books. I am living my dream, but the best part is the change in myself I am seeing when I’m doing what I love all the time. I hope that these positive changes will stick and remind me of this winter for the rest of my life.
Growing up as a member of Gen Z, I’ve been surrounded by the internet since birth. Unlike my grandparents, and even my parents, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t just type, click, and be bombarded with a stream of answers. The onset of COVID has made technology and the internet even more relevant to daily life than I could have ever imagined. As I finished my senior year of high school from home, I began to realize just how mediocre my understanding of how it all works really is.
I decided to gain a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of the hundreds of websites I’ve visited throughout my life. So, this past semester I’ve been immersed in a Web Development course through my local community college. In short, I’ve learned that things are a lot more complicated than they appear to the average user.
As I began to dive into the rules that govern HTML and CSS, I began to notice many similarities to my journey learning French. Instead of learning how to communicate in a foreign language with other humans, I was learning how to communicate my content and style desires to a computer. In both cases, the process begins with having to look up every other word, but eventually you start to build up a vocabulary and a comfort level.
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 silver lining I’ve elected to focus on in the midst of this torrential chaos and uncertainty engendered by COVID-19 is the precious, quality time I’ve been able to spend with my family, as the strict quarantine mandate has thrown a monkey wrench in our pre-pandemic, hectic work schedules. Instead of prioritizing getting ahead in our job or school, our new reality is finding creative ways to bond (watching various TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, staying up late to play Taboo, congregating in the kitchen to prepare meals together, etc.) so that we don’t go stir-crazy seeing one another 24/7 within the confines of our home. Inescapable family time not only couldn’t have been experienced at a more opportune moment than in the months immediately preceding my departure for college, but of equal importance, it’s allowed me to realize and appreciate one of the main reasons my Gap Year has been so transformative, enriching, and unforgettable: the close relationships and friendships that I’ve built at every step of this year-long journey. If my naïve 12th-grader self would’ve had even the slightest idea about how much fun she’d soon have sincerely getting to know people from all walks of life while interning at law firms, working on a US Senate political campaign, founding an academic nonprofit called Mack’s School Prep, and volunteering in Costa Rica for 2 months, she definitely would’ve known what was in her best interest and wouldn’t have been so hesitant about pursuing a Gap Year at first. Apparently, hindsight really is 20/20!
Job at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP:
- During our one-hour lunch breaks together, my co-worker/deskmate Allie would talk to me about her fanatical obsession with all things true crime, which ultimately got me hooked on what is still my favorite podcast: Crime Junkie. Thanks to Allie spurring my own interest in true crime stories, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the cases of people like Adnan Syed, in which the facts don’t present an unequivocal answer regarding whether the suspect is innocent or guilty.
Job at Horne Rota Moos LLP:
- Catherine, the attorney who helped me secure my job at this law firm, taught me the importance of embracing spontaneity, as planning my future to the “T”, especially when it comes to my education and career goals, means not leaving room for exploration.
- Terri, my day-to-day supervisor and the office mom, always took advantage of opportunities to impart encouraging words, such as nobody can make me feel inferior without my consent, to me.
Internship on US Senate political campaign:
- Witnessing Amanda Edwards, the candidate challenging John Cornyn for his seat to represent Texas in the US Senate, gracefully persevere after being denied support and financial assistance time and time again during phone banking really underscored the value of using rejection as fuel to work harder to achieve the goals I set my mind to.
Mack’s School Prep (MSP):
- When I was working to get MSP in front of students at South Early College High School, Nia and JeTaury, two Class of 2020 seniors with multiple connections to the student body as well as the faculty, generously and graciously offered to use their influence to help me advertise my academic program before I even had a chance to gain my bearings at their campus. Their unwavering selflessness and thoughtfulness without expecting any compensation in return inspired me to continue blessing people with unexpected acts of kindness, no matter how small, because they truly go a long way in terms of uplifting others’ spirits.
Volunteering in Costa Rica:
Megan, a New Yorker who became one of my good friends during the trip, has a disease known as Cystic Fibrosis that is medically predicted to result in her having a shorter than normal life expectancy. Megan’s steadfast optimism (in spite of having a grave reason not to) and admirable willingness to take risks, try new things, and get out of her comfort zone without any fear made me want to live each day with no regrets, which is why (in addition to being an adrenaline junkie) I went bungee jumping from a height of 469 feet in Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Taylor was a volunteer from Florida who I cherished spending time with because of her contagious aura of love. Her natural ability to retaliate against belligerence with kindness motivated me and others to not permit negativity to steal our joy.
Given that my Gap Year is practically over at this point, it elates me to have had the special opportunity to interact with an eclectic array of incredible people who have provided me food for thought, touched my heart in more ways than one, and opened my eyes to what it means to lead a fulfilling life. And for that, I couldn’t be prouder of my decision to take a Gap Year and more grateful for the immense amount of support I’ve received throughout it! Thank you to all.
At home, I’ve taken to driving around. There’s not much else to do and it’s nice to have some space for myself. I’ve discovered new nooks of neighborhoods I thought I knew and mentally bookmarked interesting houses on street corners.
I’ve noticed big changes in myself after my gap year that show in small ways. It’s in the way I drive around town, the way I shop for groceries, the way I listen to podcasts while brushing my teeth.
A year ago, I would tell you that I am directionally and spatially challenged, and completely reliant on google maps to get from point A to B (even though I’ve lived in the same place my entire life). I drove in a frenzy most of the time because I was always running late. As I drove last night, I realized I didn’t have my GPS up. I was conscious of what highway I was on (I-85), and I knew that I was headed south. This may be an irrelevant revelation to most people, but for me, who never knew the names of highways, who never could point north or south, I was surprised at how much I had learned just from paying a little more attention.
On I-85 I knew my life had come into slightly clearer focus. Not just because I was more aware of my surroundings and my physical place in them, but because I had become a more intentional person. I was less concerned with where I was headed, and more interested in how I got there.
My gap year gave me the time to think about where I’m going, but more importantly, to reflect on how I would get there. I noticed small things about my everyday routine, like relying on my GPS, and had the time to pause and think about them. My time in Paris taught me to think about the foods I buy from the grocery store–I learned more about seasonal and sustainable eating habits from my host mom. I’ve learned to prioritize my interests and dedicate my time to doing things I love, every. single. day. That’s the magic of a gap year; you take a beat from the frantic high school highway, step outside your life a little bit, and shift your focus to things that actually matter to you.
This year, I committed to reading fifty books, listening to podcasts while I get ready for bed, paying attention to road signs while I drive, and above all, making sure I am actively engaged with my life. This year has restored my sense of autonomy in some ways–I no longer feel like a passenger being swept along a predetermined path. I try not to do things that feel passive, or uninteresting, or serve no purpose.
I’m so grateful for all the experiences I was able to have this year. I know it deeply changed me as a person, and I’m eager to keep thinking about my life within the framework I built during my gap. I can’t wait to get to Duke and think about my everyday choices with intention, as I am doing today.
In my final years of high school, I felt disconnected from the rest of the world, and felt compelled to understand the cultures and traditions of other countries. I wanted to escape my niche and explore the world and see all the beauty that I have been away from. I knew I wanted to take a gap year, and it was the greatest decision I ever made. Traveling alone wouldn’t have done it, though. It takes work to travel richly, deeply, and thoughtfully. On my travels before then, I encountered a plethora of people extremely different from myself. They were all wrapped up in their phones the entire time, not taking it in the sights surrounding them. I wanted to immerse myself into experiences I have only dreamed of before, and to have real, substantial conversations about the conservation work I was doing with people who had come to it from a very different perspective.
“You’re taking a gap year? Why?”
“Don’t you want to start college?”
“What are you going to do all year?!?”
These were some of the responses I got when I said that I was not going to college right after high school. In truth, it was a hard decision to make. I had doubts, but I wanted to travel and see the world and meet as many people as I could and discover who I was as a person. A learning experience. I had my doubts, though. What would it be like away from all my friends and peers from high school? It was hard to watch my classmates launch into their first semester at college.
Despite these doubts, I’m so grateful I made the choice to do a gap year. It gave me incredible, once in a lifetime experiences, as well as low points where I struggled. One of my goals was to focus more on giving back rather than on tourism. In Greece, my program was working with our host village to run a summer camp for the kids and one of our tasks was to remodel their community center, so when we left, they would have a nice facility to enjoy. An important aspect of my time in Greece was to avoid barging into this community for a brief amount of time and then leave. We helped the children learn new language skills by doing arts and crafts with them in English. We also helped to create a space they could use for years to come. The community center had a basketball and tennis court when we arrived, but they were falling apart; they were covered in glass and graffiti. We cleaned, painted, and added new nets. Although it was menial work, it was really rewarding to watch the kids see the finished product and know they would have a safe place to run and play around safely for years to come. They kept all the crafts they had made with us, too, but the courts would be for future generations of kids who had been unable to come to the camp. Our gift of time and effort would last for years to come, and it was such a humbling experience. They gave us a gift too, which showed their gratitude towards us and the hard work we put into the community. They opened their homes to us, and we became family. My host family made me feel as if I were at home and they were people I could trust. My host brother and sister assumed the role of makeshift little siblings to me and I created many fun memories with them that will last a lifetime. I am still in contact with my host parents and we message each other from time to time, and I think that is something that is so amazing. We created such a tight-knit bond with complete strangers in ten days, which made the relationship so different from anything else I had experienced. It was something special.
In the next parts of my gap year, I focused more on environmental conservation, as preserving the environment has always been extremely important to me. During my Fall in Australia, we focused on learning and studying predator-prey relationships, and the way the ecosystem has no control over invasive species. We worked hard to bring back the indigenous plants by removing the invasive and harmful introduced plants. I loved being able to ask questions of the people who work in these beautiful places. I’d remove a tangle of weeds, uncover a rock, and then a biologist would explain that rocks are a key part of the ecosystem; reptiles will bask in the sun on the rock, and then their predators will come, too, and eventually the whole system is back in balance. We had to work fast, too; I was there in the fall, when the soil was very dry, and that made removal easier. We knew that if we didn’t hurry, the rains would tighten the grip of the roots and cause even more growth of these harmful weeds.
My work in South Africa gave me a more powerful sense of making a difference than my work in Australia. I worked at a sea bird hospital, tending to injured and sick birds of several endangered species. Feeding motherless chicks on a two-hour cycle, bandaging injured wings, chasing gulls toward the rehab pool who were healthy enough to escape but not healthy enough to be on their own, all felt important. Some days I was exhausted, my hands bruised and swollen from penguin nips, but I was helping save these species. I loved watching the penguins move in the water, so graceful and beautiful, then step out of the water with their clumsy waddling motion. I got to watch birds go from very sick to the rehab stage to the vet check, and when we were lucky, to the release box. Envisioning them waddle out on the beach to live in the wild again was so satisfying. I felt so lucky to actually have an impact like that.
Despite the positives, it was uncomfortable and hard sometimes. I stepped off the plane in Australia knowing absolutely no one. I had never been so far from home, and I was completely isolated. I remember sitting in a room with total strangers who eventually became my good friends. By the time I got to South Africa, I became more confident about being in a strange country far from friends, but I had to deal with a really difficult volunteer, and it really challenged me to figure out how to navigate this unknown country without my family and friends.
Back when I had just decided to take the gap year, I was nervous of what people would think and what they would say about my choice. When they asked, my response was always something along the lines of, “I want to travel and see the world and learn a lot about myself and the planet along the way.” In truth, though, the experience went so far beyond my high expectations. I have friends literally from all over the world–Amsterdam, Germany, London, Australia, South Africa. I understand the world differently and am forever grateful they helped me overcome the obstacles I faced, and most importantly become my family away from home.
I had many new experiences during my gap year, I lived on my own for the first time, I took college courses in Spanish, I met new people and tried new things, but the takeaway that I will carry with me for the rest of my life is the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Last summer, my plan was to live in Spain from late August until April. I was going to play hockey and take classes. By December however, I was a different person who wanted different things. I changed my original plan as new opportunities came up. I missed class to travel to Milan, Zurich, and the Canary Islands. Before I left for these trips, I often considered that I could just go some other time in order to not miss class and stick to my plan. These small adjustments had prepared me for the most consequential change to my plan that I made, the decision to forgo the rest of the hockey season and another semester of classes in order to go on a NOLS trip to Patagonia. Again though, I nearly didn’t do it. I felt like I was abandoning my original plan, like I was giving up, like I was failing. Even after I put down the deposit for the trip, I still felt like I had failed. It actually wasn’t until I was in Patagonia that I realized that it is not failure to change plans. I had grown over my gap year, and as a result I was ready to experience new things. I found an opportunity and I went with it, and as a result I had one of the best months of my life.
If you are planning to take a gap year, I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard to tell who you will be 6 months from now, especially during a such time of personal growth and change that a gap year is. So, if you are part way into a plan that you made months ago and you begin craving something different, you should go with it. You haven’t failed or by changing your plan, you have actually grown to the point where you are ready for new experiences. This growth is much more meaningful than putting your head down and sticking to a plan that you made back when you were a different person.
One year ago, I was struggling with the decision on what to do with my year after high school. There was the obvious and easy path, simply attend Duke with the rest of the 2019 high school graduating class or push my back arrival at Durham for an extra year. The idea of a Gap Year both intrigued and frightened me, I knew that it would be one of the only times in my life where I could actively spend time traveling the world, immersing myself in new cultures, and meeting many different people. As I began to research all of the amazing opportunities and programs that I could pursue, my fears of feeling “rusty” in terms of academics quickly faded. I placed faith in myself that although the goal of my year would be to experience novel ideals and cultures, with goals to reflect on my own life, I would also keep my brain working with various scholastic activities, such as taking Spanish classes in Barcelona or creating a Capstone Project on the types of farming in East Africa. So, I took a leap of faith and applied to the Duke Gap Year Program; I had created a rough plan of what my year was going to be upon acceptance and the final step was to just go. I broke down my year with two semester long programs: ARCC East Africa in the fall, and EF Gap in Spain for the spring.
I left for San Francisco and ARCC in early September, I can still remember the mixture or nervousness and excitement going through my head. I had never slept in a tent before yet knew that for the next three months I would be in Eastern Africa sleeping in tents with 7 other students who I had never met. I soon realized, however, that my experiences in Africa would be nothing like what I expected. I told myself that I needed to let go of expectations and go with the flow. I spent my three months living in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania participating in service-oriented activities and learning about the cultures and the people who live there. My second semester, on the other hand, was very different in nature. Though I lived in homestays for both semesters, in Africa the goal of the homestays was to immerse myself in the unique societies, but in Spain it served mostly as a place to live and commute to classes. Not to say that I did not interact with my host family, but my relationship was mostly that of a friendly exchange student. I absolutely loved both of my semesters for being so different, and I believe these differences complimented my overall experience extremely well.
If my gap year taught me anything, it’s to actively try and put yourself in new, uncomfortable situations. Because it’s moments when you are out of your comfort zone that you learn the most about yourself and the people around you. I think that my experiences and struggles I faced will help me immensely at Duke and after. I definitely recommend taking a journal and putting yourself in those uncomfortable situations, so that you can write down your experiences and all that you learn about not only the world and people around you but yourself as well.