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A Delayed Beginning

By Mary

Hi! I’m fresh off four months teaching English in Mexico and two weeks into living in London and only now coming around to writing my first blog post.

It’s a funny thing. I’ve learned to do more this year than I could have imagined: I taught five classes a day, lesson planned and graded, made friends across language barriers, and found a home in a place far different from the one I’d grown up in. My days in Mexico were the perfect blog material- filled with funny mishaps and random reflections, but every time I sat down to record them, a white page and a blinking cursor stared back at me. It didn’t make much sense- I’d always been the one with something to say and suddenly I couldn’t string together even a sentence.

Of course, I processed in smaller, more private ways:  I spent afternoons journaling, dramatically recounting every detail of my new life, pretending I was the main character in a great story. I rambled, for hours, on the phone, telling anyone willing to listen all the little moments of my days, silently trying to make sense of the bigger ones. I developed, or rather secured, my love of coffee, and I obsessed over curating Spotify playlists that perfectly captured the mood of a moment.  My thoughts were extensive; they just weren’t quite clear enough to form a coherent blog post.

Maybe it was just your classic case of writer’s block, or possibly this is all just an elaborate explanation for my procrastination, but regardless, I’m back. Armed with my old journal entries, Spotify playlists, and, naturally, a cup of coffee, I will, over the next few months, unpack the moments in my year so far, and take you along through the moments to come.

I’ll start with how it began. My parents had required a gap year for as long as I can remember. I was the guinea pig in their lab of parenting hypotheses- the first child who would test out all their theories and hopefully, though not certainly, come out better for it. I was a skeptical, but willing test subject.

The problem was that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to live in a different country, I ideally wanted to learn Spanish, and I wanted to do something to serve others. That hardly narrowed things down, but it would have to do. I started talking to people and I started saying yes. A friend of a friend needed an English teacher at their school in a small town in Mexico? I’ll do it. An internship at an anti-human trafficking organization in London without a place to live? I’m in. I bundled up all my wild ideas and broad ambitions and decided to call them plans. It wasn’t foolproof in the slightest, but I figured that even in the worst case scenario, I’d learn something.

And so, in mid-August, still knowing little about the school I was teaching at, the role I would play there, or any other part of my life, I filled a big orange suitcase with clothes I imagined would suit a “teacher” and walked across the Tijuana border to catch my flight to Chihuahua. Many unexpected moments and lessons (which I will of course document in the coming posts) would follow.

The only picture I could find of the previously mentioned orange suitcase, now referred to as “big orange” (not all of those bags are mine)
My first view of my new home from the plane

The Power of a Bike

By Matthew 
How do you get around without a car when nothing is nearby? That is a problem I had to face with four of my friends in a small town in the southwest corner of Costa Rica. The only guaranteed ride was to and from work, and buses definitely did not come on the hour and half hour like in my hometown. So typically, we walked. If you were lucky you could hop in a friendly (looking) passing car with a raised thumb and your best smile, but those came few and far between. We would take afternoon trips to the store or full day trips to town if we had aspirations of purchasing rare and exotic items such as cheese (which was a key ingredient in my rice bean and cheese dish served twice per day on average). This wasn’t really a problem until one day our boss took us on a drive up the coast and pointed out all these super cool places we could explore and a truckload of new things to do. Now I’m super active and absolutely not afraid of a good walk or long jog, but it quickly became obvious there was no way I was going to be able to come close to fully taking advantage of this beautiful place.
Pilon is a Costa Rican fishing village with a population of 175 people, with not a single paved road in any of the surrounding towns. I am currently about half way through my stay, working with new friends  to orchestrate a move of an acquaintance’s property, using shipping containers as short term storage while also doing renovations on two different properties in town. In our free time we would explore the jungle covered mountains and beautiful coast in the surrounding areas, surfing on one of the best surf breaks in the world and finally playing stick rock and rock bocce, some of the more barbaric games ever invented on random beaches between towns.  The last thing that made it out of the old house but not quite into the shipping containers were two rusted bikes with flat tires that we took back to our home. These bikes would be dismissed as useless hunks of metal in almost any normal garage, but to me they were beautiful stallions that had the potential to give me access to boundless adventure, exploration, and more cheese.
We spent the day after our road trip fixing up the ancient bikes and before long, I was off.  I have been biking and exploring something new about this incredible country almost every day.  We’ve been cliff jumping, hiking along rivers, scouting wildlife in the mountains and finding new beach spots.  I have been doing it all and making the most of this beautiful place I am living in because of my access to wheels. The bike has also served as an escape, as it allows me to get out of the “house” ( one bedroom, one bath, with outdoor seating and kitchen) which gets pretty crowded and overwhelming with four other boys.  The rides themselves were fun in their own right, but they offered a chance to think and reflect on life while taking focus off sweating buckets on a dirt road to anywhere. I have learned much about myself through journey to new destinations via my bike.  Thinking about where I am and where I’m going is utterly fascinating given the crazy year we’ve all had.  While the bike initially provided a means to scout move waves and buy more cheese, it ended up giving me time and space to explore my thoughts.  
The unusual year off school is quickly coming to a close and I’m starting to realize how uniquely I’ve grown by taking this alternate route to Duke.  I am as excited as I was a year ago, but now I’m a little more informed and the most basic broken down bike has helped facilitate my journey.  

Hello from Jerusalem!

By Abby

Since I haven’t been the most diligent about writing my blogs, I thought reflecting on my mechinah’s middle of the year seminar, designed to reflect on individual and group growth, would be appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I didn’t quite need the time to ponder my own journey because I journal – literally dedicating 20ish minutes every night to reflecting – and because I’ve discovered I’m naturally a reflective person – sometimes to a level where I wish I could stop feeling all my emotions because it is exhausting. Instead, I mused on the group community we have created. We essentially live in a commune; everyone has shifts for cooking and cleaning and is part of a committee pertaining to a certain aspect of our experience (community service, learning, logistics, shabbat, and group.) My reality here is enormously different than my old reality of sitting through a whole day of school and extracurriculars and coming home to a clean house  with dinner waiting on the table. Sometimes, I am lazy, and I don’t want to plan, cook, or clean – especially clean – anything. The sentiment of “somebody else will do it” occasionally, or perhaps more than occasionally, percolates through my brain. But then what if everyone has the same reaction? During one seminar session, we discussed our favorite quotes/themes from classes so far, and one quote really stuck with me: הפראייר האמיתי הוא הבן אדם שמפחד להיות פראייר“ ” meaning “the real freier (Hebrew slang term for a sucker/a chump/someone taken advantage of) is the person who is too scared to be a freier.” I understand this to mean that putting in more than you are likely to “get” is much more fulfilling than refusing to put in anything because giving part of yourself is part of the “getting.”
As a member of the group committee, my responsibility is to help plan our weekly שיחת קבוצה (group conversation). This forum is the food and water that enables the group to exist and grow. Our conversations consist of a 15 minute discussion on practical issues – often cleaning – and then we transition into some sort of activity or question that everyone participates in or answers. I’ve learned that group responsibility is not just a practical sentiment but also an emotional one; our group wouldn’t exist if not for communication, and I have improved tremendously on this front. I wouldn’t say I used to put up walls around myself but more that I never ventured out of my dotted line enclosed comfort zone. I wasn’t scared of opening up, I just always thought I could handle my own feelings, and I rarely spoke up if something was bothering me out of fear of being perceived as brash.
However, during our middle of the year seminar, many friends complimented me on how comfortable I was sharing my feelings during our many group-conversation-like sessions. And, during our “thinking time” sessions, I reflected on how beautiful it is that I have a group to which I can give so much of myself practically and emotionally.

A Day in My Life

By Hannah

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.


A Quarantine Birthday

By Siddharth

8th November has – at least in the last few years – witnessed a mellow birthday celebration. A family trip to the hills, a lunch with a few close friends, or (in the midst of last year’s application season) a simple takeout from my favorite restaurant. Over the years, the appeal of a huge birthday party with all the pomp gradually faded and was replaced by a low-key gathering with no gifts. This is all to say that a raging epidemic searing through the country at an exponential pace did little to obstruct my regular birthday plans.


The celebrations this year were much of the same, barring the lunch with my friends which was replaced with a midnight Zoom call. The rest of the day saw me taking a break from my research internship and instead deciding to inhale all of Netflix with a tubful of my mother’s signature velvet mousse. As the evening came to a close, my dad had arranged for me my favorite street food: two jumbo-sized samosas from the takeout counter of ‘The Embassy’ in Connaught Place. What followed was a family game of Monopoly, where my brother and I build up our appetites the best way we know: accusing the other person of cheating endlessly. The Monopoly session concluded just in time for my all-time favorite Domino’s Pizza order: 1 medium, thin crust Chicken Dominator with a side of chicken wings and a Choco Lava Cake to top it all off.


In the last 4-5 years, I’ve always opted in for the pleasant and easy-going party instead of an all-out birthday bash. And thankfully, despite the pandemic, this year was no different

By Leah


After a couple of weeks of strict quarantine, I’m all packed up and ready to go for the next part of my gap year! 

 I’ll set off early tomorrow morning for the first leg of my four-day drive–I’m going from my hometown of Alexandria, VA, to Knoxville, to Little Rock, to Abilene, and finally ending up in El Paso. From there I’ll meet up with my Outward Bound group, and we’ll drive together to Big Bend Ranch State Park. Then, from October 19 until December 7, I’ll be backpacking through the desert and canoeing up the Rio Grande.  



I can’t wait–I’ve never spent 50 days away from home, let alone 50 days in the wilderness with only nine other people. My goals are to learn about surviving in the great outdoors, get stronger, and get close to the other students on this trip, all while experiencing one of the most beautiful corners of the United States. 

 It’s all seemed very abstract to me up until now–I’ve spent months looking for the right gear and breaking in boots, but it’s taken me a while to understand exactly what this trip will be. I think I’ve finally truly realized that all these layers of long underwear and extra rain jackets and nylon pants will actually be worn, by me, in a far away but very real place. I just can’t wait to be there! 

 It took a while to pull all the things that I’ll need together, but I’ve actually managed to pack pretty light–basically just a couple of pairs of pants, some t-shirts, a warm jacket, and plenty of socks and long underwear. Other than clothes, a toothbrush, journal, and camera are all I need. Hopefully I’ll come back with some great photos and stories to share!  

 We won’t have phones out there, or internet or TV or newspapers, so the never-ending stream of information that I’ve enjoyed for the past several years of my life will finally be interrupted. After three months interning with a firm that produces political campaign ads, it feels crazy to imagine being so separated from the world of politics and constant breaking news. I hope there will be a way for me to find out if the candidates who I helped make ads for won their races, and to hear about any other important things that happen. 50 days is a long time–I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to get away, but also a bit worried to see what kind of a world I will come home to. 

 But for now, my most pressing concerns are simply making sure that I have all of the things I need and enough snacks for the long drive there. Best of luck to everyone else at Duke Gap Year Program in whatever you do for the next couple of months–I’ll talk to you guys again in December! 

Problem Solving in Hana

By Matthew

I spent the last few months with friends volunteering on a farm located about 7 miles west of the remote town of Hana on the island Maui.  For perspective, while offering undeniably spectacular views, Kaoli is approximately 2 hours from the nearest grocery and hardware stores, accumulates roughly 400 inches in annual rainfall, and we lived under a tarp. Open tent camping in a lush rainforest overlooking the south pacific sounded rustic to all of us, but challenges presented themselves immediately upon arrival.  After a sleepless first night battling mobile little critters, the roar of intermittent rain bursts and the sounds of creatures lurking in the background, fixing our living quarters became job number one.  We had to turn our bug infested sauna of a rain shelter into something passable for daily living if we had any hope of lasting a week.

The list of projects seemed infinite, so we focused on Maslow’s most basic needs, including food, shelter, water and sleep.  The first task was combatting the bugs, as we emerged from our sleeping quarters covered in what looked like early stages of smallpox, courtesy of some opportunistic mosquitos.  As we compared battle wounds our host informed us that bug nets were a week out at best. We improvised and focused on generating as much air flow as possible through the tent.  We grabbed machetes and hand saws and attacked the inkberry, hoe bush, and mango trees blocking the strong east-facing “Kona” winds that swept across the property.  We used the newly harvested wood to construct a platform to get our sleeping bags off the jungle floor and created shelves for our belongings and built a functional, beautiful table.  The next step was eliminating the ape plant (wild terro) surrounding the tent which generated many puddles of stagnant water birthing millions of mosquitoes.

The next challenge was finding more accessible water.  Bathing would have been nice after being covered in dirt and brush for eight hours each day, but avoiding severe dehydration was the bigger concern. Ninety degrees under a canopy of overgrowth was crushing us.  Our host had previously found a spring about a mile upstream of the property which he hoped to use to irrigate the farm eventually. By tripling the occupants on the farm connection to the water source became imperative.  We mapped out a plan, trudged up and down the mountainside for days, eventually hooking up 2,000 feet of pipe from the mouth of the spring to just above our tent. After battling water pressure issues we installed water tanks halfway up the hill, and before long we had fresh drinking water.  Days later we actually rigged up a shower system with lava rocks as flooring to avoid bamboo foot punctures and palm fronds tied to inkberry railings to obscure the view.

I don’t know if our efforts qualify for a “Home Improvement” episode, but necessity is the mother of invention and before we left we transformed our little slice of rainforest into a glorious one bedroom, half-bath palace, complete with closets, porch, dining room, surfboard and drying racks for our disgusting clothes.   That first night was horrendous, but by week three we were sleeping like babies after adapting to jungle living at its finest.


The First Month

By Shun

It’s been around a month since I’ve arrived in Japan, and I finally feel like things have started to settle down. I finished my self-quarantine, moved into a share house, found a nice place to work every day, and enrolled in the local gym. However, along the way, it was hard getting used to living alone in a new environment far from home. I no longer knew where everything was, where to eat, where to take some time to relax, I can’t walk to the park to play soccer, or practice violin at night, and there’s nothing stocked in the fridge to eat when I am hungry. 

The last of the three was the most difficult challenge I’ve had to get used to since arriving in Japan. In the US, whenever I was hungry, there was almost always something on the table, or in the fridge, I could prepare to eat. Here, I always have to go out or to the supermarket to buy groceries and cook something myself. In the beginning, it was fun to take time to cook dishes I had never cooked before (even with my subpar cooking skills), but as I’ve started to get busy, the quality of my meals (and daily schedule for that matter) have really started to deteriorate. It’s really made me appreciate the time and effort my parents put into cooking (thank you). 

Apart from the difficulties of my daily cooking/dinner adventures, I have really enjoyed my first month in Japan. Whether it was starting a project with 5 other students to help reduce the barrier for foreign exchange students to study in Japan and provide more opportunities for Japanese students to practice speaking English or taking a two-day trip with some friends to explore Enoshima Island and Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet and bond with many different people from completely different walks of life.  

Though I feel like I have so much already, I know there’s so much more left to come. Whether it’s programming, cooking, or talking to people I’ve never talked to before, I look forward to whatever awaits me next. 









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!

Preparing for the Pacific Crest Trail

By Amelia

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!