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Shun’s 2020 reflection

By Shun

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.









The Sun Rises on Autumn

By Lukas


As the sun sets on summer and the pace of “normal” life begins to resume, I have found myself constantly in turmoil about the near future, the years of college, and the distant “career” that supposedly comes after all of this. No matter what career my existential daydreaming has chosen, I find my thoughts wrapped in music. My headphones might be playing music from a 15 hour long orchestral playlist, or my hands are laying down my violin in my case before a quick break. No matter the scenario, this truly unique form of art has captured me and will never let go.

Films and music have been areas of study and entertainment and art that have altered the way I approach living. I see this influence, however, as more of a woven fabric rather than an external force. The subtlety of art in my life has evolved into an enhancement of lived experiences rather than a charging bull of change. When I received my diploma from my music school in June, the lack of closure made each goodbye seem superficial and undeserved. Three months later, the fear of losing one of the constants in my life has made its way into my existential daydreams and thoughts. That consistency is one I aim to keep through my gap year in the spring. This summer, I dedicated myself to one piece: the first movement from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Quite literally since I began playing the violin have I listened to this piece. Depending on the interpretation, it can run from 15 to 20 minutes long, and it is truly something to behold. I began in the summer of 2019, but other shorter, more reasonable pieces took its place. Having no commitments this year to present myself in front of my music school’s jury in the winter, I threw myself at the massive 15 page challenge. Not only was this one of the most musically and technically complex pieces I had tackled, but also did I decide to learn it by myself. The precedent I set for myself while learning a piece took control. Memorization would not be forced; rather, I would let daily repetition of complex passages and daily playing of the piece on Spotify or YouTube take control. I have months to go until I see performance even as a possibility, but being able to play the piece through with most of the memorization already having taken place sets me up for a successful polishing.

As my artistic ideas for the spring begin to shape into plans, my fall plans have been cast. I have spent the last month preparing myself for a three month voyage. As part of High Mountain Institute’s Wilderness and Conservation program, I will spend my fall in the vast American West. My trip will take me through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. I begin in Leadville, CO, and through several excursions over the course of the three months, including backpacking, rock climbing, and rafting, I will finish in Phoenix, AZ. My last month has seen an increase in my physical activity, including biking, taking long walks through my neighborhood, or “hiking” in Central Park and through Midtown. I am thrilled to have a change of scenery and continue to learn about the natural world that surrounds us.

Why Take A Gap Year

By Matthew


Although I will not be attending classes this year I will never stop learning and nothing, not even another stay-at-home mandate will prevent me from growing intellectually. I’m learning and growing from every experience I’m having this summer.  Everything from navigating social interactions, precarious backcountry situations, catering to guests’ needs and cooking food on outdoor fires (in a summer snowstorm no less) is helping me navigate the future.  I am learning to appreciate the benefits of preparation and communication while attempting to resolve problems with upset guests from my job as a bellman at a local high end hotel. That alone will help me in the dorms, classrooms and labs when I get to school.

Over the past few weeks, as many of my friends leave home and settle into life as college freshmen, I have been reading, hearing and watching scores of entertaining stories about the various amazing experiences they all seem to be having.  This was inevitably going to be the first gut check where I’d likely be second guessing my decision to take a gap year.  As my family and friends predicted, it hit me hard.  But it also forced me to review my sentiments when deciding to take this year off and remind myself what I hoped to gain from it. My anxiety hasn’t lasted too long, thankfully.  I remembered that I’ll eventually get my chance to be a freshman at Duke and that I’m actually not missing out on anything.  My initial intention to create time, space and experiences between high school and college to grow as a person and gain knowledge and perspective along the way to help maximize my time at Duke is still front and center as I embark on my journey.

One of the biggest keys to success in college and life that many high schools don’t effectively teach is intrinsic motivation.  For students to truly make the most out of their years in college they need to know what they want to do and how to get there, but also, most importantly, why they want to do it.  Knowing and being able to articulate the “why” gives students both the focus and drive to maximize their educational experience. In high school and college most students are motivated extrinsically, by grades, others aspirations, and following the status quo or society’s general idea of success, not driven by personal interests. Those motivations lead to many students losing interest in their classes and simply being unhappy. In a gap year, especially this one in 2020,  there is no clearly defined path to success.  The path to knowledge, self-awareness and enjoyment needs to be crafted by the individual and is largely going to be free of judgement.  I am navigating the current climate by choosing to pursue areas of intrigue or curiosity, and not chasing the wishes of others. As students are able to identify and follow their inner guidance chips they will be owning their choices, chasing their moments, learning by trial and error and likely setting themselves up to truly flourish in college and life as more informed stewards of their intrinsic motivations.

I wish all my buddies a wonderful year of discovery.  Right now my plans span from mountain peaks, to the far Pacific and back to Europe, with much detail still to be filled in.  I look forward to seeing what I learn, how I adapt and where I might grow as a friend/son/brother/student over the coming year.



Early Days

By Kayla

Ballet class before sunrise is definitely a shock to my system. Last week, I started dancing with American Repertory Ballet’s virtual trainee program in Princeton, New Jersey, but I still live in California. I’m slowly getting used to the early start each day, shifting my sleep schedule for the year.

Even though I am dancing at home, dancing as a trainee is already different from dancing as a conservatory student. New choreography and classes accompany the daily ballet barre, and I enjoy working with the variety of teachers and professional dancers. Learning repertoire from the ARB company dancers is especially interesting, as they recently performed the pieces that they are teaching us. Dancing as a trainee is a preview into what the schedule of a company dancer is like.

We’ve already started learning classical repertoire and contemporary choreography. Learning so much new choreography adds to my creativity – I’ve really enjoyed the variety of works we’ve learned so far. Because I don’t have a physical spot in the pieces, the typical stress of casting is lifted, and I can concentrate on the choreography and the tone of the pieces. I plan to focus on my personal artistry this year without the goal of a solo and with the goal of finding more depth in my dancing.

Zoom rehearsals aren’t the standard corps de ballet experience, but I’m finding different ways to learn from others. I can apply the other dancers’ corrections to myself, and observe their strengths to finetune my own dancing. I can also work to make sure my timing and musicality match that of the other dancers – provided that the internet doesn’t lag too much!

Occasionally, it is difficult to dance with expression and presentation within the walls of my home, but my teachers’ corrections and the pianists’ music push me to dance for an audience beyond the Zoom screen. I can’t wait to continue working in my virtual trainee program!

Embracing My Artistic Side

By Camille

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had begun taking an online Adobe Illustrator course. I have now finished the class, and I wanted to share some of my pieces! Over the span of the course, each week we were given three assignments and a longer project to complete. By the end of the course I amassed a portfolio of work showcasing the different techniques we studied. 

I also wanted to use this post to highlight my progression! I’ve never really considered visual art to be my forte. This was highlighted by going to an arts high school, where we were separated by discipline. Admiring the work of the art students, I always considered the visual arts to be outside of my realm. Music and dance were always how I expressed myself. 

Going into my gap year, I set the goal of spending part of my time furthering the things I already love doing and using the rest to explore things outside of my comfort zone. This class definitely helped push me beyond my comfort zone and also allowed me to develop a new skill along the way. In school, I became wired to work towards concrete criteria that became familiar overtime. For this class, I was suddenly being evaluated on my use of perspective, incorporation of shadow, balance of tones and shades, artistic vision- concepts that were completely foreign at the start and seemed somewhat impossible to execute. 

To end the class, the task for our final was to design an imaginary world for a character to inhabit. The goal was to tie together much of the work we had done with character design, landscape, and typography. At first, I struggled with conceptualizing something imaginary that I wanted to work on. Perhaps more than ever, reality- and what it looks like today- has been at the forefront of my mind. After some deliberation, I decided to use the Blue Devil as my character and transport elements of reality to an imaginary location. My final piece features elements of Duke’s campus in space- a loose interpretation of things that really do exist. Besides being fun to make, it showed me how far I had come in a little over a month. Things that I had struggled with at first were second nature, and my work time had shortened dramatically. Looking forward to the future, I am excited to put the skills I have developed to use, as I now have the foundation needed to design posters, create business cards, and develop other versatile vector visuals. 

 Below is our very first assignment, where we learned to create basic shapes, and the two art boards I turned in for the final.

Three Weeks, Two Different Worlds

By Abby

First step of freedom! During quarantine, we were allowed on our small porch, but not on the stairs.

A lot of people say the secret to happiness is living with low expectations, but I disagree; how can you possibly be happy if you maintain a pessimistic outlook? Instead, I have adopted the no expectations approach. In my last blog, I had grumbled about the lack of information given to me about my program, but my ignorance worked to my benefit regarding my two-week quarantine. I wasn’t disappointed at the dingy apartment we were placed in, and I was surprised and pleased when the program manager mentioned we could sit outside. When I told anyone that I had quarantined for two weeks they flashed a pitying smile and asked if I went crazy. But, in fact, I enjoyed two of my most relaxing weeks ever. Although I was cooped up, I experienced an unexpected sense of freedom. Usually, when you have time off from school or you’re on vacation, you feel pressure to do something: meet up with friends or family, have a cultural experience, cook something… But since we couldn’t do anything in quarantine, we could just be. My roommate and I spent our days reading, exercising, sitting outside, and watching Israeli tv shows (pro tip: watch a show on reduced speed to improve your language skills).


Of course, despite a rather pleasant quarantine, we left the second we could. We had a free week before our program started, so like any youngster in Israel with time to kill, we headed to Tel Aviv! We had a blast doing the usual activities: going to the beach, buying fruit and chachkas in Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market), and roaming the slightly disheveled, art-deco streets. We did, however, have one rather unusual experience. My friend read about an outdoor play at the Jaffa Theatre in the Jerusalem Post and asked if we could go. I had lacked cultural stimulation for the previous five months due to Corona, so I jumped at the chance to see a play. I was surprised that I not only loved the play but also understood most of it! We were so impressed with the acting that we approached the actors and asked them to sign a program as a memento. They stared back at us incredulously, so flattered that they invited us to their next show! I hope we can make it, but I’m not setting any expectations in stone.



Meeting the actors!
The most magical place on earth – the Tel Aviv beaches!

Being Flexible – It’s Not as Bad as It Seems

By Amelia

In my last blog post, I wrote about preparing for a backpacking trip along a 65-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. But because of the wildfires raging all across the state, I had to make a few changes to my plan. Instead of backpacking along the PCT and braving the hazardous air quality (as well as the risk of being too close to a fire with no way of escaping), I will be going on a road trip along the coast of the Pacific Northwest!

In other news, I recently graduated from an accelerated EMT program called Project Heartbeat! For five weeks, my classmates and I spent seven hours listening to lectures and four hours practicing skills every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, passed a written midterm and final, survived the notoriously tough Trauma Day, demonstrated what we’d learned during the last day of skills testing, and completed three ambulance ride-alongs. As grueling as the program was, it was also one of the most fulfilling, fun, and interesting things I’ve ever done. I got the chance to meet people from all walks of life who share a passion for emergency medicine, to learn about the human body and how it responds to injury and illness, to test my physical and mental limits, and to practice actual patient care – something I thought would be impossible until I had at least graduated from college. Just over a week ago, I took the national EMT exam (known as the NREMT) and am now officially certified as an EMT!

What surprised me most was how much I enjoyed taking the EMT course even though it was never part of my original gap year plan. I had been looking forward to spending this summer travelling with friends and family but, because of the COVID travel restrictions, I had to be a little flexible. Flexibility has never been one of my strong suits – I’m the type to plan out all four years of classes before even starting freshman year and map out every activity and meal in a two-week long vacation. But despite my initial disappointment at not being able to travel, retrospectively I can see that the COVID travel bans were a blessing in disguise – without them I would never have had the opportunity to become certified as an EMT or meet the people I did. And although the California wildfires made my backpacking trip impossible, I am looking forward to seeing a new side of the Pacific Northwest from the road. Turns out a little flexibility can be a good thing!

A Very Long Drive

By Sofia

Today I embark on the first leg of my gap year—a 50 day excursion in the Southwest with Outward Bound. I woke up this morning, got a little misty-eyed saying goodbye to my family, pretty much cried saying goodbye to my puppy, and got in the car with my mom.

Our first stop was urgent care. Don’t worry—nothing terrible happened—I just needed to get some stitches removed after a little accident in the kitchen last week. (Very amateur) Chef’s tip: watch where your fingers are when using sharp knives, or maybe any knife.

From there, the trip was a go. My mom and I settled in and began the trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to the middle of Colorado. It’s a lot of miles. We did the first half today, a solid twelve hours on the road.

In my house, road trips mean podcasts and in true fashion, my mom and I began listening to our favorite show—RadioLab. We stumbled upon “Octomom,” detailing an awe-inspiring discovery of maternal love. As I learned today, almost every species of octopus dies shortly after mating and reproducing. Usually, octopus mothers starve themselves to death vigilantly watching over and protecting their eggs until they hatch—a process that usually takes a few months. This particular mother, however, endured far more than the typical months-long process. Almost a mile underwater, the first deep-sea octopus brooding ever recorded was ostensibly the longest brooding period on earth. For four and a half years, this octopus stayed in a state of  semi-consciousness as her body decayed, surviving only to protect her unborn young from attack.

Mixed in with the emotions of leaving home for so long and going on an adventure that is still so unknown to me, I became overwhelmed with gratitude. The reminder of the extents that parents will go to for their young undoubtedly reminded me of my own parents, and the sacrifices (though very different from Octomom’s) that they have made for me.

My mother drove next to me while we were listening, graciously driving with me the twelve hundred or so miles across five states to get me to my Outward Bound trip. This week-long trip is the latest of many efforts, and genuinely, I’m not sure I thank them enough. With the complications of planning and executing a gap year plan (especially during COVID), it’s easy to get caught in the small stuff—disagreements, different expectations and ideas—but I recognize that without them, I couldn’t do any of this. Undoubtedly my gap year has been encouraged, enabled, and supported by my parents. Thanks to them, I have enriching things to fill my time, safe places in which to do them, and the guidance to navigate important decisions.

Days Away From My Big Move

By Kate

Hey Everyone!

Rebecca Haile sharing her story at an event for the Haile-Manas Academy. If anyone is interested in learning more about her and her family, check out www.ethiopiaed.org!

This month I’ve continued to prepare for my trip to Ethiopia, where I will be interning at a new boarding school called the Haile-Manas Academy. The date I leave, September 25th, is fast approaching, yet I still have so much to do! Although I have had the opportunity to travel in the past, this is my first experience organizing an international trip on my own. And there has been a huge learning curve. Applying for a visa, booking plane tickets, getting international healthcare coverage, and taking numerous COVID tests—these are just a few of the many things I am trying to get together before I leave. And then there are all the little things to consider—will I need to bring hangers for my dorm room? How will I withdraw money while I’m abroad? What kind of adapter do I need for wall outlets? How do I get my hands on a burner phone and SIM card? (I know that sound questionable, but I promise everyone—I’ll keep writing these blog posts! I just can’t get an international phone plan in Ethiopia.)

Even with most of these questions answered, admittedly I still feel nervous. I’ve never been to East Africa before and despite research and conversations with Ethiopian faculty members, I still don’t really know what to expect. This is the first large-scale moment that I’ve been entirely responsible for myself, and that kind of scares me. Luckily, I know that my nerves are natural and even necessary. To move halfway across the world during a pandemic with absolutely no worries at all would be pretty foolish.

It also helps that I have a close relationship with those involved with the Haile-Manas Academy. The school’s founder, Rebecca Haile, is actually the mother of my childhood friend, Amalia. Rebecca fled Ethiopia as a child refugee after the 1974 Revolution. Her family’s decision to leave was triggered by an attempt at her father’s life: the Derg, the communist group that came into power at the time, was trying to cleanse the nation of any individuals associated with the former imperial regime. Rebecca’s father wasn’t in government—he was actually a university professor in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital—but Derg revolutionaries still viewed him as a threat to their authority. Thankfully, after receiving medical care in London, Rebecca’s father survived and the entire family relocated to Minnesota. Yet to this day, neither him nor his wife have ever returned to Ethiopia.

But Rebecca has, and after years of reflection, she made the decision to open a boarding school there. Fast-forward to this month, and the Haile-Manas Academy is officially opening in mere days! I feel so lucky for the opportunity to be part of such an inspiring, powerful project, and I can’t wait to move in, get the school year started, and prepare for the arrival of all our students! Next time you all hear from me, I’ll finally be on campus!

Until then,


Ann Arbor

By Maya

I used to dream of palm trees, sandy beaches and salty air. I used to dream of being surrounded by new languages and old cultures. For as long as I can remember my mind was in love with everywhere that I was not. Despite obvious challenges, the last few months gave me the gift of falling in love with where I am. This is an ode to my home, Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is an ode to the beautiful things that we can control in a time when nothing is certain.

This summer has been a haze of confusion, a cycle of making plans and then seeing them obliterated. This was particularly painful for me, as an avid planner. I schedule everything from breakfast to an afternoon nap. Instead of immersing myself in French culture, as I had previously planned to do beginning August 1st, I have found myself immersed in Ann Arbor. It turns out I had just as much to learn here. This summer I had the opportunity to intern with a local prosecutor campaign. Not only have I learned about local politics and navigated uncharted virtual campaigning terrain, but I have explored my county. Dropping off yard signs, I discovered that not only does my county extend far beyond the bounds of what I had imagined but that these surrounding areas were stunning. Roads framed by overhanging trees casting a kaleidoscope of light below became something I looked forward to daily. Finding joy in these moments is something I can control. Once I applied the wanderlust I previously felt to my own home I began to fall in love with every moment. Following that same logic I have made it a goal to watch every sunset I can. Whether it be from the park adjacent to my house or the docks along the Huron river, this has made a huge difference in the way I have been viewing my days. I’m looking forward to making the best of the next year and discovering the most I can wherever I may be.