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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,



Olivia’s Year On Experience

Group photo taken after watching another Year On student perform stand up comedy. We ended up having to set up outside the actual building on the sidewalk! It’s still one of my wildest memories.

By Olivia

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.



How Solo Travel Prepared Me for Quarantine

By Skijler

It’s so odd how quickly things can change. I had boarded my flight from Manchester to Paris at the beginning of March with little difficulty, and only a hand full of people were wearing masks. I was prepared to spend three months in France, but by the time I was back in Charles de Gaulle only a week and a half later, there was barely a full face to see and everything seemed to be suspended in an almost tangible terror. The decision to leave France had gone from unthinkable, to plausible, and then to the only safe option within a matter of 24 hours. I had barely time to think as I booked a flight only two days in advance.

The whole situation felt like I was living a movie: from the newspaper headlines and French President Macron’s address to the nation, to my own president’s European travel ban and the deserted Parisian monuments. Of course everyone was going through some variation of the same, but it uniquely felt like my world was crashing down. When I got home, I had to self-quarantine for two weeks, which I have to admit was not very successful due to a family that had not seen me in months, and a country that had not yet seen the worst of the pandemic. Yet, I tried as much as I could to stay in my bedroom alone, or rather the bonus room that was quickly turned into something that could accommodate my unexpected arrival, as I waited to go get tested. Luckily the test came back negative, and I was able to finally go downstairs to cook my own breakfast and pet my dog.

Now it has been about two months of quarantine. It has had its ups and downs, but honestly it has gone better than I expected, and that can mostly be attested to the fact that I am privileged enough to live with a loving family in a rural area. We can get on with our lives somewhat comfortably, if not suffering from occasional bouts of boredom. But what I have noticed is that some of the skills I learned while solo travelling have helped me adjust to quarantine in ways I hadn’t expected. Whereas many have been newly starved of their usual social life and are unused to it, I have been largely independent over the past year and have learned how to be alone. Sure, I’ve made friends when I’ve traveled, but they were all fellow travelers themselves and so I rarely spent longer than a week with any of them, if that. There were many places I visited completely alone, many meals I ate alone, and many nights in cities where I knew no one. I am not saying that I am suddenly more mature than my peers, but I do think that the time learning how to be alone has helped me adjust to quarantine. I don’t have much problem planning out my days even when there seems to be nothing to do.

In fact, the time out of school has instilled in me a reflex to self-learn. I am not completely auto-didactic, but I’ve made sure in quarantine that I’ve kept up with my French learning, read certain books I’ve always meant to read, and tried new projects. This was something I learned this last year; truth be told, everything I was doing this last year was a self-motivated project — from hiking the Camino de Santiago to interning on farms — so I know how to keep myself motivated and productive even when I don’t have outside pressures.

This sudden and drastic change in the world has also made me feel thankful for the things I was able to experience. The world after this pandemic will not be the same as the one before, whether in a large or small way. With people largely prohibited from travelling, and uncertainty as to when tourism will reopen, I am grateful that I was able to travel when I still could. Obviously we will be able to travel again and hopefully things will return to how they were, but perhaps it will not be the same. Like 9/11 changed travelling permanently, COVID-19 might very well have a similar impact; perhaps there will be temperature screenings at airports or entry restrictions at crowded tourist attractions. Some have asked me if I regret taking the gap year because I wasn’t able to finish it out, but in fact I feel even more reassured in the timing of my decision now that so many of the things I was able to accomplish are now, for the time being, inaccessible.

Finally, I feel that my gap year has given me the emotional maturity to weather this set-back. Of course I am sad to have plans cancelled and I lament the prospect of having to start college online,* but I am also able to contextualize the situation. I remember all the stories I heard travelling, all the different people I met and the different ways their lives ran course, and I can fit this time into the larger story of my life. There will be an after-quarantine, and we all await it anxiously, but right now all I can do is make the most of the place I am in now. Even if I begin my time at Duke over Zoom, I am optimistic to see what this next stage of my life holds.

*A note from the Duke Gap Year Team: As of this posting, Duke University has not made any announcements about what its education plans may be for the fall. We encourage you to follow any updates at coronavirus.duke.edu 

Taking a gap year during COVID-19

By Amichai

While much of the world is being affected by the coronavirus, being in Israel, I feel safe, as if I’m wrapped up in a cocoon that is the Old City of Jerusalem. However, I am also feeling very detached from the world, America, and even my own home. This feeling is both literal, since I am living in a walled city seven thousand miles from my home, but also emotionally, concerned for the well being of my family and community but I am not with them.

The coronavirus didn’t feel real until recently, at the start of March, when the father of a friend from my high school class, who lives in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, was diagnosed with coronavirus. His case was the second known case in all of New York, and when I learned that he was in critical condition, the fact that the deadly virus was attacking NYC became real and was brought home to me. Shortly after he was diagnosed, his entire family, including two sons (one being my friend) and daughter, also tested as infected. As a result, my high school closed down due to coronavirus, becoming the first school in NYC to be shut down due to the virus.Having friends and cousins attending the school, I was overcome with feelings of frustration and restlessness that I was so far away from home, and even though I knew there was nothing I myself could do directly to help, I felt as though being home would soothe those feelings. The town of New Rochelle, where many of my close friends live, by itself now has more cases of coronavirus than any state in America.

Since the diagnosis in New Rochelle, the entire community has effectively been quarantined, which has completely disrupted life in the community. New York State ordered the New Rochelle community to shut down its synagogue whose services the coronavirus patient had attended the prior week. Bar mitzvahs and weddings (such as one that my sister was scheduled to attend), two of the more meaningful major life benchmarks and times of happiness in a person’s life, have been cancelled. The community is in deep fear and uncertainty, not even having its own home of worship be safe. It is frightening that at a moment when prayer and hope for healing are really needed, the synagogue is closed and the community is shattered – gathering together in common bonding is exactly what is forbidden.

I too was overcome with feelings of fright and utter sadness, but soon after I realized how lucky I am to be in Jerusalem, able to continue doing what those in New Rochelle cannot do – share community, pray together and celebrate Jewish study together. This feeling of sadness turned into a deep appreciation of my own situation; however my concern for the New Rochelle community, my own community, and the rest of the world is still very much a part of me and is constantly weighing down on me.