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By Aryaman

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 🙂 


Gratitude in the Q

By Sammy

Two weeks in a tiny room, shared with three other people.

Feel free to leave the room, as long as you are okay with losing $30,000 and being kicked off the program, deported, and banned from coming back to Israel for the next ten years. Someone from another program left the room to try and fix the Wi-Fi router and suffered the consequences, so we haven’t really tried bending the rules. At least we have a gorgeous view.

 While strict and relentless, these are the measures Israel has to impose in order to accept more than 16,000 Americans into their country amid the pandemic. While I’m upset that I cannot explore the streets of Jerusalem and meet others on the program, I understand the restrictions. So where does that leave me? With time. Lots and lots of time. During the year, I can never get enough free time. I’m constantly busy and want more time to relax. Now, I have an abundance of it. At first, I was bored and bitter. But then I realized what a valuable gift I was given. I had two entire weeks to sleep, relax, workout, read, catch up with friends (when the calls went through), write, converse, and learn Hebrew. This may seem like the most mundane schedule ever; however, after realizing how rare it is to have time without responsibility to school or a job, I started to appreciate the surplus of relaxing time instead of resenting it. And in doing so, the two weeks have somehow shot by. I know, two weeks in severely strict quarantine should have been the longest two weeks of my life, but they have somehow been a blur.

A mindset of gratitude truly allows you to live in the moment, enjoying the situation before yourself despite the circumstances. Since I found a way to be grateful for the two-week, no-nonsense confinement, I don’t think it’ll be hard to find ways to be grateful for every other aspect of the trip, starting with the country-wide three-week lockdown, which starts the day after quarantine is over. Once we are done with quarantine, we’ll be confined to the campus for the following three weeks due to the lockdown. However, following the quarantine, the three weeks of freedom to go anywhere on the small campus will seem incredible. Gratitude, I think, is one of the most underrated of emotions. There have been spells where I am constantly regretting the past and/or dreading the future, ignoring what’s before me. During those times, I find myself to be much less happy, as I’m completely missing the present. Without gratitude for the “NOW,” you miss out on your life. Gratitude is maybe the most important key to fulfillment and happiness. When people are sincerely grateful for what’s before them, they can be happy. Kohelet, one of the fabled Jewish scholars, debates the meaning of life. He constantly goes back to the notion that all is futile and finite, explaining that all you can truly do is be grateful and enjoy the pleasures of life.

Yet gratitude is also situational, elusive, and often difficult to achieve. An American may leave for the day, grabbing a can of soda, and be on his way. Yet an African who never tasted a pop drink in his life could grab the same can of soda with an immense amount of gratitude. The more you have, the harder it is to be grateful for the same things. By looking at the world and life as a whole, I have been able to find gratitude for the “NOW.” It can be hard to notice the simple pleasures of life that not everyone enjoys, such as friends, a healthy body, even glasses. Rather than look at the specific circumstances of a situation in regards to my life, I try to find something special that anyone could be grateful for, even in the seemingly “less desirable” situations. Even a two week quarantine can be seen as a blessing.

My Summer Internship – Building a Photolithography Machine

By Lizzy

This summer, I interned at an Austin-based scientific computing company called Enthought.  While Covid-19 forced many people to cancel their plans, I am extraordinarily lucky in that my father works for Enthought, and I was able to participate in the internship from home.

The goal of my internship this summer was to provide a better understanding of physics and engineering through both a classroom and hands-on setting. The final aim was to create a maskless photolithography machine, but before we could begin, I needed a much better handle on physics and coding. We also needed a proper workspace (for some reason my mom refused to let us use the welding torch and hazardous chemicals in our living room…) so we set out to transform our garage into a laboratory. For the first month of the internship, I spent half of my workday in “class” with my dad, learning to code and studying electromagnetics and optics. For the rest of the day, I got my first taste of mechanical engineering as we designed and built tables for our new laboratory. After several weeks of cutting, drilling, and welding and hours of pulling metal shavings from my hair, we finished four tables, one of which is pictured.

Once I was adequately educated and our lab was completely built, I could begin researching and designing the maskless photolithography machine. Photolithography is a process used in microfabrication to etch a pattern onto a substrate, generally a silicon wafer. The wafer is coated with a substance called photoresist, which degrades when exposed to UV light. A patterned “mask” is placed over the substrate to block UV light, leaving only the unmasked areas to be exposed and degraded. Then, the wafer is coated in a solvent that dissolves the degraded areas but leaves the rest of the photoresist intact. This process enables manufacturers to etch extremely small patterns onto silicon wafers. However, masks are extremely expensive and cannot be altered, so they aren’t an ideal solution. In my internship, I investigated a newer idea called “maskless photolithography,” which uses a projector to shine a pattern directly onto the substrate, eliminating the need for a mask.

To give an idea of what the project was like, I have documented the main three challenges— though there were certainly more— that I faced when building the machine.

The first hurdle was to coat the substrate with photoresist (while prototyping, I used a microscope slide as my substrate instead of a silicon wafer because it is cheaper). In order to perform photolithography, the substrate must have an extremely even coating of photoresist. To achieve this, I found I must first rigorously clean the microscope slide using various chemicals and baking it on a hot plate. Then, I would place the slide on a spin-coater and apply the photoresist liquid to its center. As the slide spun, centrifugal force would push the photoresist outward so that it formed an even layer on the slide’s surface. In the picture provided, I am completing the spin-coating process. Note the light in the room is orange— I placed a filter on the lightbulb that blocks all light under 450nm so that the photoresist is not degraded as I am spin-coating. (IMAGE #2) The resulting photoresist coat isn’t completely perfect, especially near the edges of the slide, but it is plenty accurate for our project. In fact, we were able to use data from a spectrometer to discover the photoresist coating was a constant 7 microns thick in the center of the slide, which was exactly our goal!

The next step was to design an adjustable mount for the projector. Since photolithography is used for making extremely tiny objects such as computer chips, the projected image needs to be extremely small with an accuracy of several microns— which is a fraction of the width of a human hair. In order to condense the projector’s image to this size, I mounted the projector above a microscope so that it shines through the microscope’s lenses and produces a tiny image through the objective lens. After much trial and error, we created a mount that can adjust the projector’s position in the x,y, and z directions, as well as two rotating axes which allow us to adjust the projector’s angle. For context, I have provided an image of my initial design for the mount accompanied by my notes for improvement. I have also included an image of the final product we created.

Lastly, I adjusted the lens path of the projector and microscope in order to focus and center the image through the microscope’s objective lens. The projector’s initial image was far too large to fit into the small microscope lens, so I 3D printed a device to hold a series of condenser lenses in order to reduce the image. However, each lens attenuates the UV light, which activates the photoresist, so I adjusted my final design to use only a single condenser lense which I positioned in an adjustable 3D printed mount. After making a few additional adjustments to the projector— such as removing the color wheel and UV filter, I was ready to test my machine.

As with every science experiment, the first attempt was largely a failure. Though the projector and lens mounts were completely adjustable, I still couldn’t seem to position the projector so that the image was both centered and focused beneath the objective lens. After designing several new iterations of a 3d-printed mount for the condenser lens— ultimately deciding to mount it to the microscope rather than the projector— I have nearly attained success. I am hopeful that several more iterations in the last few weeks of my internship will prove successful and the project will be complete.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my internship this summer, and feel so lucky to have been able to participate in it!

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!

3 Ways My Gap Year Plans Have Changed (+1 Way I’ve Changed With Them)

By Sara 

When I made the decision back in May to join the Gap Year Program, I had grand aspirations and plans of working at a zoo, travelling the world, and learning a new language. While a global pandemic has certainly been enough to throw a wrench in all my plans, the past few months have shown me that sometimes, plans are made to fall apart. Without any further ado, here are three ways my gap year plans have changed, plus one way I’ve changed along with them: 

  1. This is perhaps the most obvious of the three items on this list: No Travelling Abroad! One of the things I was most looking forward to about my gap year, and one of the main reasons I decided to take a gap year in the first place, was studying abroad. Although I may not be able to learn a language abroad, I’m definitely looking forward to taking some online classes and self-study. 
  2. Another thing I was really looking forward to this year was my internship at Riverbanks Zoo, where I’ve been volunteering for the past four years. Unfortunately, the zoo cancelled all internships and volunteer programs for the foreseeable future, so I’m stuck waiting to see if things will open back up again in the spring. However, this has made me look more into other local opportunities, and I found a wildlife rescue and a farm animal sanctuary I had no idea existed! 
  3. I got my first job! Now, this is something I never would have considered as part of my gap year, but after finding my year relatively unstructured, I’ve found that it makes every cent more meaningful knowing how much work goes into earning every penny.  



    +1. During this time of uncertainty and disorganization, I’ve learned that sometimes it takes a little uncertainty to figure out what you really enjoy in life and want to pursue, rather than just going through the motions. There are opportunities I had never considered, pathways I had never even dreamed of before taking the time to get away from all the pressures and just experience life. If I’ve learned anything from the past few months, it’s that sometimes, you need to take a step back, slow your pace, and examine what it is you really want from life and how your actions fit with this goal.  



11 Things I’ve Learned from Working in a Restaurant During the Pandemic

By Christina

I have worked at Botiwalla, an Indian street food restaurant, in Atlanta’s most famous food hall located in Ponce City Market for the past few months. I have learned a lot from working in a restaurant and wanted to share 11 lessons I’ve learned so far. 

Our ‘Rules of the Cafe’

 Work should not be so serious 

  • I have learned the difference between being serious at work and taking my work seriously.  In taking work seriously, I see that doing my job well requires casualness, calmness, and humor.  Taking the time to laugh with a guest or write a nice note on someone’s takeout bag can enhance our guests experience.  With the pandemic limiting social interaction, we need humor and fun more than ever. 

What a squeegee is

  • Working in a restaurant has highlighted the differences (and similarities) between what I learned in the classroom and what I’ve learned in the ‘real world’ on my gap year.  One difference is what knowledge matters: I could thoroughly explain Gauss’s Law using calculus and physics concepts but could not identify the squeegee in the restaurant when I started.  Nobody cares how many AP’s anyone took or where anyone went or goes to school.  I am judged on how I treat people and how much of a team player I am, not even on how well I do my job: the staff has my back when I make mistakes on that. 
  • have also learned to physically work like I never have before.  Who knew there were so many pieces of equipment to clean, store, and cook things in a restaurant.  I have mopped and swept and wiped down and carried like never before.  I have certainly learned to keep my head down and put my back into it,” as I’ve been told while mopping. 

 Avoid easy mistakes 

  • One member of our staff shared a story about his experience playing the tuba in middle school.  He wanted to be the best player in the state and practiced tirelessly every day.  One day he complained to his teacher about how he endlessly practiced the hard parts yet still wasn’t the best.  His teacher responded by asking him how often he practiced the easy parts, to which his response was hardly ever.  He began putting more time into the easier parts, and two years later he became the best tuba player in the state. 
  • This story reminds us in the restaurant to not overlook the “easy.”  We are in the middle of an unprecedented time in the restaurant business and are going to make mistakes on the hard or unknown stuff, like our new takeout-only setup or the food hall’s new COVID-19 protocol.  However, we need to be sharp on the easy stuff, like getting orders right or making sure our guests have everything they need, in order to succeed. 

 Restaurant work is grueling 

  • Most of our cooks work in at least one other restaurant.  In their ‘time off,’ one works at a Southern breakfast restaurant while another works at an upscale burger restaurant down the food hall from us.  They work tirelessly and excel at the job that everyone wishes they could do well, which deserves recognition and respect. 

 How to think for myself 

  • One of our managers always expects us to know what we want.  What music do you want to listen to during setup?  What do you want for your staff meal?  Do you want to work register or expo tonight?  If we don’t know, his response is, “If you don’t know then who knows?”  The answer is nobody.  He has taught me to think for myself and be more confident in what I want and who I am. 

 A degree doesn’t define a person 

  • Every few weeks, our back of house manager, who only has a high school degree, asks me what book I’m reading. We both know the other will be on a new book by then and are eager to hear what the other is reading. It’s easy to assume he wouldn’t enjoy reading: maybe school just wasn’t for him or he always needed to work and never had time for a book. I don’t know much about his past, but I do know that he’s currently reading a collection of creative nonfiction essays about the author’s experience with intersectionality as an Asian-American woman living in Houston. 
  • Another back of house staff member is a history buff particularly interested in wars and ancient history. He could talk endlessly to me about the Spartans and Athenians or the weapons of World War II.  He wanted to become a historian, but couldn’t afford the college tuition. He continues to educate himself about history through conversations and book.
  • I have always been surrounded by people with college and postgraduate degrees, but being surrounded by an educationally diverse group of people- both college-educated and not- at the restaurant has allowed me to break down my own stereotypes about what a degree or being smart mean. 

 An Indian restaurant doesn’t have to sell rice 

  • Working in a restaurant that sells Indian street food has taught me a lot about my assumptions of India and other countries.  Partly due to thinking about America as a “melting pot,” I’ve realized that I often oversimplify other countries’ history, diversity, and culture.  Many guests, including some of Indian descent, are disgraced when they find out we are an Indian restaurant that doesn’t sell rice or curries when, in reality, Indian food is so much more than that.  I have learned a lot about the diversity of culture, history, and cuisine that influences our restaurant’s food and makes India so complex and unique. 

 Life happens, and compassion is necessary 

  • When the pigeons that plague our patio poop in someone’s $12 boozy slushy or someone’s overheated dog needs a cup of water, compassion is necessary.  Meeting the needs of customers and even noncustomers even when it sucks, uses up resources or time, or is petty is important to maintaining the standards and reputation we pride ourselves on as a company. 

 Most people are decent 

  • A small minority of our guests are really rude, but most people show kindness, whether that’s through wearing a mask, tipping, saying “hi” back, speaking to us with respect, or striking up a thoughtful conversation.  The pandemic requires that we be more creative in how we build connections, but we need the effort from both ends to do so now more than ever. 

 Appreciate and cherish the little things 

  • Front of house staff members are tasked with chores like portioning out our raita, spicy ketchup, or mango lassis into to-go cups for guests.  I have cut corners while portioning before and made messes- spilling spicy ketchup everywhere or dropping hundreds of 2oz cups on the ground.  I have learned that, to respect the kitchen staff, I have to take the time and effort to handle the foodcondiments, or drinks they make with care.  Whether it’s the simple syrup (aka sugar water) I use to make drinks or the full meals I package up into takeout bags, I owe the kitchen staff the respect of handling the food that dominates their time and energy with care. 

 Something about the restaurant makes everyone family 

  • Working in the restaurant has brought me some of my happiest moments since the pandemic- from making “Mondo burgers” inspired by the movie Good Burgers on a slow Sunday to the constant prank wars that one cook instigates to feasting on cake and laughing together during a staff meeting.  Work doesn’t feel like a chore: it feels like the place I come home to, filled with great food and people that make me smile. 

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.

My New Normal

By Lhamo

I have been in quarantine for almost half a year, yet it still feels like there is no end in sight. I’ve been fortunate enough to have not caught Coronavirus thus far (at least, I think so, because I had a terrible “flu-like” disease in January that no doctor could definitively diagnose and I swear it was the silent killer), although my parents know of people who’ve died and I know of people who’ve carried it. I have collected more than enough masks and keep hand sanitizer bottles in every bag. I cross the street when someone is walking towards me. I keep my head down when I’m running through the park. I no longer can remember the euphoria of dancing in the rain after parties at two in the morning. I no longer can remember waiting in line for tacos in the scorching July heat. I no longer can remember normalcy. It’s all a haze, a distant memory that I long to relive. 

 I’ve been in quarantine for almost half a year yet it’s almost like I predicted that my dreams would never materialize. I come from strict parents. I live in a flat on the third floor of a temple and none of my friends are allowed inside. Sure, I had left home to go to boarding school three-thousand miles away when I was thirteen. I had been to a number of summer sleepaway camps. I even lived at my boyfriend’s house for a month (this one took too many speeches to finally convince my parents to allow.) Yet when I think about my gap year—July in Europe with my best friend of eleven years, September hiking in the Himalayas, my 18th birthday riding camels in Dubai, January saving turtles in the Great Barrier Reef, March in South Africa at a Great White Shark Research Institute—I wonder if my parents would have really let me jet off to someplace else without the reassurance that I would be safe (like at boarding school, where you’re required to check-in every night at some ridiculously early hour.)  

Coronavirus has been both a blessing and a punishment. I missed out on what could’ve been the best term in high school. I planned out my gap year down to the very plane tickets I would be buying just to be told I could neither pay for my expenses (because financial aid through gap year programs is much harder to receive in a global pandemic) or even leave to pursue my goals. I never got to hug my friends knowing I would likely never see them again. I spent the last four months of my senior year talking through a computer screen. I watched my graduation ceremony online.  

Yet I also found love. I found happiness. I took many days to self-reflect. I learned to live with myself and not feel uncomfortable or worthless or a failure. I truly healed just by being handed the time to. 

 When I think about these next months, I see endless possibilities. I’ve learned that there’s a silver lining to everything, even a pandemic that shuts down the world at its very core. But I’m hopeful that I will continue my journey of self-growth through being able to sit with myself, even if it may be in my room eating a PB&Jwatching Breaking Bad. 


Preparing for Ethiopia

By Kate

Hello everyone! My name is Kate and I am from New York City. This month I am preparing to move to Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, where I will be interning at a boarding school known as the Haile-Manas Academy. 

Over the course of the semester, I will serve primarily as a peer leader for freshmen students, but will also sit in and co-facilitate discussions in their History and English classes. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to connect with my future mentees, and want to make sure that I am as prepared as possible to undertake the exciting responsibilities before me. So in preparation I have been reading a lot about Ethiopian history, culture, and national identity. I’ve also been exploring popular Ethiopian fiction and engaging in conversations with my future colleagues—both American and Ethiopianabout culturally responsive teaching. The months ahead of me will undoubtedly be unlike anything I have experienced before, and I am so excited to share what I learn with all of you!  

Why I Took A Gap Year

By Siddharth

Having been born and raised in India, the notion of a gap year has always been fairly restricted to a specific segment of students – those who are unable to perform up to their expectations in the cutthroat entrance tests to the most prestigious universities in the country. If one wasn’t spending their gap year preparing for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) or the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the idea of taking time off before college would be frowned upon by students and parents alike.  

 I, too, had bought into this prevailing herd mentality of going straight to college after high school; if you’re taking a year off and not studying for a test, you’re simply wasting your time – time that could be well spent earning an undergraduate degree. That is, until I came across the Duke Gap Year Program. It piqued my interest largely because it was an opportunity unlike that offered by any of the other colleges into which I was admitted. What started out as a mere curiosity to explore what the program entailed, transformed into a paradigm shift in the manner in which I view a gap year.  

 I came across an article by admissions officers at Harvard, which talked about how the increasingly competitive application process often leads to students ‘burning out’ before they begin college, and how taking time off can allow students to recharge and begin afresh their 4-year undergraduate journey. It was surprising how much I was able to relate to the content put forward by the authors, so much so that I showed it to my friends who also applied to colleges in the US, eliciting similar reactions. Soon enough, I was surfing the net for hours, scouring for opportunities to make my gap year an enriching experience, getting everything in order to pitch a concrete plan to my parents (who, unlike me, had not yet been disillusioned with the stigma around a gap year).  

 What drew me most to the idea of a gap year is that it allows me to freely explore my interests, both academic and non-academic. Having studied in a curriculum that structurally lacked an interdisciplinary component, I never had the chance to delve further into my interest in astrophysics and political science in school. The freedom afforded by the gap year will be crucial in helping me understand my interests and aspirations in a more comprehensive manner and providing me with a clearer picture about my future, which will consequently result in a more fruitful and enriching college experience. Having had the last 2 years of high school crammed with standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and the college application process, it would be a wonderful opportunity to have time to recharge and enter college as a much more enthusiastic freshman.  

 Although I’ve had limited experience with the gap year so far, the ability to plan an entire year of my life without having to worry about any school commitments has been truly enjoyable, and I hope that over the next few months I am able to expose myself to a range of new ideas and concepts.