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Spontaneous Summer

By Sami

As my virtual high school experience came to a close in mid-May, I was preparing myself for what I thought would be the most uneventful summer of my life. Uncertainties regarding my gap year plans were all I had to think about as canceled travel plans and a lack of work opportunities left me increasingly discouraged. 

Now, two-and-a-half months later, I’m sitting at my dinner table next to my new puppy, Mila, exhausted from my three-night stay on a boat in a sculpture garden in Maine, preparing to reflect on what turned out to be one of the most impactful summers I’ve ever experienced.





June began with a surprisingly fun drive-through graduation ceremony. Although I couldn’t say goodbye to my classmates, I did get to watch my teachers jump up and down in excitement as I passed by sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s car in my cap and gown.






In the start of July, after only a few days of planning, I drove with my family to Maine where we stayed for two weeks, enjoying each other’s company and eating daily lobster rolls. The night before I was supposed to return home, my older brother who took a gap year himself, convinced me to go on a Workaway experience 

with him on a granite sculpture farm near Acadia National Park. I was reluctant to go because I needed time to prepare for a nine-month-long trip to Israel, but my brother convinced me that I’d regret not taking every opportunity offered to me during such an unconventional gap year. It ended up being the strangest three nights of the summer (as can be seen from this photo of my brother on the boat where we slept), but it also gave me a chance to explore Acadia and to bond closely with my brother before leaving home.

Before the official end of high school, the world began to turn upside down with the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent exposure of a systemically racist police system in the U.S. The civil unrest that has taken center stage in the U.S and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement gave me and my peers an opportunity to grow as individuals as we’ve worked to educate ourselves and others on the problems many Americans face as well as the need for urgent change in the criminal justice system. Throughout these past few surprisingly eventful and fun months of summer, I’ve made sure to put in perspective the challenges I faced and to never overlook the seriousness of the issues facing our world today. I started my gap year worrying that I wouldn’t get out of it what I hoped and feeling that I was bearing the brunt of all these new uncertainties. But now that I know how minute the obstacles I’ll face will be, as I move forward, I will remember to not set overly ambitious expectations for this coming year and to take in all that I can from anything and everything I may experience. 

Ready to Leap

By Kayla

The past six months have both raced and crawled by at the same time. Finishing senior year of high school and the last year at my ballet studio from home was unexpected, but I’m grateful to have spent more time with my family. It’s bittersweet to leave places I’ve called home, but I’m ready to start the next chapter in my life. 

This summer brought me a balance of meaningful work and play. For four weeks, I participated in State Street Ballet’s virtual summer intensive. With my kitchen counter as a barre and a sheet of marley taped to the tile floor, I trained with a new group of people through my laptop screen. Even in the 5’ by 7’ space in my kitchen, I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone and gain a new understanding of dance. I’ve also enjoyed the downtime – a Uno game with my parents, a spread-out picnic with my friends, a new book finished – and especially getting to connect with the people closest to me 

In July, I worked at my ballet studio when they reopened, helping to keep everything sanitized and everyone safe. Cleaning floors, barres, bathrooms, tables, chairs, and hallways kept me busy, and gave me respect and appreciation for essential workers. Training and working gave me a surge of motivation and valuable experience – a good bridge to my gap year.

I’ve wanted to take a gap year since junior year so I could gain more experience before college and continue my 14 years of dance trainingI plan to attend the trainee program at American Repertory Ballet in Princeton, New Jersey – most likely virtually. I hope to grow as an artist and to learn more about the relationship between dance and other disciplines (such as science)also plan to volunteer locally, especially by tutoring younger students in ballet or academics. I hope to improve my interpersonal skills and to contribute to my community, even through a Zoom screen. During my gap year, I want to further explore my academic interests, including neuroscience and art history, and to uncover new interests as wellThis summer has helped me gain the adaptability I need for a gap year, and I’m ready to start exploring. 

Wherever I am, I hope to improve my work ethic and explore different methods of communication and creation. I’m excited to be a part of the Duke Gap Year Program, and to discover new passions and ideasI can’t wait to see where my gap year takes me.

Taking to the Mountains

By Matthew

Throughout this month, while I have been searching for concrete plans for the upcoming semester and thinking about what I want out of this year, I have taken to the mountains. Connectivity to nature has been a foundational pillar to my upbringing in Aspen Colorado. It has been preached and practiced by everyone from friends and family to the local schools and the community, and I have not hesitated to jump right in. I have learned so much from my experiences in nature, but in this last year, with all of the difficult decisions and circumstances we have had to face, I have found nature to be an incredible place to think and find clarity.

In particular I have been chasing fourteeners in these last few weeks. Fourteeners are peaks with summits above 14 thousand feet of elevation, and they surround my home town. I had never actually climbed a fourteener before these last few weeks, and they are an experience unlike anything I have ever done. Most recently I summited Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak in the same day, and what I have realized is that there are so many more memorable moments involved with these trips than touching that top point. Everything from conversations around the fire, to 3:30 am wake up calls, to even butt sledding down the remaining snow patches, is what makes these trips incredible. But what I sought out in particular was the time to think and look. Moments to do that are so rare in day to day activities yet so beneficial in every area of your life.

What I was hoping to find clarity with was where I should spend my time and what I want to volunteer for. Two opportunities became a possibility recently, and I was having a very difficult time prioritizing one over the other. The first is tutoring underprivileged students in European cities, and the other is in Hawaii working to help preserve the natural beauty of the islands doing watershed and animal research, or helping cleaning up beaches and forests.  They are both amazing but I can only choose one and I was stuck. While I was taking in the beautiful landscape trying to catch my breath, I realized that my passions lied more with the protection of the environment and enjoying the natural beauties of our world than tutoring students and the city life. That time helped me find clarity and to prioritize which of these opportunities was best for me, and I have no doubt that I will be back out there soon with other important decisions that need to be made.

The Beginning

By Shun

Stepping off the plane and being enveloped by the hot humid air felt different from the times in the past. There were no thoughts of rushing to the convenience store or visiting all my friends, eating home-cooked meals, or the inevitable farewell only a few days away. Rather, I was relaxed and slightly nervous, knowing this would be my new home. For the first time in my life, I had entered this country without being bound by time; I could take a moment to breathe, look around, and not have to pick out everything I wanted to eat in one run to the supermarket.  

 In retrospect, my arrival in Japan did not go the way I had imagined. For weeks leading up to that day, I had spent time saying goodbye to friends (virtually), packing, getting official documents, and preparing myself for the leap across the ocean. The suspense and excitement had reached its peak, and though COVID-19 had put some doubts in my mind, I was ready to start my adventure. But while I got off the plane knowing I had time, something that I had desired for so many years, I felt that I had lost something else; freedom.

The moment I stepped off, the 20 other passengers on the plane and I were guided to a large room to be lectured regarding how we would spend the next 14 days. After being informed that I would be self-quarantining in a hotel with little freedom, I was taken to a small area where very friendly nurses in hazmat suits gave us our PCR tests. With my nose still throbbing from the incredibly long swab used for the PCR test, I was then led to the government facilitated hotel. There I received three meals a day, had no contact with any hotel staff, and could not leave my room.  Thankfully, I was transferred to a different hotel after three days where I am now allowed occasional walks to the park, but aside from this, I remain in self-quarantine. I spend quiet days in my room daydreaming about the things I hope to do this year: developing my iPhone application, expanding the concept of “peer-mentorship” in Japan, volunteering at camps, traveling, spending time with extended family, and making friends from diverse backgrounds with many different interests, among other things. 

At times it seems like quarantine will never end, but I also know it is the start of my new adventure. Every day I wait, I become more excited about the things to come, the people I’ll meet, and the opportunities that await me. 



A Year of Firsts

Hi everyone! First of all, I’d like to introduce myself and explain a little about what I will be doing this year. My name is Sara, and I’m from Lexington, South Carolina. This fall, I’ll be staying at home to take online audited classes, hopefully get a job, and volunteer with an animal rescue and sanctuary. In the spring I’ll be studying in Spain at the University of Granada, assuming I can get out of the country. Thanks, Rona.  


 This year has and will continue to be one of many firsts for us all. Whether you are starting college online or in quarantine, going into your senior year of high school not knowing what you may or may not get to experience, or entering the job market, not knowing whether a position in your field will even be available this year or the next or the next. We live in a very uncertain time, and taking a gap year means that the next several months of my life will be even more so. As a result of my gap year, I’ve applied for a job for the first time. I’m going to be leaving the country alone for the first time. This is the first time in over thirteen years that I haven’t had a set plan for the next few months. Everything could change at a moment’s notice. This also means that many of us will experience firsts not just for ourselves, but for the world as a whole. We’ve had virtual graduations, virtual concerts, virtual trainings, virtual hangouts, virtual, virtual, virtual. We’ve even had a toilet paper shortage where I live in the United States, who would’ve ever thought.  

 All this to say, this year will be one of change, uncertainty, and a lot of firsts, whether like me, you’re taking a gap year, or you’re off on a different adventure. I, for one, look forward to the challenges and the surprises of taking a gap year in the age of COVID-19, because if there’s only one thing I know for certain; one thing I’ve learned over the past few months, it’s that uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also lead to growth, new adventures, and a whole lot of firsts. 

My Gap Year Plans and the PCT

By Ray

Hello friends, 

 My name is Ray, and this is both my first blog with the Duke Gap Year, as well as my first ever blog.  

 I should probably introduce myself; I live in the Bay Area (Marin County). In high school, I spent a lot of my time playing for the football (LB) and lacrosse (middie) team. I also participated in student government and Model UN. I’m in Pratt, but I have no idea what I will end up majoring in – a gap year will hopefully help with that.  

 I enjoy being outside. This summer, I have spent time hiking, biking, and trying to play golf. I’ve also been cooking a lot for my family; cooking is a hobby I never got the chance to explore in high school. I’m excited to watch the new season of Last Chance U, and I’ll listen to almost any song Spotify gives me.  

Me on the left – a triple bougie kinda day 

I’m hoping to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the spring/summer of 2021. The PCT is a pretty long trail; the goal is to average about 20 miles a day and finish within five-months. Am I trying to bite off more than I can chew??? Who knows??? 

 The Pacific Crest Trail Association manages the trail and distributes permits through a daily quota. It’s a competitive process that’s really similar to buying hyped-up sneakers. If I’m unlucky and don’t get a permit; I still hope to backpack (maybe the Bigfoot Trail, John Muir Trail, or the Tahoe Rim Trail). Regardless of which trail I end up thru-hiking, I think it would be a good idea to do some preparing. 

 While I wouldn’t describe myself as a backpacker, I do have a decent background. Last summer, I spent two weeks backpacking in New Mexico. It was pretty cool.  

I’m on the right, this is from the top of Baldy Mountain

Right now, I’m planning a short 30 mile trip at the Lost Coast. I’m hoping to finish the trail in two days. The Lost Coast is an area in the Kings Range Conservation Area in Northern California. The Lost Coast was slated to be part of California’s State Route One, but its terrain was deemed too rough to build a highway.  

The Lost Coast has a rich history that’s severely under-documented. Before European settlers reached California, the Mattole People thrived on the Lost Coast. Thanks to the ocean and the coastal climate, they gathered seaweed and shellfish and hunted native marine animals. Salmon played a big role in their culture. When white settlers reached the Lost Coast around 1860, they called it New Jerusalem and began to raise cattle. Despite numerous treaties, many of the Mattole people were killed by local militias.  Most who survived were sent to a prison in Humbolt county. In 1868, a measles outbreak almost eradicated the Mattole people. With such a small population, the Mattole language died in the 1930s. Besides death records written by white settlers, there’s little to no written record about the Mattole people.  

 I will be mindful of the Mattole people’s history on my hike, and I’ll share the knowledge I learned with my fellow hikers. I will keep the blog posted on how the trip goes.  


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.  

Summer – The First Two Months

By Lukas

I had been considering a gap year for some time before the end of senior year, but nothing had catalyzed my desire to take the year to focus on myself as the pandemic did. I’m creating and re-imagining ways of bettering myself to become more mentally prepared in the fall of 2021. Every day, it feels as though plans could be drastically altered, for better or for worse. I have always loved spontaneity in my life, and I will try to let each day take its course in creating an incredibly unique year, as well as learning from my successes and shortcomings.  

This summer, I have been an intern at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) in the communications and media department. While VNSNY is not necessarily aligned with my academic interests, I have been able to find a niche and work with people with similar passions as my own. As part of my job, I have assembled and edited videos to be shown to staff and other employees. I have seen firsthand the incredible effort the entire organization put into managing the pandemic in the city. In April, I could not fathom the amount of work being dedicated by all the essential workers around the city to help save lives. Even the simple shared folder with photos to be included in videos gave me an idea of the bravery required to manage such a crisis. Seeing faces and humanizing the effort has been incredibly humbling.  

My fall has undergone a change of plans. I applied to one of High Mountain Institute’s semester abroad programs, hoping to push the limits of my desire to explore. Having grown up in one of the world’s largest cities, wilderness and conservation have been relevant yet intangible topics in my life. From September 20th to December 8th, I will be backpacking, camping, and rock climbing in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. It was a sudden change in my plans, but I am delighted, honored, and extremely excited to be able to travel in the fall.  

Deciding to Take a Gap Year

By Hannah

I clearly remember sitting at my brother’s high school graduation three years ago and thinking to myself, “I’m going to take a gap year.” I had never really heard the term until that year, but as soon as I saw his peers thinking about taking one, and some ultimately choosing to do so, the idea was locked in my mind. Since then, I’ve followed Instagrams and blogs of friends who have decided to defer their college admission, researched an endless list of gap year programs, and found myself drawn more and more to the idea of spending a year exploring and learning minus the stress of being in school.  

When it was my turn to apply to colleges, I kept these ideas in my mind but decided to make a final decision once I knew where I was going. For the first few days after I got my acceptance letter to Duke, I was so eager to move to Durham and join such a vibrant and passionate community that I told myself I couldn’t wait a year to start. Yet once the initial excitement dissipated—and the reality that my freshman year would be significantly different hit me—deferring was an easy decision. I always knew it was something I wanted to do, and I do not doubt that I made the right choice. 

Choosing to take a gap year was the easy part because once I decided, it became time to plan. In any year, trying to plan out a year would be tough. This year, I don’t just have the challenge of picking a program to join or a place to explore. I also have to consider whether a program’s COVID-19 precautions are sufficient, I have to have backup options, and most of all, I have to be comfortable with things changing at any time.  

After many iterations of an itinerary for the next 12 months, I concluded that “planning” this year has an entirely different meaning. There is no way to predict what the world will look like in a month, let alone 12. I’m learning that I need to be okay when things change and leave a lot of room for uncertainty. 

I’ve realized that even though it doesn’t seem like it, this may be the exact gap year that I need. Being able to make the most of an uncertain time will surely teach me more than anything else. In 5 or 10 years, I won’t look back at my gap year for the things I did or places I went (and honestly, I don’t know how well I will remember the specifics anyways). I hope, though, that I will look back at this time and realize that regardless of what I did or where I was, my gap year significantly impacted my life through college and beyond. I may not be able to travel to the coolest places or do all the things I had hoped, but I am confident that I will be able to grow as a person and gain as much from this time as I would have any other year.  

I look forward to sharing more updates on my year in the coming months! 

Embracing Unpredictability

By Valerie

4.5E14, 1.2E2, 94, 59… 

I sat stock-still with my body contorted in an awkward position, the tingling and prickling of pins and needles in my limbs hardly registering as I fixated my gaze on the screen with intense, sober concentration, for fear that everything would go awry upon the slightest falter. 

…32, 1.8, 0.04, 0.0015… 

Alongside the pleasant surprise of an acceleration in the numerical descent emerged a growing, albeit subdued, exhilaration. Prior disappointments had conditioned a wariness that prevailed over my innate optimism. 

“Come on…just a bit more!” With the solution literally on the brink of convergence, I prayed earnestly, as though sincerity could somehow tame wild and unpredictable digits into acquiescence. And as though in willful defiance, the numbers deviated off trajectory at that critical moment, lapsing into crippling stagnation– the prelude to eventual failure.  

To my uninitiated past self, finite element analysis (FEA) seemed fairly straightforward. Just assemble basic geometries to form a three-dimensional model, input some values and leave all the complicated and cumbersome calculations to the software. What could possibly go wrong? 

Well, as it turned out, just about everything. 

Running an FEA simulation as an amateur is analogous to orchestrating a battle against an ambiguous opponent without even being fully aware of your own capabilities. You cannot bear witness to the battle as it plays out in a virtual arena, only managing to steal glimpses of its progress through less-than-informative error estimates and iteration loggers– the sole basis for you to evaluate and revise your battle strategies.

Worst of all, when you encounter a protracted battle, you’re faced with a difficult choice. Either persist at the risk of wasting more time, or recall your troops and reconfigure a new battle strategy, though potentially letting victory slip away when it is almost within reach. Making an informed decision is well-nigh impossible when so much is shrouded in mystery. 

And just when you think you have it all figured out, you are caught unawares by unexpected results that instantly unravel the fabric of understanding you have painstakingly woven, thrusting you back into a helplessly perplexed state. 

My experience over the past few months of fumbling in the dark with COMSOL (an FEA software) has been a stark departure from the safe predictability and stabilizing control I am well-accustomed to, but I have gleaned valuable lessons from it. 

Identifying the root cause of a failed simulation by analyzing two dimensional cross sections and using a highly simplified model are but some of the strategies I have developed over time to overcome my inexpertise and unfamiliarity with the software. Countless troubleshooting attempts have cultivated courage, resilience and resourcefulness. Trial and error acquired a newfound appeal as I discovered such creative ways to expedite and refine what I hitherto dismissed as a crude and inefficient problem-solving strategy. Perhaps, most importantly, my innate aversion to uncertainty has given way to a thirst for the unexpected and I can’t wait to see what discoveries lie ahead.