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Starting My Gap Year

By Leah

I’ve only just started my gap year, but I’m already beginning to understand one of the most important skills that I’m going to develop this year: flexibility.

Under normal circumstances a gap year is an opportunity for spontaneity, adaptation, and occasionally allowing whims to take you wherever they will – it’s not possible to carefully plan out your every move months in advance; that’s what makes it so exciting! I feel like that effect has been amplified this year – now that the future of gap year programs and work opportunities and travel is uncertain, January of 2021 can feel like it’s decades away and there’s no way of knowing if things will be roughly the same, or if we’ll be living in a completely different world. I’ve come up with plans and backup plans and backup-backup plans, and they will all undoubtedly require some modification over the next several months; there’s a decent chance that I’ll end up doing something completely different that hasn’t even crossed my mind yet. I’ve established my long-term goals and expectations for the year with this uncertainty in mind: it’s not exactly realistic right now for me to hope to get a specific job or go to any particular country; 2020 goals have to be a bit more abstract. My main focus this year is learning how to get the most out of every situation I find myself in.

I’m starting off the year in my hometown of Alexandria, VA. This week I started working as a remote intern for a firm that creates political campaign ads. I’m working with one other intern as a production and research assistant supporting the work of four associates. I’m so excited to be involved with this work and learn about creating and conveying compelling campaign narratives, while playing a role in key races in this very important election year. I was nervous to start working with a team of people who I’ve never met and who I can’t interact with in person, but I’m already getting the hang of things – the most important thing is to communicate and ask a ton of questions!

I’m also staying involved with my personal interests by taking lessons in Chinese language, horseback riding, and violin. My desk will be my home base for the next couple of months, as that’s where I spend much of my time making phone and Zoom calls, doing work for my internship, and attending remote Chinese classes.

Towards the end of September, I’ll wrap up my internship and travel to North Carolina Outward Bound to spend two months backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, and kayaking. I’m working hard to keep myself in good shape so that I can get as much out of that program as possible – that means lots of long walks and time working out in our garage “gym”!

Right now my plan is to get home from Outward Bound at the end of November, spend some time with family, and then (hopefully) travel internationally in 2021, but I’m ready to adapt to whatever the world looks like in the coming months. I can’t wait to find out what the next year has in store for me!


Planning Amid the Unpredictable

By Christina

Long-term planning during a global pandemic presents challenges.  We have all asked ourselves what the world will look like in a month and a year.  Will elbow bumps replace handshakes?  Will meetings continue on Zoom?  Will travel return to normal?  There is a lot we don’t know, both about the future and the virus, and trying to plan a year in advance is essentially impossible. 

established my gap year goals from the beginning: travel and develop new perspectives, engage in meaningful local service, and participate in activities I love.  I had a set of plans that fulfilled these goals, beginning with an internship at a software company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam this fall.  However, the virus rendered my plans impossible, and I struggled to accept this fact.  The next year of my life was completely swept away by the virus, and I was left stunned. 

Then something clicked: I realized my initial fall plans were hopeless.  That total defeat allowed me to move on and see the opportunity that lay elsewhere.  I jumped to action and, knowing I needed money to pay for my gap year, I pursued and got a job at a restaurant serving takeout.  I started reaching out to anyone and everyone of interest, from my high school’s volunteer coordinator to politicians around the country.  Plenty of my emails went unanswered, and I received many no’s, but the number of people interested in helping me was shocking and a welcome surprise.  I pursued every opportunity available and of interest to me.  I began to realize that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to reevaluate what is important to me.  I had the chance to start over and examine what work would best allow me to achieve my gap year goals.  Being limited in location allowed me to see how much I don’t know about Atlanta, where I was born and raised and still live.  I plan to support and contribute to my local Atlanta community this fall through service and work.  am getting certified to teach reading through Reading is Essential for All People, or REAP. 

A REAP training class!
Previous volunteer work I did with a local Title I elementary school. When the pandemic closed schools in Atlanta, the school’s staff mobilized volunteers to pack and distribute school meals to the elementary students and homemade dinners to their families.
The case study I assisted my professor in writing.  Several universities have already asked to use our case study in their classrooms!

I plan to conduct free tutoring sessions for students, particularly for students at an under-served Atlanta elementary school that I have volunteered with in the past.  I have worked and will continue to work with their teachers and staff to support the school in the midst of the pandemic.

 I am working as a research and teaching assistant to an Emory University instructor teaching healthcare management.  I contributed to her business case study about a telehealth company in the pandemic that is in submission for publication in a peer-reviewed magazine. 

 After about two months of reaching out to MJ Hegar’s team (US Senate candidate in Texas), I now am a remote finance intern on the campaign.  Having lots of family in Texas, I see the diverse needs of people within the state and am delighted to support an American hero fighting for the everyday Texan.  My plans look nothing like they did five months ago, but I am excited to be involved with and serving communities of importance to me, particularly Atlanta.  After countless emails, interviews, and phone calls, I now have a plan that reflects what I want to achieve. 

 The pandemic has reminded me to embrace the flexibility of a gap year.  I am constantly learning and have the freedom to shape my gap year around what I learn, steering myself towards the person I want to be.  I anticipate a lot of my ideas about my gap year will change over the course of the year, but I look forward to constantly adapting and uncovering new opportunities. 

Expressing Love From A Distance

By Sofia

Hi there! I start my first blog post with relatively little to reflect on, as it feels that my gap year hasn’t really begun. I’m floating in transition between child and adult, the end of high school and the beginning of my gap year, COVID-19 lockdown, and whatever the “new normal” looks like.

My summer began like most everyone’s: sheltered in place. While the initial adjustment was difficult to say the least, I’ve found that I genuinely enjoy spending this much time with my family of six (seven with the dog).

The kitchen has become my refuge. Cooking has allowed me to connect with my family without feeling suffocated by their constant presence. The endless supply of breads, muffins, tarts, and other foods, are my love language.

Best of all, this passion of mine has become a bridge between me and my grandmother—she’s teaching me to make paella. It’s both intimidating and incredibly comforting to make such a classic Spanish dish. Her lectures on the traditions of making paella remind me that while much of my heritage is still rather unfamiliar to me, I can still deepen my Spanish roots from across the world. While my lack of bomba rice and Valencian water (many swear by these two as the most essential ingredients) has been a bit frustrating, so far, I’ve been successful.

Here is one of my early paellas. I’m beginning to experiment with different seafood ratios, more broth, and I’ve purchased a pan big enough to feed 12 people, though I have yet to face that challenge.

Cooking lessons I’ve learned so far:

  1. Never EVER take your eyes off the paella (not even for a second). And don’t forget things in the oven.
  2. A little bit of socarrat, the charred rice at the bottom of a paella, is a delicious accident, not a mistake.
  3. The taste test is key… In every recipe.
  4. Eyeballing quantities is okay (for most dishes), it’ll probably still turn out well!*
  5. Throwing spices that smell good in a pan is a bold move, but a good one. Know the risks.*
  6. Don’t forget the salt!

*these don’t apply to paellas!

As I learn to somewhat follow recipes (I’m an impulsive cook—I make adjustments on the fly), I’m beginning to view the gap year I had planned as a recipe, one that can be modified to my future tastes. I have no idea how much of it will pan out, but for now I’m planning, awaiting my first adventure (Outward Bound), and enjoying my family, my job, and my friends (from six feet away!).


Thoughts on Perspective

By Camille

Without a traditional graduation and the end of senior year festivities that lead up to it, high school seemed to slip away. One day I was watching my teachers through my computer screen, and the next I woke up as a high school graduate. I had always thought of graduation as a magical rite of passage, the official transition into adulthood, but despite having decorated my cap and ironed my gown, I didn’t feel much different the day I picked up my diploma. I yearned for more time, the opportunity to thank my teachers in person, a chance to say goodbye to people I might never see again. In short, a different ending.  

With such an unexpected end to the year, it was easy to get caught up in the emotions that sudden change brings- fear, grief, uncertainty. It was also easy to wish for the sudden ability to time travel as a way of thwarting what was already unfolding. But all of those emotions were masking what was the most important thing that came out of this spring: gratitude. Instead of falling into the trap of thinking about what could have been, I began shifting my focus to what is. I began reflecting upon the great three full years I did have, the lessons I’d learned, the goals I’d reached, and all of the lasting memories I’d made. It wasn’t an overnight transition, but changing the way I viewed the unconventional last few months has made all the difference. In the end, it’s your perspective that matters. 

Looking forward to the year ahead, I couldn’t be more excited to have a chunk of time that I’m able to dedicate solely to my interests, both those that already exist and those that are yet to be discovered. Taking a gap year is something I’ve always had in the back of my mind, but the year I’ve planned looks almost nothing like the year I would have planned six months ago. I’ve had to be creative in my planning, which has stretched me to consider new local and virtual opportunities. 

This summer, one of the things I’ve had the most fun with is learning how to use Adobe Illustrator through an online community college class. I might not have explored graphic design this deeply otherwise, and this last month I’ve gained useful skills while really enjoying the process. While I’m not living out my dream of traveling the world, I am engaged in a different kind of exploration: an eternal one. Perspective is key. 

Far From Home

By Maia

Ever since Friday March 13th, the last day I stepped into a classroom, traveling to Israel to begin my gap year has seemed like my ticket out of the pandemic. I planned my gap year before the pandemic and luckily I have not had to change my plans. Knowing my next steps during a confusing time in the lives of many people has made me feel incredibly grateful for my circumstance and the chance to be a part of a cohort of Duke students on similar but diverse journeys. I see my year in Israel as a unique opportunity to learn in a different way and begin Duke with a better understanding of how I want to dedicate my time. I’ll be taking classes at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center for pluralistic Jewish thought in Jerusalem, and for the first time, I will focus on my studies without the added pressure of receiving a grade. Even though I know very little about archaeology, I would like to intern at an archaeological dig once a week, something I would never otherwise have the opportunity to do.

To prepare for my gap year, I am attempting to master a few recipes as I will have to cook for myself and others. For the first time, I am spending many hours learning Hebrew on Duolingo. I’m still figuring out how I will fit a year’s worth of clothes into one suitcase and I am nervously awaiting my two weeks in quarantine once I arrive in Israel. I choose to select that I am “averagely clean” rather than “organized and proper” on my rooming survey. I’ll be living in a three-bedroom apartment, with six people and I was hoping that if I presented myself as “organized and proper” my roommates may be neat and clean people. Unfortunately, my family has strongly disagreed with this description of my cleanliness guiding me to honestly describe myself as “averagely clean.” Hopefully, my roommate will have a more generous opinion, and maybe at Duke, I can finally define myself as “organized and proper.”

In less than a month I will be living with a group of people, Israelis and North Americans with different backgrounds and experiences including religious observance. I’m looking forward to adapting to living with people who have grown up very differently from myself. I know I will likely be eating kosher food and maybe I will choose to accompany some friends to religious services. At the same time, I have no way of anticipating the everyday challenges and meaningful moments that will define my year abroad. That’s the daunting and great thing about taking a gap year.

The Transition

By Sammy

Our lives move so fast, we don’t even get to enjoy a transition. Without this pandemic, I would have gone straight from graduating to being an 8-week camp counselor to possible going straight to Duke. I would be jumping from one experience to another, without even realizing that I’m heading into the biggest change in my life. The pandemic has forced me to slow down, given me a surplus of time to reflect and prepare. I was talking with my friend, who just came back from the hospital after almost dying in a longboarding accident on the road. He told me through his bandages, “You never know when your life can completely change, so take it slow.” I gave him some advice too: “Don’t longboard.”

Many of my other friends complain that time is moving like cement these days, but graduating seniors have been given an opportunity to transition — an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future before plunging in, taking the time to realize our lives will really never be the same.

“You’re taking a gap year? Seriously? Don’t you want to start college? Why are you putting your life on hold?” These questions repeated themselves throughout the end of high school, as my friends tried to understand why anyone would delay the college experience even by a year. I wouldn’t back down: “College will still be there in a year…Imagine learning and living in Israel! … Will you ever be able to have an experience like this again?” After a few more of these arguments and colleges releasing their 2020-2021 plans, I had convinced 6 of my friends to join me in Israel.

I realize now, even without the pandemic, that a gap year was always the best decision. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A unique experience. Most of all, a transition. I don’t know who I’ll be in a year or how I’ll change during the gap year, but I know that I’ll grow. I think it’s important to really know who you are when you get to college, so you can’t let anyone else tell you who you are. A year in Israel is a transition that I wish everyone can take, but it feels so unnatural to many Americans. Our culture pushes on us the same general goal to success (which apparently means happiness): work hard in school, go to a good college, get a good job, make money. Delaying that process by a year doesn’t make sense to many. In other cultures, like in Israel for example, kids are not pressured to grind for a couple more points and a letter grade. Instead, they accept the reality from a young age that at 18, they’ll be putting their lives on the line for their country in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). The culture creates a different type of people, in my opinion, happier and more genuine people, without this standard path to success. People, believing that the study/work/money process is the only real path to happiness, argue that taking a gap year is putting your life on hold. But that standard success story isn’t everyone’s future, especially outside of America. Surrounded by that Israeli culture and new experiences I’ll undergo a transition. I’ll reflect on the past, but more importantly, I’ll discover what my real goals are in life, my real priorities, and who I’ll be when I enter college. That’s not putting my life on hold. If anything, that’s discovering what I’ll make out of my life.

Learning to Take Risks

By Lizzy

Hi! I’m Lizzy from Austin, Texas. I can’t believe I’m already one month into my gap year—I have loved every moment and am so excited to see what the rest of the year will bring! 

 Despite my enthusiasm, I hadn’t seriously considered taking a gap year until about 6 months ago. I love the stability and organization of an academic schedule, so taking such a risk would have been out of character. Even though I dreamed of taking time off school and travelling the world, I never thought I would be brave enough to follow through with it.

So, what changed? At first, my structure-craving mindset remained stubborn as ever. I was bent on choosing the most practical option– and taking a year off school never seemed practical, no matter how much I thought I might enjoy it. As schools began closing in March and my meticulous plans for freshman year melted away, so did my fear of taking a gap year. I was faced with uncertainty no matter what I chose to do, so I abandoned hopes of practicality and stability and chose what I had truly wanted to do all along. At the time, taking a gap year felt like a huge risk, but I have it immensely so far and am incredibly pleased with my choice.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of taking a gap year so far is the freedom it has granted me. Throughout middle and high school, I would plan obsessively, scheduling every hour of every day– including weekends– with tasks to complete for school and extracurriculars. Now, for the first time in 7 years, I am not tethered to such a schedule. I am finally free to explore the things I felt too busy to do during high school, and I am beginning to learn the merits of letting go of structure: had I forgone a gap year and adhered to the college schedule, I would be fretting endlessly over class registration and roommate pairings right now. Instead, I fill my days with my favorite activities, like cooking elaborate dinners for my family, water skiing on Lake Austin, and going on hikes with friends. 

In fact, despite taking time off school, I have found even more joy in my nerdy, academic passions than ever before. I’ve spent countless hours studying math, physics, and chemistry on my own, and I’ve joined a logic puzzle-solving club in Austin. In my internship, I have delved into optics and engineering, working outside paid hours to complete my project. Along with a few friends, I’ve challenged myself to learn the names and mythology of the major stars and constellations in the night sky. When we camped at Enchanted Rock, a massive granite dome in rural west Texas, we even brought along a telescope (which admittedly looked a bit strange in the rugged wilderness, as pictured below)! As we located Jupiter’s red bands, Saturn’s rings, and the moon’s craters through the telescope lens, I realized that learning voluntarily in the company of friends and nature is a far greater joy than I ever experienced from mandatory school assignments. 

Inevitably some of my old stability-seeking habits will return come fall of 2021 and I am once again facing the regiment of a school schedule. However, I am hoping I will carry with me what I have already begun to learn from my gap year: that taking risks and letting go of structure can be both fun and rewarding. 


Pre-Israel Jitters

By Abby

I love making lists, whether it’s a post-it note to-do list or a messily scrawled grocery list. There is simply nothing more satisfying than a document that clearly conveys information.

Unfortunately, that is not the Israeli way; my program has not communicated what I should pack or what I should expect. In fact, almost everything I know about Mechinat Beit Yisrael is thanks to American alumni of the program. All alumni have their “two cents” about useful supplies, but everyone has recommended I bring Blundstones.

Consistent with go-with-the-flow Israeli culture, Blundstones are boots suitable for a morning of hiking, an afternoon of shopping, and then an evening of dinner and dancing. To Israelis, Blundstones are not merely boots but their own category of shoe. The only lamentable thing about them is that I’ve always found them quite unattractive.

Typically, I’m not one to succumb to social pressure; if I learned anything in high school, it’s to be proud of my quirks. I was prepared to show up in Israel Blundstone-less until the one other American girl doing my program said she had them. I rethought the issue; maybe they will give me some semblance of fitting in as one of four North Americans among 70 Israelis. The truth is that despite studying Hebrew for 15 years, mine is far from fluent; and, given my inability to follow American pop culture, who knows when I’ll understand Israeli cultural references.

A trait that comes with my love of list making is an inclination to be prepared, so I researched and wrote down possible Ulpan classes I could take to brush up on my language skills. The first Ulpan – literally meaning instruction, teaching, or studio – began in 1949 in Jerusalem to introduce new olim (immigrants) to Hebrew and Israeli culture. They are now widely offered at multiple levels, and I just completed an advanced virtual class through my local JCC (Jewish Community Center). Although the first few three hour zoom sessions were utterly draining, by the end of the four weeks, I was used to being in a Hebrew environment for that long.

One practice I found helpful and will continue is keeping a Hebrew word journal. Whenever a fellow student or I asked what a word meant/how to say a word, my teacher would write the Hebrew word in the chat. Throughout class, I diligently, yet sometimes frantically, wrote down every word so I could review them later. I am so glad I took the Ulpan class, but writing down 150 or so new words every day made me acutely aware of how much I still have to learn.

Now my Blundstone opening was not a red herring; if you haven’t guessed already, I caved and bought a pair of (not so) shiny, new Blundstones. The truth is, my Ulpan class will probably make a much bigger difference in my adjustment than my Blundstones, but who knows?! I have been dreaming of taking a gap year in Israel since eighth grade; even though I am beyond ecstatic for this life changing year, I never expected to be so anxious that I would buy a pair of boots in an effort to acclimate.

After seeing the Blundstones in my room every day for a couple weeks, they are no longer an eyesore and may even have grown on me. Now that I’ve cobbled together a packing list, studied my vocab words, and brainstormed activities to busy myself during quarantine upon my arrival, I feel I’ve prepared enough and am ready to rip the band-aid off. I know that after the initial language and culture shock, I will view the year that lies ahead not as a daunting challenge but as an eye-opening adventure.