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A gap year sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It’s becoming increasingly popular, but still unconventional enough to warrant fascination from others when you tell them about it, almost like a badge of honour you wear proudly on your sleeve to announce to the world that you are not afraid to stop and take time to think about what you truly want to do in life, even as your peers relentlessly forge ahead in their educational and professional pursuits.
Everyone takes a gap year for different reasons– to travel, recharge after high school, gain working experience, ascertain aspirations, discover new passions or, of course, to avoid virtual schooling during a pandemic– and more often than not there are a multitude of factors at play. But we all share a common goal– to feel more prepared for college and life at large.
For the most part, my gap year has boosted my readiness for college, albeit not in the way that I expected a year ago.
The biotech internship and research attachment I participated in certainly informed my career aspirations, diverting me away from public health policy formulation and towards the physician-scientist pathway. With extra time on my hands, I’ve had the luxury of exploring the plethora of resources offered at Duke, talking to seniors and observing some classes related to my prospective majors (owing to the generosity of many professors). I now have a clearer idea of which courses to take, which programs to participate in and which clubs to join.
But the most useful skill I acquired was the art of self care. Bouts of ill health caused me to realise how much I had been neglecting my body and mind over the past few years. They instigated me to reexamine my lifestyle and reorganise my priorities, to stop centring my life around work and school and define boundaries to ensure that my physical and mental well-being are not encroached upon.
I probably should have established this work-life balance way back in high school, but in hindsight, I don’t blame myself for not doing so. How could I, with my future seemingly hanging in the balance? Not to mention that I based my self worth largely on my academic and extracurricular achievements, and was addicted to the satisfaction of perfecting a test score or winning a competition.
I had to extricate myself from the formal schooling system for this entrenched mindset to change. Life felt empty initially without the extrinsic gratification of a good score. But I soon discovered healthier, more sustainable sources of intrinsic happiness. I still see it as a form of responsibility to do well in tests, examinations and projects but they no longer tower over me like mammoth spectres. Receiving a mediocre grade will not make or break my college experience, let alone my life, and reducing my existence to a couple of numbers and letters is, well, depressing to say the least.
Preparing for the AP Biology test over the past few weeks gave me a chance to put this new mindset into practice, like a rehearsal before the actual college stage. While my high school self would have spent every possible minute cooped up in my study room, save for occasional trips to the bathroom or kitchen, the “new me” interspersed study periods with piano practice sessions, k-drama breaks and evening walks, even having the audacity to meet my friends for a meal or two. Rather than undermining my preparedness for the test, these healthy distractions actually alleviated my long-standing performance anxiety and prevented me from burning out (as I did while preparing for the “A” Levels).
Over the past year, I have definitely grown in both tangible and intangible ways. If I could go back in time, I would absolutely make the same decision to defer, even if it meant starting college later than everyone else. But I would also like to highlight that taking a gap year is not a panacea; you shouldn’t feel pressured to get it all figured out within 365 days. Exploration is, after all, what college is all about. I do have more clarity around my aspirations and passions, but it is with an open mind that I’m going into college, where new peers, mentors and experiences will shape me in ways I cannot yet imagine.
It was all I could ever think about, the nasty culprit behind countless sleepless nights, a master puppeteer who toyed with my emotional strings, wearing me down till I went limp as a rag doll.
Childish. Immature. Melodramatic. Many derided my all-consuming obsession as such. But was it really? How could I stop worrying after the (outrageously) staggering amount of dollars and hours invested in standardised tests and college applications? How could I stop agonising after the immaculate marketing apparatus of these institutions had utterly convinced me that the education they offered was what I wanted, nay, absolutely needed? How could I stop fretting when everyone appeared to take my admission as given and pulled no punches in asserting their confidence in my abilities?
Friday, March 27 2020, 0708 SGT.
After months of nerve-wracking anticipation (and an additional 8 minutes spent wallowing in the delusion that nothing was cast in stone till I relinquished my oblivion), I finally mustered the courage to open the portal. What ensued thereafter was an explosion of ecstasy that begs description.
Getting into Duke feels like a dream. But it has also been overwhelming. Once you start sporting the Duke cap, you are thrust onto a pedestal. You are showered with compliments that feel undeserved and misdirected and paint a shimmering persona you can only hope to live up to. You hear about the amazing feats achieved by students past and present and wonder if you have what it takes to fill the gigantic shoes they have left in their wake. For international students like myself, there is the daunting challenge of acclimating to college life without the comfort of the familiar; of making new friends without any common experiences to leverage as a starting point; of allowing our identities to be shaped and reshaped by a foreign culture without losing ourselves in the process.
The pandemic has hardly made things any easier. In the face of rapidly emerging and wildly circulating variants, travel restrictions that stretch indefinitely and familial pressures borne out of safety concerns, this heavenly dream constantly threatens to devolve into a hellish nightmare. As if it were not already challenging enough to adapt and thrive in Duke, study and living arrangements in the coming semester remain fraught with uncertainty. How am I going to get to campus safely without making my family worry? If I can’t, will online learning still be an option? How am I going to make friends remotely and attend live classes in a distant time zone? Whenever I get a taste of campus life through Instagram stories and virtual events, anticipation swells within me like a bubble, only to burst at the thought of missing out on all the fun in fall.
But hearing my own struggles with imposter syndrome, identity, uncertainty and loneliness echoed by other students during Duke Real Talk sessions has provided a good measure of solace and solidarity. Their stories have also driven home the reality that these sentiments will ebb and flow as I transition through different phases of college life, each with its own flavours of distress. I recall how desperately my younger self longed for the liberation that college life seemed to promise. I relive the euphoria that embraced me as I read that coveted acceptance letter, then bemoan how quickly it faded into the shadows of new concerns. There is no ailment more debilitating than chronic dissatisfaction– and I am starting to realise that the most powerful remedy comes from within.
Only I have the power to prevent myself from being swept up by the blustering whirlwind of ceaseless yearning and desire by remaining firmly grounded in the present moment. Adopting this deceptively simple mindset has been difficult, but it has certainly worked wonders. Who knew that taking morning strolls in the park, with the sweet scent of dewy grass still lingering heavily in the air, could dramatically uplift my mood for the rest of the day? Sometimes, I even stop by the beach to bury secret Korean messages in the sand and leave wondering if anyone will discover them before they are erased by the lapping waves. Stimulated by a surge of rekindled musical passion and the addictive satisfaction of mastering a challenging song, I have started playing the piano again and developed a new obsession with the ukulele (after numb fingertips and painful calluses suspended my love affair with the guitar). Every happy memory I make now is carefully preserved in daily gratitude stories on Instagram that remind me to savour all the little pleasures in my life before they slip away without warning.
As we welcome the newest members of the Class of 2025, getting into Duke a year ago still feels like a dream– and I want to keep it that way, to always remember how immensely blessed I am to be pursuing my aspirations in a supportive, collaborative and explorative environment, and be content with all that I already have.
As a quintessential Gen Z-er, I am conversationally impaired without my painstakingly-curated digital repository of stickers, emoticons and emojis. How could I not, when they have the power to impart shades and nuances that colloquial devices cannot effectively convey?
Responding playfully to a lame quip from a close friend with a terse remark lacks the theatricality of a flamboyant swivelling “OK” sign. A sprawling dead-eyed Kermit screams exasperation of an intensity that beggars description, infusing an impassioned rant with a much-warranted melodramatic tinge. And who could decline even the most onerous request at the heart-rending sight of a puppy with its paws clasped in earnest imploration?
When emails superseded texts as my dominant mode of communication for work and research, I balked at the cold, perfunctory exchanges. The striking absence of a warm human touch was discomfortingly at odds with my propensity for genuine, personal engagement. In a bid to lighten the tone of solemn discussions, I interspersed plain words with cordial smileys. But the bold attempts backfired, my well-intentioned overtures coming across as shallow and contrived.
Dismiss it as childish naivete if you must, but I refused to accept that this– sterile, dull and flagrantly pragmatic– was the immutable nature of work conversations and relationships. Thus began a series of strategic efforts to transpose these dialogues to the familiar grounds of WhatsApp and Telegram. There, with an extensive pictorial arsenal once again at my disposal, surely I would be better-placed to forge more meaningful connections?
Self-doubt and anxiety clouded the start of my endeavor. Was this appropriate? How would others react? Would my gestures be misconstrued? Preferring to err on the side of caution, I was conservative in my choices– especially with people many years my senior (boomers, basically)– carefully testing the waters before deciding to advance or retreat. It was a delicate balancing act that entailed not so much treading the fine line between the personal and the professional as constantly zigzagging across it, expertly adjusting the sails whenever the needle strayed too far off-centre.
Unapologetically nonchalant responses threatened to dampen my enthusiasm, but a handful of earnest reciprocations convinced me that it was well worth the effort. I am still not quite sure what to make out of these relationships, though. They continue to awkwardly straddle the ambiguous divide between work and life, suffusing me with guilt-ridden gratitude for reaping the practical benefits borne out of mutual amity, while evoking bouts of skepticism towards the other party’s intentions when the friendly exploitation becomes too blatant and overbearing.
I guess I’m starting to get a taste of office politics.
I knew that 2020 was going to be different. The respite from a grueling cycle of tests, projects and competitions was something I had anticipated since the start of high school, but I never expected it to be different in the way that it has been.
I made plans– lots of them– most of which have fallen through.
There were countless instances when I couldn’t help but lament, “Why, oh why now, of all times, when I am all ready to celebrate a major milestone in life and embark on the next and most exhilarating chapter?” The disappointment was palpable, much like being rewarded with a torrential downpour after an arduous ascent.
It all seemed so unfair.
In hindsight, I am glad that things turned out the way they did.
Still languishing in the belated fatigue of preparing for “A” Levels and applying to colleges, I was in no condition to maximise my educational experience a few months ago. What a waste it would have been had I sprinted mindlessly through the gates of college in August!
Notwithstanding the ample opportunities for exploration in college, researching and interning at institutions that sit squarely at the intersection of my dual interests of engineering and medicine has refined and reaffirmed my aspirations. Through interactions with professionals from various backgrounds, I have come to discover what truly excites me and learned about the diverse career pathways down which I could eventually venture .
Taking a gap year has also gifted me with additional time to rekindle bygone relationships and strengthen present ties. During my unexpected prolonged stay in Singapore, I have forged many memories with the people I love, all meticulously preserved in my camera roll so that I feel a bit less lonely when I am 9860 miles away from home.
With 2021 looming on the horizon, I wonder what surprises the new year will bring, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it is better not to harbour any expectations. Let’s just wait and see.
There it stood, arrogant and adamant, heedless of the shrill herald of impending peril.
I hastened my pace, smug in the certainty that the sudden acceleration would cow it into capitulation— but it hardly flinched in the face of the rapidly looming two-wheeled menace.
With disaster lurking a mere hair’s breadth away, complacency swiftly transmuted into panic. An artful swerve into an adjacent puddle sent murky water splashing wildly. Infuriated squawking ensued. I glanced over my shoulder to find the blustering rooster utterly drenched from crest to tail, its besmirched feathers a depressing shadow of their former grandeur.
Such was the first of what would be multiple stand-offs, our repeated encounters stemming from not so much coincidence as an embittered creature’s unwavering resolve to avenge its wounded pride.
When social distancing measures rendered many public spaces all but inaccessible, the park became my favourite haunt, a sacred sanctuary where I could seek temporary reprieve from suffocating confinement.
The feeling of escape arose from the very instant I rode down a narrow, winding slope and onto a dusky path tucked away beneath a bridge that extended into the lush green expanse of the park, not unlike a secret passageway to a hidden paradise. My attention swiveled from the squirrels foraging for food in the rich foliage of the sturdy rain trees to the exotic birds perched on the branches nearby to the saddled horses slurping from wooden troughs in Gallop Stable. The organic scent of damp earth, wood and animal dung intermingled with the crisp salty tang of the sea breeze as I ventured further.
I roved aimlessly, my mind a peaceful blank– until thoughts and emotions, hitherto divulged to my close confidantes but lately left to fester amid a dearth of social interaction, ambushed me in a deluge. To be forced to revisit and confront crippling anxieties and pent-up discontentment was strange, discomfiting, daunting even. But as I cycled round and round in endless loops, allowing the gently lapping waves to wash my troubles away each time they retreated into the sea, the tight knot in my chest gradually unravelled. Weaning myself off excessive emotional reliance on others and discovering an effective coping mechanism to keep myself sane and functioning was ineffably liberating and empowering.
Some cycling excursions were not quite as rejuvenating, blighted by their coincidence with peak after-work hours when the park was a hive of hectic frenzy. Young children ran amok with concerned parents trailing frantically behind. Joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists jostled for space on teeming paths, constantly on the qui vive for soccer balls kicked astray by frisky teens. Silver-haired regulars bore helpless witness to the onslaught of intruders, bemoaning the disruption of their daily routines. I navigated the obstacle course of humans (and occasional wandering creatures) with utmost vigilance, lest the slightest lapse in attention beget a catastrophe. The flimsy metal frame teetered precariously as I advanced inchmeal through the crowd, threatening to topple over if I slowed any further.
For all the chaos and frustration, I felt a palpable sense of connection to these strangers. We were all there for the same reason after all— to experience some semblance of normalcy in extraordinary times.
My adventures often ended with me pedaling furiously past the stable full of horses and the sturdy rain trees with their little inhabitants, onto the dusky path beneath the bridge and up the narrow winding slope, berating myself for losing track of time yet concomitantly lamenting the brevity of the getaway.
What initially came across as a brilliant scheme, however, was thwarted by messy realities.
Head throbbing and eyes sore from excessive screen time, I had to muster every fibre in my body to keep myself from spontaneously combusting. For the umpteenth time, I explained the concept with labored enthusiasm, struggling in vain to suppress the growing frustration in my voice and hoping without much faith that the information would finally be retained.
It was with naive optimism that I began tutoring, certain that the learning techniques I had painstakingly accumulated over the years would be the panacea for my tutees’ academic woes. I would share my know-how, enlighten young minds and bear proud witness to their meteoric improvements, glorying in my efficacious ways.
Time was a scarce commodity and attention even more so.
Well-intentioned attempts to cultivate genuine interest and provoke critical thought met with perfunctory regard at best, unable to prevail over a deep-seated institutionalized fixation on grades that I, at times, found myself capitulating to against better judgement.
Upholding formalities with teenagers just a few years my junior felt strange and discomfiting. But I was also wary of striking an overly casual tone for fear of relinquishing too much authority. It was a delicate tightrope act, each relationship with its own dynamics to navigate and balance to maintain.
Teaching bristled with its own challenges. I blundered often, my calculation errors and misreading of questions sending my poor tutees into an unnecessary spiral of confusion and self-doubt just when they were certain they finally
had it all figured out.
At times, sudden and unexpected mental blocks left me floundering helplessly in the face of simple word problems, ashamed and disheartened. Articulating complicated concepts for the first time was daunting. I struggled to find the appropriate terms to replace convoluted technical jargon while retaining their essence. My disorganized verbalizations did scant justice to the intricate yet systematic networks of mental connections upon which my understanding was founded.
I tried as much as possible to refrain from imposing my own expectations on my tutees, careful not to overstep the fine line separating the personal and the professional. But it was difficult not to feel disappointed when the results were not commensurate with the effort.
Over time, I realized that progress could hardly be measured in terms of trifling numbers and alphabets on performance reports. Though I was powerless to diminish the pragmatic significance of standardized test scores, I sought to emancipate myself and my tutees from the tyranny of metrics by celebrating intangible and unquantifiable successes.
I was still far from proficient at teaching but certainly more skilled than before. Leveraging on the benefit of familiarity borne out of hard-earned trust and well-established rapport, I tailored my pedagogical methods to suit each tutee, slowing down or speeding up at appropriate junctures and employing the use of visual aids and textual references if necessary. Lessons were strategically scheduled on the weekends, when minds were well-rested and functioning at peak performance. Time, though still at a premium, was maximized with more effective teaching and learning.
Tutoring has been unexpectedly frustrating, humbling and rewarding in equal parts, being as much a test of my intellect as a trial of my emotional intelligence. I am still lacking in many ways but my tutees constantly propel me to improve. I look forward to our collective growth in the coming months.
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.