Gap years, gap fears


Arushi Talwar, Staff Writer

Last summer, when Andrew Wang ‘19 first started his gap year visiting his family in Taiwan, he had not planned to spend the next few months studying there, nor traveling the world.
Wang had originally planned to stay abroad for a few weeks, but his visit turned into a much longer trip when he decided to stay to improve his Chinese. Like many students, Wang went into his gap year not knowing exactly what career he wanted to pursue in the future. “I thought it would be good to have the year to explore the options I had,” he said.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many more students have decided to follow Wang’s path and take a gap year.
Jude Herwitz (12) has noticed that the virus has made many students, including himself, consider taking a gap year because of the possibility of online school continuing through the fall semester of college, he said. “I wasn’t looking forward to having a freshman year where a significant part was online,” he said. “I wanted to start off with the real thing.”
Isabel Mignone (12), like Herwitz, was fully convinced to take a gap year when signs pointed to colleges going online in the fall. “The circumstances were so clearly in favor of it,” she said. “I’ll be able to have a more normal freshman year experience of actually being on campus, whereas right now it is unclear for a lot of schools.”
Similarly, Chloe Kim (12) decided to take a gap year because of the virus and the advice of her parents, who wanted her to have the typical freshman year experiences on campus. Beginning school in a completely new place in an online format was something Kim felt was a disadvantage, especially considering she wouldn’t have known anyone, she said. “[In] my experience with HM Online, you already know all your teachers, so it’s not hard to shoot your teachers an email if you’re having technical difficulties, but by starting at a new place you don’t anyone, it makes it a lot harder.”
Though Kim is confident in her decision, she was nervous when she first submitted her gap year request, considering none of her friends at the time were doing something similar, she said.
After talking about it to her parents and reflecting on the decision, she decided it was ultimately what she wanted to do. “I realized that despite the fact that no one else is doing it, it is still the right path to take.”
Even though COVID-19 was a considerable factor in influencing Kim’s decision, she discussed her concerns with Associate Director of College Counseling Kaitlin Howrigan. Howrigan encouraged Kim to take a gap year if she had concrete plans as to what she was planning to do, not because she wanted to avoid missing out on experiences, Kim said. Still, Kim made her decision confidently and well before her college’s deadline.
As for Irati Egorho Diez (12), COVID-19 did not sway her decision to take a gap year, as it is something she had decided upon before she even began high school. “I remember even in the summer of my eighth grade I was already talking about my gap year, so it has always been pretty high up on my list of things I wanted to do,” she said.
Although Mignone doesn’t have a concrete plan as to what her gap year entails due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, she is looking into different semester-based options. These include several options such as culinary school, a possible internship opportunity in Argentina, and a program in Egypt to study Arabic, she said.
Mignone said she believes it would be beneficial to take a gap year to pursue interests that she may not necessarily want a career in. “I think that taking a gap year is a really unique opportunity, in that you can take chances and you can take advantage of opportunities that are really only available at this point in your life,” she said.
Mignone also hopes that her gap year will give her time to recuperate before going to college. “I’ve been at Horace Mann for 13 years and going to another high-pressure institution is what I ultimately want to do, but not necessarily right after,” she said.
Jessica Thomas (12), who has also been at the school for 13 years, is taking a gap year as a break from an academically rigorous environment. “I just felt like for me to go onto the next level and to succeed I would need to take a break to figure out who I am and what I really want to do,” she said.
Like Thomas, Egorho Diez’s main focus in taking her gap year is to explore a different structure of life than she had at school. “I want to have a year where you do things for yourself and get to know yourself a lot better than you can when your priorities are dictated by school and expectations,” she said. Egorho Diez wants to focus on building genuine relationships with people and learning skills that cannot be quantified as a letter or number grade.
“I think it will make me appreciate school life even more than I do now.” Herwitz said. He hopes it will be a rejuvenating experience after feeling “burned out” by working hard in high school as well as coping during this pandemic, he said.
To help with his transition, Herwitz will work for Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign up until election day. He will be contributing as an organizer, knocking on people’s doors and talking to them, while also helping to run a campaign office, he said.
Thomas, who is also not travelling abroad, is hoping to shadow a psychologist during the year, as well as doing service work. She hopes this will give her valuable experience and insight for her future, she said.
“I think it will be a time for me to be an adult and be on my own and have responsibilities without the entirety of adult life, so I’ll still be [financially] supported by my parents, but have the ability to venture out on my own and see where I land.”
Kim, who is also staying in the United States, is planning to devote her year to working on her non-profit organization, which focuses on raising scholarship funds for North Korean refugee students in the U.S, she said. Contributing to this is important now more than ever, she said, as the students from North Korea are drastically affected by COVID-19 and require more assistance than usual.
Currently, Kim’s non-profit runs two scholarship programs. When she filled in the gap year request form that she submitted to her college, she spoke of plans to develop these program initiatives. “I could expand them further to tailor them to the needs of the students right now, during this pandemic,” she said.
Outside of Kim’s work with her non-profit, she hopes to get a job to get work experience in a field she might not have been able to pursue academically. “I think not knowing exactly how the year is going to pan out is a little nerve-racking,” she said. “Even just sending out resumes and not hearing back from a lot of people because they’re preoccupied right now with other concerns.” Still, Kim said she hopes the anxiety of the situation will soon pass so she will be able to work at a human rights focused non-profit during the year.
Egorho Diez is interested in service work as well, as she is planning to work on a peace building project in Palestine. She is also considering working at a hostel in Tel Aviv or living in the Jordanian Desert, even though traveling abroad is uncertain due to the virus.
Ari Moscona ‘19, who had the opportunity to travel abroad, took his gap year abroad in Madrid, Spain, taking courses at the culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu Madrid. Taking multiple courses at a time and spending many hours studying was an intense experience, Moscona said. Though the full culinary program was originally six months, Moscona only completed half, as COVID-19 cut the program short.
Alex Peeler ‘19 also spent her gap year at an abroad program that was cut short, like Moscona. She studied at a year-long program in Rome, where she continued learning Italian, which she was learning at the school for three years prior. “I thought it would be a really amazing way for me to see a part of the world and explore Europe more,” she said.
Since Peeler wants to become a screenwriter, she took many affiliated classes before COVID-19 cut her experience short. As the virus hit Italy hard, she had to come back home in early March, two months before the program would have otherwise ended, she said.
Despite this disappointment, Peeler believes taking a gap year has been one of the best decisions of her life. Aside from coming out of the program fluent in Italian, she is very grateful for all the new opportunities she has experienced while living in Rome, she said. “I felt like a real part of Rome; I had a flower lady and a favorite restaurant, and I felt like a local,” Peeler said. “I got to experience a part of the world that I never got to see.”
Even with COVID-19 cutting his program short, Moscona enjoyed his experience in Madrid and strongly recommends taking a gap year to dive deep into an interest, but warns against a year full of relaxation.“If you have a passion that’s not going to be what you do in college or as a career, a gap year is probably the only time you’ll be able to intensely study it,” he said.
Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture and Institutional Equity John Gentile emphasized that there are many different options for a gap year that don’t include traveling abroad, which may not be an option due to socioeconomic reasons, he said. When students are surrounded by one possible model of what a gap year can include, it can feel limiting, as they are only given an example of one kind of experience.
Gentile believes framing gap years differently to suit the need of what the student hopes to get out of the experience is very important, he said. “I think we need to be expansive of how we’re defining a gap year. We need to be able to derive multiple models of what that experience could look like,” he said.
Wang also felt that taking a gap year allowed him to learn a lot more about other people from different backgrounds he would have otherwise never met, he said. Learning other ways to live life was very humbling, he said. “At Horace Mann, you’re only exposed to one perspective—you have to always be productive, go to a university, and get a good job,” he said. “While I was traveling I met a lot of people who were just happy with the situation they were in.”