A case for Gap Years

Aaron Chum, Author

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Editor’s note: The following piece was written by Jake Stern, a former Paly Voice  reporter and Palo Alto High School Class of 2011 graduate. 

Last winter, an ED acceptance letter from Emory University came back requesting a deferral to the college class of 2016.  

I wanted to take a “Bridge Year,” or a year of experience. I knew where I was going to college, and my parents supported me. Colleges usually say go for it, Princeton even encourages them. Emory told me, “go right ahead!”

So I did it. And in mid April, I came back from my eight month stay in Ecuador. It changed my life.

I became fluent in Spanish after living with a host family that spoke no English. I learned about developing world health, education and economics by apprenticing at an intercultural health center, an indigenous community school and a Women’s microfinance union. 

It was absolutely terrifying—my life’s greatest adventure. People trusted me to take their medical vitals. Teachers sent their kids to my class to learn English. And an entire credit union trusted me to make, what I believe, is the only piece of promotional media they own. I did this for a year, in Spanish, all alone.

At first, people laughed at my Spanish. I got hopelessly lost, and I failed countless times. I’ve traveled great distances alone. I made and lost some of my closest friends. I dreamed in Spanish. I learned to spot muggers and pickpockets, and acquired new scars. And I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

In high school, I dreamed about changing the world. I was so busy trying to grow up. But this year was about changing myself. I navigated a new world, learned from my failures and grew in directions I didn’t know existed.

College is going to be cake.

My point is this: consider taking a gap year. Do something different. A gap year is an opportunity to discover and reflect about what’s really important. Think about it.

If you want to talk to me, email me at stern.jake@gmail.com. I did my entire year through Global Citizen Year, which sends high school graduates to live and apprentice in developing countries.