As a high school student, I had deluded myself into thinking that college would be the ultimate liberating force — the grand illusion of higher education. A year later, however, I felt that I had merely transported myself from one institution of structural rigidity to another. All my activities seemed to be poor imitations of the ideal life I was searching for. By the end of freshman year, I felt suffocated. I needed to breathe and to think. A gap year would be a chance to step outside the track marks of our neurotic generation’s rat race.
One year on, as the deadline for study abroad in the spring approaches on October 15, I hope my experience will encourage anyone on the fence to jump over to the unknown.
The possibilities for a gap year can be both exciting and terrifying. At the start, I crafted a broad outline of how I intended to spend my time. I had emerged from freshman year as a disenchanted engineering student, disconnected from a world where technology is erupting with innovation. That was my primary concern. But perhaps this would also be the opportunity to explore something totally different. I could focus on my music and record an album. Or backpack through Asia or hike in the Himalayas. Or read all those classics I had never gotten around to. My head was whirring.
But when I returned to my parents’ house for the summer, I fell back into a dangerous comfort zone. I squandered weeks lounging about watching television — the quintessential life of a degenerate. Thankfully, this inertia didn’t last for long, and, unlike at Yale, with its hectic 13-week semesters, I could afford that lull.
I soon landed myself an internship at a start-up in San Francisco — so much easier when the season is not summer — which restored my faith in engineering. Time away from Yale gave me a sense of clarity in my professional goals. For three months, I devoured every bit of start-up culture that was on offer: the license to dress functionally instead of preppily, the presence of pets roaming the office, but mostly, working with a group of brilliant, passionate, quirky individuals (you know, those “crazy ones” that Steve Jobs always talked about). It was my personal mecca — the place I had searched for my whole life.
My gap year also gave me the chance to immerse myself in completely unrelated experiences. Unlike at Yale, I did not have to run from practice to section or toggle between rehearsal and readings. Instead, I could devote myself fully to my “extracurriculars.”
When I returned to South India, I voyaged through the Himalayas seeking silence and solitude. I spent time understanding the basics of permaculture while working on an organic farm in French Pondicherry. I backpacked for a few weeks around Thailand and Cambodia and learned how to scuba dive deep enough to get lost underwater. In my travels, I crossed paths with countless strangers. We shared beers and stories alike, not unlike in a dining hall, but with a far more eclectic crew.
Through my gap year, I unplugged from an “always-on” world that I had come to accept as normal. I noticed myself slowing down in simpler surroundings. To be sure, I found myself frequently missing Yale. The reality of a gap year is that it’s a lonely business. It’s strange to not have a predictable social rhythm like in college.
But now that I’m back, I feel more comfortable with myself and my choices. If I were to crystallize the entire experience, I would say I’ve learnt to live in the present. Most of us are so caught up in some image of our future selves that we choose to sacrifice our present happiness for some uncertain promise of success. Recognizing that we need not burn ourselves out to feel fulfilled is a brave step towards a healthy and balanced life. Sometimes, all it takes is the gift of time.
Rishab Ramanathan is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .