Over the summer, did you consider taking a gap semester? Possibly a whole year? If so, you were definitely not alone. At both Harvard and Yale, roughly 20 percent of incoming first-year students deferred. Similarly, I opted for a leave of absence, delaying my senior year to the fall of 2022.
Despite how frequently the notion of a gap year was tossed around by my friends, it was a painstakingly difficult decision. I agonized throughout the summer (and well into the first week of the semester) about whether or not to enroll in classes. My greatest hesitation in submitting my petition for a leave was the fact that I had absolutely nothing lined up — no internship, no volunteering opportunity, no part-time job, nothing.
It was terrifying. Untethering myself from the safety and security of being a college student — of knowing what comes next — was near unthinkable.
For many college students, especially at Yale, our lives have been structured. Our lives have, to this point, followed a fairly standard roadmap. Elementary school. Middle school. High school. College. And by the time we arrive on campus, we are almost inextricably set on this path where we are provided the security of knowing what comes next. First year. Sophomore year. Junior year. Senior year.
This predetermined journey does not end here — the desire for certainty and security bleeds into our post-graduate plans as well. For a significant chunk of seniors, summer internships turn into full-time jobs; yet the type of work skews heavily towards specific industries. For the class of 2019, 16.9 percent of employed graduates went into financial services and 12.7 percent went into consulting. While this can be attributed to many reasons, one that must not be overlooked is the allure of their structure. For students who have grown accustomed to having their next steps planned out, a two- or three-year “analyst” program offers enough safety to kick the metaphorical can of decision down the road. Finding full-time employment, however, is not the only way in which college students seek out such structure. Think of graduate and professional school. In 2019, outside of the 74.7 percent of employed graduates, 16.9 percent enrolled directly in graduate or professional school.
Indeed, once we hear back about these opportunities, we — newly minted and starry-eyed college graduates with crisp new diplomas — are whisked away to the next step in our five-year plan before our cap and gowns are even hung up.
Yet, sooner or later, that safety and security about knowing what lies ahead will inevitably come to an end. Maybe it’s when we graduate from medical school or conclude that residency program. Or perhaps it’s when you finish your last exam in law school or at the end of that two-year “analyst” program. For some of us, it could come when we’re 30 or 40. For others, it might be this coming May. After a life of direction, what will we do then?
I remember feeling unanchored and adrift when thinking about my gap year. It’s similar to that sensation when finishing your last final paper or exam, when that last email leaves your outbox. Yes, a sense of fleeting relief, but also a gnawing sense of “what comes next?”
If college is meant to help prepare us for the world, then what do we derive from the practice of nurturing structured lives that follow a beaten path? When will we learn how to deal with uncertainty, of being completely cut loose from structure and stability?
I want to clarify that my intention is not to propose for everyone to take a gap year. For many of us, we are constrained by the realities of obligations to family or financial considerations. Nor do I discount that people pursue certain careers and opportunities like medical or law school out of passion.
Rather, my intention is to focus on those decision points in our lives, wherever — and in whatever form — they may arise. Ultimately, we all eventually have to make choices about our future. And it is at these crossroads that I hope we ask of ourselves, are we falling victim to the grand scheme of life that our past selves planned out?
The “path less traveled,” by definition, is the one of uncertainty. It is one that evokes fear. The fear of being untethered, of not knowing what lies ahead. Yet, when we feel such fear, it might behoove us to remember a somewhat paradoxical yet illuminating line by Goethe.
“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.”
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.