Courtesy of Ismail Jamai Ait Hmitti

Ismail Jamai Ait Hmitti ’23 is on a leave of absence, but you can’t tell from his schedule.

Every morning Hmitti wakes up and by 9 a.m. he starts studying mathematical proofs. Afterwards, he shifts his focus to learning Arabic and Hebrew before devoting the rest of his day to research. He is working with Allison Hartnett of the University of Southern California — who completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale in 2019 — to collect data on land reform in the Middle East.

“It’s not working on a [class] schedule that really opened up the possibility to be profound about what I look at instead of quantitative,” Hmitti said. “I can just rekindle — and I know this is going to sound super bougie — rekindle my love for knowledge.”

Hmitti, in the midst of the notorious “sophomore slump,” started to consider taking time off last December, an impulse he believes all Yalies feel at one time or another. But the COVID-19 pandemic incentivized him to commit to a gap year.

“People who had thoughts of taking a year off understood that this was the year to do it,” Hmitti told the News. So, he traded his suite in Saybrook College for his family home in southern France.

Hmitti told the News that the pandemic’s restriction on access to Yale’s resources — like the microfilm archives in Sterling Memorial Library, where he has examined confidential correspondences between Israel and the United States during the Suez Canal crisis — was an important factor in his decision to take time off.

According to Hmitti, the independence of his gap year has given him time to digest all of the information he has learned at Yale so far. He said he had spent two years absorbing new theories, and that now he gets to identify how these theories have shaped his worldview.

Aside from reexamining his academic past, Hmitti said he is using his time off to reassess what he wants from his future.

“[A gap year] really makes you reevaluate what you’re looking for in your academia, what you’re looking for in your professional life, what you’re looking for in your social life,” he told the News.

Even though he is on leave and lives in a different time zone, Hmitti said he has remained connected with a tried-and-true Yale tradition: making plans without follow-through.

“‘Let’s Zoom’ has become the new ‘let’s grab a meal,’” a laughing Hmitti told the News, referring to the common trope of Yalies being too busy to get food together — but always promising otherwise.

Nevertheless, Hmitti said he is grateful for his Yale friends — most of whom enrolled in classes this fall — and their efforts to stay in touch. While some relationships have fallen away, Hmitti said others remain strong regardless of the distance.

Even though France is under lockdown until Dec.15, Hmitti said he also appreciates the chance to reconnect with his family members, whom he does not usually see during the academic year. However, he said he understands that not everyone in his native France has had such a fortunate time during the age of COVID-19, pointing to victims of domestic abuse, struggling restaurants and those with mental illnesses.

Hmitti said he thinks the pandemic has not made certain groups more vulnerable — rather, COVID-19 has rendered it impossible to ignore existing stratification in his country and the world at large.

“It’s always been this bad,” Hmitti told the News, referring to racial discrimination and rising far-right political movements. “We just weren’t listening.”

Hmitti said he thinks the stigma surrounding gap years is “ludicrous” and called this time a “gift” that he wishes he’d taken advantage of before coming to Yale. Though he understands that not everyone can afford to go on leave, Hmitti said every student should at least consider taking time off.

“It was at the right time and at the right place and I’m just really happy that I got to take this time,” Hmitti said.

Hmitti will continue to work on his research throughout the spring semester.

Jordan Fitzgerald |

Jordan Fitzgerald edits for WKND and writes about admissions, financial aid & alumni. She is a junior in Trumbull College majoring in American history.