Courtesy of Michaela Markels

With the world in the midst of a pandemic that has completely reformed the way we live, the very fabric of the Yale experience has been altered. While some students were willing to brave the storm of uncertainty and venture onto campus this year, a group of students of unprecedented size decided to wait it out and take a leave of absence this fall.

Among those students is Michaela Markels ’24, a prospective economics and English double major in Grace Hopper College who plans to take the full year off. In a regular year, you could usually find Markels spending time working at the Yale admissions office, doing volunteer service through Dwight Hall or writing, both for classes and for fun. However, in this very different year, you’d find Markels somewhere very unique: living in South Korea with friends.

Regardless of the excitement and fun an experience like that exudes, she, like many people who considered taking leaves this semester, had some initial reservations.

“I was always like, ‘A gap year would be cool, but I would never do it. I would never take a gap year. I don’t know what I would do,’” said Markels in a Zoom interview with the News. “But then when [classes going online] happened, especially after taking online classes in the summer, I couldn’t bear the idea that this year would count as one of my four years.”

Markels is no stranger to living abroad. Before attending Yale, Markels went to high school in New Jersey, but spent periods living abroad in Madrid and Mexico City. So for her, living in South Korea for two-and-a-half months with friends seemed like a natural progression.

It helped that Markels’ good friend Judith Chang ’24 was living in Korea when Markels and her friend Nicole Marino ’24 decided they would join her and spend time there during the semester.

“Me and Nicole decided to go spend time together with Judith,” Markels said. “Korea wasn’t on any bucket lists for me. I’ve always loved to travel, but I had never been to Asia at all. After spending so much time at home with my family in quarantine, any kind of new environment was what I wanted. I wanted to go somewhere where I was out of my element.”

And as far as new environments go, Korea definitely fits the bill for Markels. She and her friends lived in a tiny, one-room apartment in Seoul — which, as Markels put it, got “bigger and bigger as time went on” — but spent lots of time outside the city discovering different parts of the Korean peninsula. Among the destinations were Jeju Island, Busan, Gwagju and the Demilitarized Zone.

But while the trip itself was a fun time for Markels, it was about more than just getting on the subway and exploring random neighborhoods in Seoul. For Markels, the trip completely redefined success and what living a rewarding life meant.

“I’m so used to feeling the reward of hard work from school,” Markels said. “That’s a huge part of where my pride and confidence comes from. To spend so much time away from that, it made me uncomfortable, but was also why this has been so good for me. I don’t want so much of my value and my confidence to come from productivity. … So, I decided for this to be a year to grow in other ways that are non-academic and non-career focused, and more about personal growth.”

Her spring to-do list includes moving to Mexico City with friends to do volunteer work at a local nonprofit, visiting Los Angeles to build relationships with her family, starting a new podcast with the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Yale, doing research work for Yale, returning to her job at the admissions office, helping her high school’s Ethics Institute with a project on humane technology and working on her writing.

While this year may be strange, Markels said she has changed her viewpoint and has seen this year as an opportunity, not a setback.

“It’s cool to start seeing friendships and relationships now as the beginning of lifelong friendships,” Markels said. “It’s like the beginning of my adult life, that’s what this year feels like to me. Kind of like an inside look into post-graduation life. … I learned that something can be rewarding even if it’s not academic.

Markels’ final takeaway? Get outside of the Yale bubble and talk to people you wouldn’t usually talk to.

“What’s been really valuable about what I’m doing versus what I would usually do at Yale is getting myself out of my bubble,” Markels added.

Jordan Davidsen | jordan.davidsen@yale.edu