An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Andrew Chen '18

I’ve always tried my hardest to follow the widely accepted Lakeside path, ever since I began school here in 7th grade. I would work hard in high school, attend a prestigious college for my bachelor’s degree after that, and then finally pursue whatever opportunity I stumbled across and found appealing – presumably a career that brought happiness, as well as perhaps wealth and status. Although I was flexible and open to different possibilities, such as switching majors or pursuing slightly unconventional careers, there was one change to my plan I had never ever considered: taking a gap year before college. I viewed the idea of a gap year as an unnecessary delay to my plan, and I thought gap years were only for students who felt like they weren’t ready for college. I didn’t think that was me. I was a very capable student, and I felt confident that I was prepared for all facets of college life.

Yet, last February, while I was discussing with Mr. Searl my desire to explore the world and do something vastly different for a change, he mentioned taking a gap year and posed me a simple question: “If you don’t go now, then when will it ever make sense for you to go?” I thought for a moment, yet I didn’t have an answer. All I could do was tell him why a gap year wasn’t for me: I didn’t have the time because a gap year would make me fall behind my peers and slow down my career path, I didn’t have the money because college was going to be expensive enough as is, and I definitely didn’t have a good plan for what I would do even if I were to defer my enrollment. It seemed obvious to just do the normal thing and begin undergrad next fall.

Yet that question stuck with me, and I eventually realized he was right. A few months later in June, I joined a gap year program called Global Citizen Year and went to live with a homestay in Pune, India for seven months. During my days, I spent time working as a teaching assistant in a public primary school. My experiences there led me to incredible people from all walks of life who opened my mind to new possibilities. There was my host family, who gave me excellent advice and a loving home; my apprenticeship mentors, who treated me like a true part of the school community; the other Global Citizen Year fellows, who became some of my closest friends; and even just the random strangers I met on the street, who were curious about me as a foreigner and wanted to learn more about life outside India.

Over time, my interactions with them, combined with the context of larger Indian society, prompted me to question the foundation of my strongest values, life goals, and personal choices. It led me to develop a more robust and self-aware moral compass through reflection, and as a result of that, I now have a far greater understanding of my place in today’s global society. That understanding has completely reshaped the person I aspire to be, the life I want to live, and the opportunities I want to pursue in the future, and it’s granted me renewed clarity and motivation for my future plans, both in college and beyond.

I’m deeply grateful I was open-minded to my gap year and ended up choosing to go to India because of how much it has changed my worldview and widened my perspective. I’ve also since realized that my initial fears and preconceptions of taking a gap year were completely unfounded. I don’t feel I’ve lagged behind my peers at all; in fact, I feel like I’ve grown and learned far more this past year than during any of my years at Lakeside. My gap year was also far more affordable than I had imaged. I received generous financial aid from GCY and had other opportunities such as WorkAway and TEFL (teaching English abroad) that can provide free room and board in almost any country in the world.

So no matter how prepared you may feel for college, there are many opportunities for extraordinary gap years that are both productive and affordable. Whether it’s a program like Global Citizen Year or something you piece together yourself, whether you want to go abroad or stay here in the States, there are many options to personalize your gap year to suit your needs. And even if you ultimately decide it’s not for you, that’s absolutely fine. I just urge you to be open-minded and at least consider the possibility of a gap year so you can make the best decision for yourself. Once you take a look at the opportunities available, you might just be surprised that there are better options than going straight to college.