What did you do on your gap year?
It’s a familiar question for those of us who took gap years before coming to Princeton––not Bridge Year programs, but independent gap years.
“The immediate question is: oh, well what did you do?” explained Chaya Holch, a member of the Class of 2022 from Brattleboro, Vermont. “They want a five-second answer, and obviously no one’s answer is five seconds. So that’s been weird – there’s not room for the complexity of everyone’s gap year to enter a conversation.”
“I always have to clarify that I did not do Bridge Year,” said Pat MacDonald ’22, from Port Elizabeth, Maine, “because people really shit on Bridge Year.”
Bridge Year is the dominant gap year on Princeton’s campus and these programs are generally understood by (and widely publicized to) the student body, leaving the experiences of independent gappers largely unexplored and undiscussed.
After being launched back into the cycles of constant striving that comprise Princeton, it started to feel like my own independent gap year was fading into obsolescence. The experiences that had felt so extraordinary and life-changing––moments of joy, fear, awe, and excitement every day for a year––were becoming nothing but memories with little relevance to my daily life. While I had no regrets about taking the gap year, I had to ask myself: was there a point, or did there have to be? What is the lasting effect of the independent gap year? Can a year outside the grind actually change a person’s mindset, their identity, or their life? And do people who took an independent gap year add anything special to the Princeton community (besides a compulsion to story-telling)?
Before I could figure out these answers, there was a different question at hand: what are Princeton students actually up to on their independent gap years? Well––they do a hell of a lot, and most of those things are entirely unplanned and unexpected.
Alan Huo ’22, from London, U.K., crashed a motorbike on a volcano in Nicaragua––a little rough, he said––spent two nights on an outdoor hammock in the desert of Colombia––“one of the nicest things ever” ––and slept on the street in Costa Rica.
Carson Wardell ’21, from Lake Forest, Illinois, rode the trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing to Moscow and “got completely drunk with a bunch of Russian Special Forces eating fermented cabbage” aboard the train.
Mika Hyman ’22 from London, U.K. did cultural and historical research on a Yemeni community and witnessed two men in Oman who had been on opposite sides of a military conflict and “had previously had such opposing ideologies […] now working together and trying to negotiate, to move towards a greater purpose.”
Christopher Russo ’20, from New York, N.Y., was briefly locked and trapped in an unlit former NKVD interrogation room in Moldova by the angry descendent of a Moldovan NKVD leader who accused him of trespassing––”there were a lot of holy-shit moments.”
Holch participated in a politically radical puppet theater troupe in Vermont, worked for Governor Bernie Sanders and at an Appalachian community center––she described “just getting ice cream in Indiana and then walking [over a bridge] back to Kentucky… it felt incredible and impossible and amazing.”
MacDonald lived in a homestay in central Bolivia along with a young boy who was “such a menace – he would go in my room and take all my stuff and throw it out the window.”
These students had experiences that were funny, scary, powerful, exhilarating, and most of all, diverse. But why did they choose to take independent gap years? Many of the people I spoke with reported feeling tired, drained, and worn out after their last year of high school.
“I felt like I needed a year to decompress, figure out […] what I actually wanted to do, and actually come into college with a refreshed perspective,” said Wardell. Huo described being “a little burned out at the end of high school,” which was a common sentiment among others.
How do these students feel about their decision to take an independent gap year? In short, they are overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.
“I have absolutely no regrets – I was so happy that I took it, and I was so happy with the way that it turned out,” said Hyman. Holch agreed: “I’m already planning my next Gap year post college.” Huo asserted, “It was the best decision I made ever.”
For many of the students, their gap years had a strong effect on their self-confidence and their value systems. For Wardell, one of the best things about the year was the endlessness of possibilities and new experiences which were, he says, “didactic.”
“[By] introspecting and doing weird things and talking to people with really different goals and priorities in life experiences, I think that that process of sort of reevaluating what my values are definitely… changed them,” said Wardell.
Huo agreed. He explained how his gap year made him realize how much he values those who are around him, and the connections he can make with others. “The people I’m around is the most important thing, and pretty close is where I am, and then everything else doesn’t really matter, to be honest,” he said.
MacDonald had a similar viewpoint. He described his time spent in South America as philosophically transformative, changing the way he understands socio-economic systems and consumerist excess, which is “not the sort of thing that can be conveyed through a textbook.” For him, immersive living in such a different culture “makes you reevaluate your own values and whether they are actually based on what you personally believe, or what has been sort of instilled in you by your culture and surroundings.”
But the independent gap year is not without challenges, and for many of the students I spoke with, loneliness, lack of structure, and uncertainty played a role in their experience. For Holch, self-doubt on her gap year was difficult at first. She described “feeling unsure if I was doing the right thing or if I was using my time the right way.”
Loneliness and social isolation were other challenging factors. “There is sort of a limit to the amount of alone time someone our age, or someone ever, can really spend before your internal gravity becomes very strong, and I had to learn how to break back out of that and really connect with the people around me,” Holch said.
That solitude and uncertainty, however, was also something to embrace. “Most gap years happen at that moment right between childhood and sort of adulthood, and it gives you this taste of what freedom is and how to schedule your own time, do what you want to do, just feel like you really have the opportunity to make choices for yourself […] the freedom to do whatever comes your way,” said Holch.
However, this freedom may not be the same for everyone. There is a common perception that an independent gap year requires a large amount of resources and privilege, which would make it unavailable to many students. This perception is especially stark in comparison to Princeton’s Bridge Year programs, which are entirely funded by the school. This is frequently tied to the “gap yah” stereotype that is especially prominent in England – this is the idea, as Huo put it, that a “boy goes traveling with his friend, backpacks, pretends to find himself, [and] buys a load of elephant trousers.” Hyman expanded on this, referencing “the assumption that I went off and played with turtles in Costa Rica” during her gap year.
There certainly are gappers who have unlimited resources, but this was not the status quo among the students that I spoke with. The independent gap years taken by Princeton students vary greatly, and many students do not go abroad and focus on living within their means while having equally rewarding experiences. For many students, being financially responsible is a consistent objective of the gap year. Holch, for instance, discussed how keeping costs down was a focal point of her gap year.
“One of the objectives of my gap year was to keep it very low-cost, and I was lucky that that worked out,” she said. Holch spent the year in the United States, working at an Appalachian community center in Kentucky and in the office of Senator Bernie Sanders in her home state of Vermont, among other activities.
MacDonald and Hyman also spent the majority of their gap year in their home cities. Likewise, those who spent their gap year abroad did so in an economically responsible way. The program that enabled Russo to spend the year in Moldova, for example, was paid for by the United States government, and most of the students I spoke with worked paying jobs during their gap year. Huo did so, he said, as he was “trying to keep paying [his] way through.”
Holch confirmed that limited resources do not have to inhibit the freedom of an independent gap year, and rewarding experiences are not dependent on privilege. “I think that if you go into the gap year with some commitments about how you want to experience it or what you want to get out of it, you can construct that experience however you see fit, and that freedom is pretty amazing.”
Freedom was a crucial element for all of the students with whom I spoke with. Hyman described how she leaned into many opportunities to be spontaneous and make the most of the year. “I was pretty happy with the fact that I basically said yes to pretty much anything that people asked me,” she said. “I was like, okay, yes, of course.”
For Huo, the independent gap year was all about spontaneity. “I started doing stuff I enjoyed more, like being very selfish about that… trying to chase all these experiences, and do random stuff, and I just became a bit more like yeah, let’s do that, rather than [being] hesitant.”
Those gap year experiences are also changing how Huo approaches his daily life. “There were bits there when I was the happiest I’ve ever been, and I knew that in the moment, so I want to just… try to chase that feeling more,” he said.
Wardell agreed. “I think it was probably the most formative thing I’ve ever done. It was really scary and pretty shitty at times, and also just like the happiest and most fulfilled I had ever been up until that point.”
For many people who take an independent gap year, its value is in its time. The year is about mental space, about possibilities, and about getting way off track for a while.
Hyman stressed the importance of “not feeling like everything you do needs to be planned out and not feeling like you need to go off and actually do something huge […] just really focusing on this idea of giving yourself space and time to work out what you want, and what you need.”
Russo explained how he was able to be less goal-oriented on his gap year, which has given him an important perspective ever since. “One thing I learned is life doesn’t have to be this constant rat race, like people just have normal lives sometimes – and they are still meaningful and productive, they are just less insanely competitive and goal-oriented like we have here.”
All of the students I spoke with used the year to pursue activities and interests that were personally important to them.
This was an important element in MacDonald’s experience. “I had agency over everything I did and nothing was really prescribed for me,” he said. “Everything I did on my gap year was something I chose to do, something I was actually interested in, and I felt like things that had been previously abstract […] ideas like traveling and working now became concrete and achievable.”
Hyman expressed a similar attitude. “I went into it with the mindset that I wanted to do something that was personally meaningful.” She also felt that the gap year experience offered a chance for greater independent fulfillment and self-possession.
“The whole reason that I took a gap year was kind of that I was annoyed by the fact that I had such a propensity to compare myself to other people around me,” said Hyman. After her gap year, she emphasizes the importance of “knowing you could feel a greater sense of accomplishment from your own work – not about the people that are around you – and kind of being able to recognize that.”
But is the independent gap year just an ephemeral phenomenon – a cool year in the midst of higher education? Is it just a fun time without much of a lasting impact? According to the students I spoke with, this is not the case. The gap year changed how they view themselves and their lives. It transformed their mindsets, their priorities, their personal goals, and, for many, what they want to study at Princeton.
Wardell was able to focus on his love of nature on his gap year, which he cites as an important personal value. He also describes how he discovered his love of neuroscience during his gap year, which he has since decided to study. “It has been one of the best academic decisions I have made, to start to pursue that, and I know that had I come straight here [after high school] that would not have been in the cards.”
Russo, who is studying physics, reports a similar change in his educational path as a result of his gap year. “I don’t think I would have studied STEM if I came straight out of high school – I think I was a little bit too burnt out.”
Likewise, for Holch, she said, “my interest in Environmental Studies and particularly the Environmental Humanities definitely is an output of my gap year.”
MacDonald reports how his gap year has had an effect on his mindset around success. “It sort of inspired me […] so I don’t really value exuberant amounts of wealth as much, so I’m not interested in the most profitable major, because obviously English is one of the least profitable majors, but it’s interesting.”
The independent gap year also has an impact on a student’s overall Princeton experience. For Huo, the gap year prepared him on a social level for freshman year, especially during frosh week. “How well my gap year turned out pretty much depended on being able to meet new people randomly very quickly.” From an academic standpoint, he says, “it’s sort of made me realize that I’m less about formal education.”
MacDonald also feels that his education is more purposeful now. “I was just sort of aimlessly going to college because everyone goes to college, but now I feel like I have concrete things I want to get out of college, based on my experience throughout the [gap] year,” said MacDonald.
Holch described how taking a gap year changed how she learns, as well as how she views learning. “I think it prepared me to be a different kind of student, a more engaged student, and maybe a person who is looking for educational opportunities or opportunities for growth and learning inside and outside of the classroom in a different way.”
Hyman also sees her gap year as changing how she views achievement. “I think I definitely care less about stuff like grades and care more about what I’m getting out of it,” she said.
For students coming to Princeton freshman year after an independent gap year, it is often a tricky transition, with regard to both academics and social life. “It has been tough,” said Huo. “I’m still trying to adjust.”
Holch agreed. “I have had a hard time with time management in a way that I did not have before,” she explained.
For MacDonald, a large part of the adjustment was focused on the social aspect. “I had sort of been out of a social environment for a while,” he said, “so at first I could not really buy in––I was like, this is kind of like frivolous. But I just got back into old habits pretty quickly, and I think it’s a good thing, [with] social rituals and stuff.”
Many of the students I spoke with described the difference in age and experience between them and their peers at Princeton as a big of a struggle at first.
According to Holch, when interacting with students who “have never had the opportunity to really be totally living outside of their regular context, it feels hard to convey all the details of my life to people for whom it’s not even within an imaginative scope.”
Hyman had a similar standpoint. She described coming back to a less mature social environment after a year interacting primarily with adults, realizing “the way that the social scene works [at Princeton], like the fact that there is a way that things work […] that was like oh, okay, we’re back to this.”
For Wardell, the breadth of his gap year experiences has made him more aware of Princeton’s bubble, which he doesn’t view as inherently bad. “That’s what Princeton is – it’s a very isolated, really college place, so maybe I see that a bit more, and maybe kind of appreciate it.”
I asked the students for some takeaways from their gap year and was not disappointed. A year of philosophical reflection tends to yield some kind of wisdom.
“At any moment there are a billion things that you could be doing, so if you’re doing something that you’re not enjoying, do something else,” said Holch. “There’s so much other stuff that you could be doing. Why do something that makes you unhappy?”
“I learned that the world is a lot bigger than Cape Elizabeth, Maine or Princeton, New Jersey,” said MacDonald. “And people I only think about abstractly in a far-off way in other countries and other cultures… it’s all accessible, it’s all sort of within arm’s reach, and we are all in a pretty privileged position to be able to take advantage of that.”
“The world is really interesting, life is long, just accumulate interesting moments [and] intellectual and social capital as you can… there is no real need to rush through these life goals,” said Russo.
“Always say yes – never pass up an opportunity even if you are not certain about it,” said Hyman.
Would these students recommend that someone take an independent gap year before coming to Princeton? Absolutely.
“I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t benefit from just a year of different cool experiences,” said Wardell. According to Holch, “no one nobody should be allowed to go to college without it.” Huo confirmed, “taking a year to do something that you properly want to do with no restraint––I think everyone should do it.”
Are we changing the world because of our gap years? Probably not. Does it actually matter that I now know how to sell bougie baby strollers to coiffed Dublin mothers, or that I can provide expertise on the cheapest hostels in South Africa or Slovenia? Doubtful. But I am certain that I am a better version of myself than I would be if I hadn’t taken a year for myself. We all changed as a result of our gap years – as Holch says, “it would be a failure if I hadn’t.”
These students say they feel more mature, more self-confident, and more comfortable with spontaneity and uncertainty. They also feel more aware of the profound issues and limitless possibilities in life outside of a college campus. And, as the name implies, every independent gap year student feels much more independent.
While, for better or worse, there is no community for gap year students once they get to Princeton, the people I spoke with referenced how easy it is for them to connect with others who took independent gap years. For me, it was tremendously gratifying to talk with these students about their experiences––there is a certain inexplicable understanding between people who took a year off before college to do whatever inspired them, whenever they wanted, wherever in the world. There is something potent about that shared urge, quite simply, to explore (which is embodied now in an urge to reminisce – perhaps too often! – about those experiences).
More than anything else, people who took independent gap years have perspective. Everyone got into Princeton for being exceptional in some capacity, and Princeton students will continue to be exceptional after Princeton – but independent gappers made a conscious decision to step off the treadmill for a year in the midst of it all. They don’t pretend to be enlightened, but they’ve got some kind of knowledge.
The students I spoke with made it clear that their gap year was not focused on accomplishment–– it was focused on existence, on a totally different kind of learning. Because, ultimately, the independent gap year is not about doing. It’s about being.
At Princeton in particular, it might help to get this perspective. We all need a reminder, now and then, to let ourselves merely exist. Maybe it’s beneficial to have these people sprinkled throughout campus, people who recognize that life during and after college isn’t all about constant striving and success. There’s so much more to it than that.