This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
June 2021. After a year of virtual learning, I didn’t feel ready for college at all, even as my high school graduation loomed on the horizon. While most students experience pre-college jitters, my anxiety went beyond that. I knew in my heart that this was not right for me. Instead, I yearned for more experience, more independence, more time to reflect. After much deliberation, several family meetings, and advice from nearly every adult I knew, I decided to take the leap into the unknown — in other words, to take a gap year.
A gap year is a year off from school, usually taken after high school and before college. However, this broad definition can encompass any number of activities, including travel, paid work, and community service. If you are considering one, you’re not alone. According to a 2020 survey, one in six high school seniors made last-minute changes to their college plans. Of those, 16% took gap years, compared to just 3% in 2019. Whether you’re committed to a college and deferring your admission or you plan to apply in the fall, a gap year can be an alluring option. But how do you know whether it’s right for you?
Eight months later, with summer on the horizon, my gap year is coming to a close. I know without a doubt that I made the right choice, but initially, the decision was a difficult one, and my path may not be right for everyone. Hopefully my experiences can help you make a decision — or, if you’ve already committed to a gap year, help you better prepare for your adventures ahead. From lonely lows to triumphant highs, here’s what I learned from my memorable year.
The Pros of Taking a Gap Year
A gap year offers more time to discover yourself and pursue your passions. Without time-heavy obligations like school and homework, you are freely able to experiment with different interests to learn what motivates you. This exploratory period is crucial, especially if you don’t yet know what you want to study next year (which is normal)! Without time to consider your options, you might rush into college and commit to a major that your parents chose for you, or one that seemed ideal on paper but bores you in practice. If, like me, you have a good idea of your career goals, a gap year allows you to devote your time and energy to your chosen field. Because I love creative writing, I’ve been able to write consistently, often reaching my personal goal of an hour per day. I might even finish my novel, which would have been impossible during school. During a gap year, what was once a “hobby” can now become a full-time pursuit!
A gap year also provides the freedom to create your own schedule. If you’re intimidated by a lack of structure, don’t worry! Several curated gap year programs exist to help you, from travel and language immersion abroad to community service missions here in the U.S. The TeenLife and Gap Year Association websites have some exciting options, including international teaching and youth development with Project Trust, as well as a year of sailing through Sea|mester. However, such pre-planned programs have their drawbacks. Many are wildly expensive, with some costing as much as a year of tuition. Also, if you intend to apply for college in the fall, my high school teacher advised that admissions officers might value a gap year more if you make your own schedule — instead of paying an organization to do the work for you. I put together my own plan, and while I doubted myself at first, I can confirm that it is entirely possible! Try compiling and applying for worthwhile activities: virtual classes, volunteering, internships, and paid work are all valid uses of your time. As you take risks and pursue opportunities, your confidence will grow as your gap year takes shape. Plus, any college student will tell you that time management is a crucial skill. As you navigate your new schedule, you’ll learn how to hold yourself accountable and maximize your productivity.
TIP: To keep track of your obligations, try making a daily to-do list to help remember smaller tasks. A calendar, whether physical or electronic, can help you organize big-picture events and deadlines. This strategy works in college, too, so now is an ideal time to form that habit!
Finally, a gap year allows you to gain a year’s worth of work experience and extra money to pay for college. With tuition at an all-time high, your future self will thank you for anything that lessens your student loans. I currently work two part-time jobs, as well as research and apply for scholarships during my free time. Furthermore, in today’s job market, real work experience is invaluable — something many college graduates, and even masters degree holders, lack. Even retail or service industry jobs provide key skills, such as customer service and workplace etiquette. This will give you an advantage when you’re competing with your classmates post-graduation.
The Cons of Taking a Gap Year
In addition to a familiar schedule, school provides a strong support system of best friends, trusted teachers, and guidance counselors. Without it, be prepared for isolation and self-doubt, at least at first. In September, part of me still believed I had made the wrong decision. After four years of nonstop interaction with my Gen Z classmates, I suddenly found myself surrounded by baby boomers, my Gen X parents, and my millennial coworkers. While this experience helped me build empathy and gain a broader perspective of the world, it also left me feeling alienated, especially as I heard stories from my friends and liked Instagram posts about new roommates and raging parties. At times, I felt that my classmates were venturing into an uncharted, exciting chapter of their lives, while I was being left behind.
TIP: Remember that, while your friends in college may be sharing their most thrilling experiences, they’re also struggling to adjust to massive life changes. Balancing a load of coursework while being away from home is difficult to manage, something you likely don’t have to worry about. College students might be wishing they could just take a break.
Eventually, I found new communities and forged new friendships, from the volunteers at a local soup kitchen to my classmates in virtual courses and writing workshops. However, those first few months were difficult, and I won’t minimize the effort it takes to put yourself out there and feel uncomfortable, or the loneliness that sneaks up on me, even now.
TIP: Find a time that consistently works for you and a friend, then schedule a weekly phone or Zoom call. Even an hour or less of socializing — which you can look forward to throughout the week — will ease your loneliness immensely. Then, during college breaks, meet up with whoever is visiting home!
Lastly, there’s the issue of family disapproval. When confronted with the idea of a gap year, many parents might be unwilling to allow an entire year of “doing nothing.” This may be especially true in Asian American families. I am beyond lucky that, after showing my parents a detailed plan of how I’d be spending my time, they supported me wholeheartedly. However, I know that this is not the case for everyone. When preparing to ask your family, put together an airtight plan to show them that you’ve done your research. Phrase your request with respect. Emphasize that this is not an academic setback, but rather a chance to grow and gain experience that will help you achieve your long-term goals, opportunities that would be impossible if you went straight to college. Had I forfeited my gap year, I would have had to wait at least four years to secure one of my dream jobs. Instead, this opportunity came early, for which I’ll always be grateful. It may take several family meetings (it certainly did for me), but hopefully, your parents will listen to your reasoning and consider the situation from your point of view.
How I’ve Spent my Gap Year
In addition to staff writing for Mochi Magazine, as well as working part time for two nonprofit organizations, I’ve taken several virtual continuing education courses. In the absence of a college environment, these courses keep me in an academic mindset and allow me to explore my interests without the constraints of distribution requirements. To supplement this, I participate in Girls Write Now Writing Works, a free mentorship program for young female and nonbinary writers in New York City. Thanks to my mentor, another wonderful Asian American who works in publishing, I’ve learned about the inner workings of the industry, as well as the world of professionalism. I also volunteer twice a week at a local soup kitchen, preparing food and toiletries for underserved New Yorkers. In my free time, I work on my novel, which I hope to submit for publication soon.
Of course, not everyone can or should do it this way. I realize that I am in an extremely privileged position to even take time away from school, all while still living with my parents. This is just an example of my “personalized” gap year plan. Hopefully, with this in mind, you can get some ideas for what may be possible for you!
While I still feel nervous about college, my experiences this year have prepared me for this next step on my journey. After honing my skills, making new friends, and encountering diverse perspectives, I now have what it takes to forge ahead, and I couldn’t be more excited. If, after reading this, you choose to take a gap year, I wish you all the best. I know you’ll have an unforgettable year!
Cover photo credit: Leon Wu/Unsplash
Last modified: June 6, 2022