Off the beaten path

March 8, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

Gap years provide adventure, insight for small number of Stanford admits

While most freshmen sit — or snooze — through IHUM lecture, some of their fellow admits are learning Mandarin in China, working for a nonprofit in their home state or following their passions around the globe.


Approximately 20 to 30 students defer their admission to Stanford every year, an option commonly known as taking a gap year, according to Assistant Director of Admissions David Lazo.


“Common gap year plans include language immersion programs through the U.S. State Department, professional participation in the fine and performing arts and nonprofit work,” wrote Lazo in an email to The Daily.


He noted that a few students defer their admission in order to complete national military service — for instance, international students from countries such as Singapore, which has a two-year national service requirement for all male citizens.

Off the beaten path
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Although national news sources have stated that universities are reporting increasingly popularity of gap years, Lazo said that this is not the case at Stanford.


“The number of students requesting a gap year has remained relatively stable for the past several years,” he said.


During her gap year, Caroline Hodge ’13 apprenticed at an organic farm in Connecticut, interned as a reporter for the Palo Alto Daily News, volunteered and traveled in South America and worked as a counselor at a summer camp focused on social and environmental justice.


“I learned a lot about myself,” Hodge said. “I had space from the frenetic pace of high school. I had the time and space to remember why I liked learning.”


Hodge added that she appreciated the unique opportunity to live in a different environment when traveling in South America.


“I would meet people who had no idea what it meant that I was from California, or that I was going to Stanford next year or that I was taking a year off,” she said.


Taking a year off also helped Hodge discover new interests.


“My whole interest in sustainable agriculture, which has been such a big part of my college experience — that all came from working on a farm [during my gap year],” she said. “I didn’t think it would make a lasting impression on me, [but] it really did.”


Unlike Hodge, some gap year students, such as British national George Burgess ’15, choose to devote themselves to a single project. Burgess used his year off to expand EducationApps, an educational mobile app business he started while in high school. He noted that being a young entrepreneur was difficult at times.


“It gets sort of lonely running your own business at some points,” Burgess said. “For a long time, it was just me working alone the entire day, but it was definitely worthwhile.”


Burgess added that many of his peers took gap years, a popular option for high school graduates in England, according to the Wall Street Journal.


“It seems like in the U.S. fewer people are even familiar with this idea,” Burgess said. “I don’t know why because I think it’s a fantastic experience.”


“It’s the only chance you really have to take an entire year off, and not have any commitments, any worries, work a bit, travel [or do] whatever you’re going to do. I just think that sort of freedom doesn’t come too often in life,” he added.


For Olympian Rachael Flatt ’15, a gap year was a chance to spend time honing her skill as a figure skater. After a hectic senior year, which included training for the 2010 Winter Olympics and taking four AP classes, Flatt said she was “busy and exhausted.”


“I needed a little bit more time to sort everything out, and I really wanted to give skating a good shot, just focusing on training,” she said.


While Flatt’s gap year provided a respite from academic pressures, the intense focus on athletics was draining at times.


“The hardest part about my gap year was knowing that it was solely about skating,” Flatt said. “For me, I need a balance, and school was that good distraction from skating.”


Due to overtraining, Flatt suffered injuries during the year, including a stress fracture. Nevertheless, she said the time allowed her “to grow up quite a bit.”


According to Lazo, newly admitted students are often curious about gap years when they come to Admit Weekend, but ultimately, few choose to take time off.


“ Most students who request and are granted a gap year have plans in place well before they learn of their admission decision,” he said.


He warned students wishing to pursue a gap year that they should be able to present a “fully formed and researched plan” to the admissions office.


While the experience is not for everyone, students who take gap years can continue to benefit even after they arrive at the Farm.


“Pursuing a gap year is a personal decision,” Lazo added. “Applicants who take a gap year often report to us that they are invigorated and ready to fully immerse themselves in the Stanford experience.”

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