One fateful February night, I stared at my computer and made a decision, one that I finally felt at peace with. For the past two weeks, I had gone through the application process to be a Resident Assistant. I envisioned staffing a dorm, serving as a mentor, impacting lives and continuing a cycle of giving back to a school and a community of students that dedicate so much selfless time and energy to each other. Yet, the night before the Match, when ResEd matches each house to a set of applicants, I withdrew my name. Pushed to the last day, the decision to take time off finally felt right, and over the next few months, I cleared out my commitments for the next year, declared a major and met with advisors, friends and mentors to plan next steps.
From the summer before I entered Stanford, taking time off had always been in the plan. I wanted to come in a little wiser, a little more experienced and with more of an idea of how I wanted to spend my four years here. My search took me to places like Deep Springs College, a two-year college for 26 students in the middle of the desert, 40 miles away from the nearest town, and City Year, where young men and women spend a year working hands-on in underserved schools. However, ultimately, I entered freshman year at Stanford directly after graduation, as I reasoned that Stanford would expose me to knowledge and opportunities that could give me a truer perspective, both academically and personally, into myself and the world around me.
That prediction could not have been more foretelling. After taking classes in 20 different departments on three continents, learning from incredible professors, befriending great people from all over the world and having the best summer of my life, I’ve been lucky to have squeezed enough memories for two decades into two years. Stanford has given me so much. Academically, Stanford took my curiosity and let it loose, leading me to question and wonder. Socially, I’ve become a better friend, practiced better empathy and transformed from someone who was truly self-conscious about his image to someone with greater internal self-confidence. I have become a better writer, thinker, listener and person thanks to Stanford, and I have a larger understanding of the world and opportunities ahead. So, in the midst of all this good news, it begs the question: Why should I take this break from the community, and why do I recommend it so much?
While Stanford has been incredible, the past two years have also unleashed my kryptonite. In high school, I was grounded by track, religion and a structured routine. In this collapse of structure as I entered college, unable to run for the Varsity team and feeling the need to replace the old passions I had in the past with new ones, I became overcommitted, and in my chase to find direction, became more lost. As a result, I am happy, but am not fully fulfilled. I am living intentionally, yet still have room to grow. Thus, in the aim for more, I created two goals for this time off. Firstly, I want to begin defining, designing and living a good life, and secondly, I want to come back wiser and more aware of myself to take the best advantage of my remaining time at Stanford.
In terms of the first goal, Stanford has given me many things, but foremost are the skills to “learn how to learn” and live consciously. I am at my best when I live intentionally, taking things one at a time. With this in mind, I plan to embrace my agency and live life with authenticity, which only becomes possible through developing self-awareness. For me, the decision is quite clear. If I fail in my path to define, design and live a life truly worth living, succumbing to laziness and other vices, I can rest knowing that I gave it a shot. Three to six months later, I will hopefully have gained greater self-awareness and will thus be better able to authentically relate to others. And, if I somehow come to a better awareness of the life I want to live, I will leave this time fulfilled.
In terms of the second goal, the blessing is that Stanford is not going anywhere. Stanford is like a well: The better your pump is, the better you can drink from it. To me, the opportunity cost is too high to enter into junior year without being fully prepared. I have very little to lose, and much to gain through seeing if I can self-educate and utilize the tools learned from my past in this short trial of time off. Upon graduation, I go out into the real world naked, armed simply with my degree. Taking this time off serves as a test track of sorts, letting me explore, reflect and take what I’ve learned back to Stanford, still able to lean back on the Farm for guidance and support. For these reasons and more, there is good evidence that a gap year and time off do work. Harvard University recommends that its admitted students consider taking a gap year, and virtually all who take the time off would do it again, claiming that the time off offers a chance to debrief and unpack experiences while experimenting with new ones.
Thus, I’m designing my gap year with an earnest, idealistic lens, aiming to take on one commitment at a time, diving deep into individual tasks for a certain period of time while making time to reflect and care for body and mind. Whether it is understanding religion, physics, medicine, public service or music, I want to hone in and chase after finding the things that I want to delve into at Stanford and later in life. Through finding the right fit through experimenting different ideas of utilizing and structuring my time, I hope to return more aware of planning my remaining time at Stanford.
In the midst of all of this, I cannot disregard very real potential pitfalls. Taking the time off has not yet given me any more direction, some of these deep philosophical questions may just be helplessly unanswerable, and I will get sidetracked and waste time. Already, I’ve seen a bit of all three pitfalls, as the days have flown by during this time off, and it’s hard to stay focused, to stay dedicated to the goal.
However, equipped with a reflective lens, any potential pitfall is ultimately an area for growth and inspection. As I mentioned before, regardless if I fail or succeed, I learn, reflect and improve. In many ways, the mission of this time off can be represented by an old retreatist’s words, “I wished to live deliberately … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
To sum it up, while it’s certainly not for everyone, if you’re feeling uncertain or need some time, don’t be afraid to create the space, open your schedule up and take your own sabbatical. That staff position and that leadership role will still be open a year from now, but the opportunity to take time to chase after your own questions and ideas is fleeting. Taking time off doesn’t require much money; it can be as simple as taking a quarter to learn from and with your little brother or grandma. Life (and Stanford) is too short, significant and beautiful to sit idly by; we owe it to ourselves and our communities to understand and make the most of it.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.