A year in pause

June 2, 2021, 11:09 p.m.

This past year, a lot of students decided to hit pause on their educational journeys. 378 Stanford admits — about 20% of the students admitted to the Class of 2024 — opted to defer their enrollment. As someone who decided to enroll this year as a freshman, I was curious about why other students decided to take a gap year. So I interviewed three frosh to hear about their stories during their year in pause. 

A chance to explore career paths

Mikayla Tillery ’25, an op-ed writer for The Daily’s opinions section, jokingly describes herself as “a professional LinkedIn stalker.”

She has been able to effectively leverage the platform to find organizations that match her professional interest in public service and secure internships during her gap year. Her first internship was with the Working Families Party, a progressive political coalition whose mission, as Tillery described it, is to “get more progressive candidates in office and dismantle systems of oppression.” Tillery worked remotely for its Philadelphia chapter during the run-up to the 2020 election, contacting voters to encourage them to turn out at the polls. During her time there, she phoned approximately 100,000 voters, a figure she is quite proud of. In addition to voter outreach, Tillery also organized teach-ins to inform voters about their rights, vote-by-mail procedures and other voting laws in the state.

After working for the Working Families Party, she started working for She’s the First, a non-profit geared towards expanding educational opportunities for girls worldwide. At She’s the First, Tillery developed programming to provide professional and educational guidance for girls, especially those living in the Global South. Furthermore, she worked to expand the nonprofit into college campuses, allowing undergraduates to volunteer and mentor students. 

While Tillery sought out these internships because she has a strong interest in public service, she also wanted to learn which types of public service jobs would best suit her skills.

“I want to see the places where I’m most useful,” Tillery said.

During her gap year, she has learned she most enjoys organizing and developing programs that have a tangible impact on the communities she seeks to serve.

Outside of exploring her professional interests during her year away, Tillery also picked up on various hobbies and interests that her friends lovingly describe as “bizarre, old-woman hobbies.” For instance, she took up The New York Times crossword puzzle, which has proved to be much harder than she initially thought. She also began taking classes on Coursera, a free online learning platform, on topics that range from gender and sexuality studies to machine learning.

Though Tillery normally plans ahead and creates five-year and 10-year plans, her decision to defer her enrollment came a mere two weeks before the beginning of the fall quarter. The learning and self-discovery she has found during her gap year, however, has indicated that her spontaneous decision was sound. 

A chance to travel 

Alejandra Campillo ’24 lived in Germany for nine months. Before then, she didn’t speak an ounce of German. 

Campillo was accepted by Stanford in 2019, but she deferred her enrollment to participate in Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), a study-abroad program that offers American students the opportunity to study in Germany. Campillo’s specific program was the vocational exchange program, specifically designed for recent high school graduates on a gap year.

Campillo knew she wanted to spend a year abroad, but her heart was not specifically set on Germany. Before she applied, her father was unemployed, and she was looking for a gap-year program that would fit her family’s financial situation. Eventually, she found CYBX, the only gap-year program she could find that was fully funded. 

Given that Campillo never learned German in high school, she spent the first two months of her program in intensive German language study. After her language program, she spent another two months as an exchange student at a German secondary school. Then, she was supposed to spend the rest of her time doing internships, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her time in the program was cut short.

When she moved back to the States, she felt as if she was in a completely new world; adjusting back to American life was a culture shock. She remarked, “In Germany, everything’s so small! The grocery shops are so tiny.” She also mentioned that everything was quite walkable and accessible by public transportation. This contrasts with her experience in the American suburbs, which are punctuated by wide roads and personal automobiles.

She noted how days slowly began to blur into each other. “You could really feel the loneliness of the pandemic around you,” she said.

Since school started, though, she has gotten back into the swing of things. After the long quarantine period without much language practice, she began her German study again.

When asked if she would recommend taking a gap year to others, she remarked, “Life is long! And the probability is that we’ll probably live long as well.” Therefore, she insists that it’s fine to take some time off from school. According to her, taking a gap year offers a new perspective — a new way of seeing the world and other modes of life. And ultimately, she finds herself more mature and more resilient because of her year abroad.

A chance to reflect

Alex Le ’25 has a day job at a nail salon. But he moonlights as an amateur writer and philosopher. 

Le didn’t really have a thorough itinerary before deferring his enrollment. Even so, he finds himself using his time very intentionally. Recently, he has been working on his writing.

“I’ve been spending my gap year growing into the idea that I’m a writer,” he said.

Recently, he started a blog called An Absurd Life, where he details his musings and learnings from life. He cites his inspiration from a swath of literature he has read over the course of the pandemic. 

Drawing influence from absurdist philosopher Albert Camus, he finds that life is meaningless — albeit in a very beautiful way. On his blog, he writes, “With the absurd in mind, every bite of Graeter’s Cotton Candy Ice Cream, every Wichita sunset, every smile from that enchantingly intelligent girl, every lecture from our mothers, every moment of stomach-cramping laughter becomes an event worth living for.”

But besides pondering the meaning of life, Le has been working on a full-length novel, and he recently finished the first draft. Le is highly self-deprecating about his work. When I asked him how he felt about his novel, he replied, “I’m not gonna lie. It’s pretty garbage.” The craft of writing, however, is sacred to him. Combined with a nightly journal, his blog post and his novel writing, he characterizes his writing as a time capsule — a way of capturing how he currently views the world.

When asked why he took a gap year, Le said, “I guess that, for me and a lot of kids, school becomes our lives.” Ultimately, Le wanted time to step away from the traditional modes of learning in school and set his own path. He even declared, “Even though I’ve taken time off of school, I’m still progressing, still learning a lot about life.”

A year of school

I was socialized to think that life is a constant race with many mile markers spread throughout: get my degree, go to graduate school, start working, have a family, retire. A gap year, in my view, always seemed like something highly idealistic, rather than pragmatic.

In my calculus of deciding whether to take a gap year or not, I figured that, because I had no set plans for the pandemic year, there was no point in deferring my enrollment. I ultimately chose to do online school. 

To the extent that someone can enjoy a year of Stanford from their bedroom, I had a blast during this school year. Some of the adaptations were bizarre. I competed in Mock Trial — a performative competition where students play attorneys and witnesses in trial — completely over Zoom. I still enjoyed competing and bonding with teammates via my computer camera.

Additionally, I took classes that completely shifted my views of the world. By taking classes on literary philosophy and Asian-American film, I began seeing how all pieces of art — books, televisions and songs — carry epistemological underpinnings and cultural implications.

But even though I have positive experiences with online school, Tillery, Campillo and Le also got a lot out of their year in pause. They were able to solidify their professional interests, see the world from a different cultural perspective and perfect their philosophical and narrative writing skills, respectively.

Interviewing these students, I didn’t feel jealousy or regret about my choice to enroll this year. Rather, I saw that there are always multiple paths to fulfillment. Ultimately, in a year as strange as this one, there was no wrong answer to the question of taking a gap year or not. The right answer was doing what was right for oneself.

This article is part of a series on the myth of coming-of-age.

Contact The Daily’s The Grind section at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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