Being amongst the 378 gappers in Stanford’s frosh class, I came to campus expecting to feel older and perhaps even more mature than some of my peers. Friends who had also chosen to take gap years during the 2020-21 academic year had similar feelings. Arriving on campus, we found ourselves naturally gravitating toward other gappers without even realizing it, discovering parallels in interests gained through professional experiences, travels or just experiencing home life from the novel perspective of an individual existing in that gray space between high school graduation and embarking on a more independent path.
But I quickly discovered that this phenomenon is not unique to the frosh class. In fact, it belongs to all three classes of “frosh”: the juniors, sophomores and frosh. Stanford’s current juniors had been on campus for only a few months when the pandemic hit and sent them all home during the early spring of their frosh years. And most sophomores had not even stepped foot on campus by the time they had their belated in-person convocation. This year’s frosh, sophomores and juniors are all experiencing both the butterflies and fresh excitement unique to first-years, yet not all of us were lucky enough to experience NSO, a unique version of which would have benefited each of the three grades. Collectively, we are setting out to experience what a full year of life at Stanford looks and feels like. As Hailey Horowitz ’23 put it, she was forced off campus before she “felt like [she] had fully grown into Stanford.” Whether we are returning to campus or experiencing it for the first time, we must each learn what it means to grow into our own Stanford trees.
To ease my frosh class into a slower and more structured introduction to what being a Stanford student means, Stanford offered us six days worth of revamped orientation activities as part of NSO. The overwhelming majority of frosh had positive experiences during NSO, with Allie Lee ’24 turned ’25 remarking on how “incredibly exciting and fun” her fall has been thus far. When discussing her choice to take a gap year, Lee stated that her “time off gave [her] newfound appreciation for … in-person classes and dorm life.” She also noted, however, that returning to an in-person academic environment after a year and a half was a significant adjustment. Even though Lee worked as a research assistant on campus between September 2020 and August 2021, with opportunities to explore campus and Palo Alto, she emphasized how different campus feels now that she is surrounded by so many other students and has a routine of classes and extracurriculars. Despite having forgotten certain lessons or concepts absorbed in high school, her pre-gap-year fear of “forgetting how to study” has been proven false. Lee commented on how NSO provided her with a good amount of time and space free of class commitments to ease back into academic life and experience this transition more seamlessly.
NSO, at least in Lee’s experience, was a necessary period of settling into a new routine and an existence that must delicately balance an academic career with a new social life. Wondering about the experience of sophomores who only had a few days before classes began to familiarize themselves with Stanford, I spoke to Joy Yun ’24. Like Lee, Yun had some previous on-campus experience, living at Stanford last winter and spring to train with the fencing team. She also noted, however, that the time she spent on campus while training differed immensely from what she referred to as the “real experience” of a fully in-person fall. She finds that her journey to get back “into the swing of things” is not over. Yun is still learning how to adjust to “so many new interactions each day.” While she emphasized her gratitude to be on campus in person this fall, her response made me question whether Stanford made the right decision to offer NSO to only one subset of “new students.”
In my experience, NSO served as a kind of equalizer. Despite coming to campus with a different set of perspectives than some of my peers, NSO allowed me to interact and find common ground with all kinds of frosh despite differences in age or time spent out of high school. I wonder if experiencing their own version of NSO would have provided a similar experience for should-be juniors who gapped and are now in the sophomore class or should-be seniors who are technically juniors. While many upperclassmen already have established friend groups and still spend time with their original classmates, an NSO experience may have allowed certain upperclassmen to feel more at home in the community of their new grade level. Beyond expanding and extending an upperclassman’s sense of community, NSO for all “frosh” classes might have also allowed for a collectively smoother transition into the extraordinarily fast-paced and rigorous academic and social environment that is Stanford. Nearly each interaction I’ve had with students from every grade level has included an echo of this sentiment, individuals still reeling from how quickly the fall quarter has flown by. We are all, it seems, still adjusting or readjusting to life in the Stanford bubble.
Moreover, with the large number of upperclassmen gappers, many of us who graduated from high schools in which our grade levels served as dog tags or prime identifications of our academic and social identities, are struggling to clearly place ourselves in this new, semi-post-COVID, in-person context. Some of my elevator run-ins with gappers in each of the aforementioned grades have motivated me to think more deeply on this question.
When I ask, “What year are you?” the response begins, “Oh, it’s complicated.” The student then struggles to place themselves in either the grade they were once in or the grade they are now enrolled in. This conflicted articulation of one’s position as it relates to time reminds me of how I struggled to define myself over my gap year, when I still resided in that gray area between one phase of my life and another. With only four years of undergrad, each year seems like its own phase of life, and pausing this progression feels somehow unnatural due to the rigid, constantly-forward-moving progression that we are accustomed to.
Each time I have this conversation with an upperclassman, it typically ends with the student going “…but I still hang out with my grade,” as if it needed such a caveat. In my opinion, offering NSO to all classes of “frosh” — frosh, sophomores, and juniors — could have also helped mediate interactions between and unite members of each grade, regardless of their respective starting points. In addition, experiencing NSO could have perhaps also equipped more gappers with the language to define their positions in new grades amidst COVID-induced uncertainty. Organized, structured time spent with members of their new grades may have helped particular upperclassmen, for example, feel more comfortable with calling themselves sophomores, even if many of their friends are juniors and they enrolled at Stanford expecting to graduate with that class. I believe university-wide comfort — not just institutional acceptance — with changes in academic progression due to gap years, leaves of absences or any other reason, can help future classes of Stanford students actively enjoy the dynamism of blurring grade lines.