Fall Into The Gap
Thanks to Malia Obama, the notion of the gap year, or taking time off before attending college, has gained immense popularity (and media coverage). Suddenly, everyone is discussing the merits of the gap year: teenagers can travel the world before school or a career inevitably ties them down; maybe they can do volunteer work that will serve a good cause; perhaps they can get a job and some real world experience under their belts. These are all great ideas and I am in full support of a gap year. In fact, I took one myself (okay, it was more of a gap semester, but still...) and reaped some of these benefits. But times were quite different 11 years ago when I was a college freshman in the midst of an existential crisis and in need of some time away from campus. Back then, the notion of a gap year meant you dropped out of college to fold denim at The Gap. You were basically a failure at life. You were fickle and irresponsible. You were wasting valuable time not earning a degree and delaying the start of your career and your life. These were indeed the sentiments I was greeted with by family and friends when I decided to take a break from college.
It was the spring of 2005 and I was completing my first year at a university. College had proven difficult for me. I had trouble acclimating to the social life on my campus, being a young, gay man who recently came out and was living away from home for the first time. Despite the fact that I graduated in the top two percent of my high school class and with honors, I found myself in poor academic standing at the end of freshmen year. I was unsure of what I wanted to study and the continuous pressure from my family to "just pick something" reverberated in my mind to the point where I chose a generic major in education (never mind that I had absolutely no passion for it). That summer, I moved back home and wallowed in my uncertainty and post-adolescent angst. I felt like Dustin Hoffman's character in The Graduate, minus the MILF and the pervasive Simon and Garfunkle soundtrack. I was unsure of my future and knew the adults in my life were yanking me in directions I simply did not want to go in.
As the fall rapidly approached, I considered taking time off. Of course, I knew better than to actually discuss this option with my parents, as it would be met with as much success as Kaitlin Jenner's efforts to use the ladies room in a North Carolina Target. But there I was in late August, writing to the dean of my college, formally requesting a leave of absence while my dumbfounded family members shook their heads in collective disgust. I was deemed a failure. Surely, I would never return to school. My fate was sealed. I might as well have started learning how to use the VHS rewinding machine at Blockbuster (clearly I was a 90's child), or learned those nifty Cold Stone Creamery jingles that I would be forced to sing whenever I got tipped, because those were my the only prospects I had left.
In the fall of 2005, I endured the consternation of my parents and took my gap semester. The opportunities were infinite. I could have flown on a cargo plane to Nicaragua to do missionary work, or backpacked across Europe while I contemplated writing the next great American novel, or taken a position as personal assistant to a Manhattan socialite, where I would hobnob with the crème de la crème of New York's upper echelon, and built a vast professional network for whatever it is I decided to do later on. But I turn all of this down to work a drab clerical job, and watch films and read the newspaper in my free time. I didn't make much money at all, but I began paying my own cell phone and credit card bill. And that was that. This is how I spent five months of my life. To many, this was an absolute waste of a semester, especially since I was attending college on a full academic scholarship. And yet, I look back on this period and remember it to be the most prodigious and productive of my teenage years.
With my time unconsumed by college, and my energy and intellectual capacity untapped by a low skill office job, I was able to focus on things that actually interested me in my free time: media, film and journalism. I realized I had a passion for current events, salivated over each new edition of The Times and developed a penchant for classic film; in essence, I discovered qualities about myself that I may not have had my time been monopolized by dull prerequisite college courses. I didn't travel the world or do anything to help others, but I did a great deal to help myself by identifying what I wanted to explore when I eventually returned to school, and what implications my interests could have for my career.
As you might surmise, the assumptions my family made about my gap semester were proven false and I returned to college, changed my major to communications and graduated with honors. Writing this now, I am preparing to enter the Masters program at Columbia University School of Journalism, which may be occurring had I not taken the time to explore what I truly wanted to do with my life. I am by no means advocating that today's youth drop out of school, surf their mother's couch and play video games as a form of self-enlightenment. But I do feel time away from the bureaucracy and pressure that collegiate life can exert on an eighteen year-old carries merit if it results in figuring out what makes you tick and seeing what life is like outside of a classroom. Learning financial responsibility, the mundane nature of the 9-5 hustle and that two hours spent reading a newspaper felt more like a call of duty than a pastime were invaluable lessons for me. I advise every teenager to assess and use his or her time wisely, and if the idea of a gap year or semester appeals to you, go for it. All you have to lose is time. And yet all you stand to gain is time.