I’m supposed to be a junior, but I’m not. Instead of continuing down the expected path of finishing college in 4 years, I’m in South Korea, studying Korean not for Yale credit, but out of pure interest. Although I’ve only been here for a little more than a month, it’s astounding to notice the gains I’ve made in both physical and mental health—ones that I couldn’t have made at Yale. I’m the fittest I’ve been in years and when I smile or laugh, the emotions connected with them are more real than ever, products of emotional, non-cognitive spontaneity rather than a mechanical application of an intellectual concept of what these feelings are supposed to entail. Yet, when I talk with some of my peers currently at Yale, it becomes increasingly clear my concurrent experience is radically different from theirs.
I write this as an outlet for some of the thoughts that have recently been on my mind, those borne of a dissonance between the calm positivity I feel now and turbulence I felt last year. I intend to explain the reasons why I decided to take time off, the positive impacts of this decision I’ve experienced so far, and why I think that others should move beyond the stigma and consider a semester or year off in the middle of college a proactive, rather than reactive, option. I recognize that I can’t speak about my experience in universal terms, but I think that my reasons for taking a gap year are rooted in feelings held by a not insignificant portion of undergraduates, especially those at Yale.
This is certainly not unique to say, but I had an incredibly difficult time sophomore year, experiencing the phenomenon known colloquially as the “sophomore slump.” I averaged 3-5 hours of sleep a night and overcommitted to about 9 different extracurriculars, my involvement varying from occasional volunteer to spending 15 hours per week on one project. Pushing through long hours of tedious work was beneficial, but only to the point where those hours allowed appropriate periods of rest after, which were few and far in between. Perhaps I was insidiously deluding myself, doing a fairly effective job at convincing myself that I was doing well. For most of the time I was miserable, interrupted only by small bouts of temporary positive shifts in mood. I told myself that working nonstop was the only way I would ever have a chance of achieving my goals. Something was clearly off, and it’s only now that I have the opportunity—and time—to look back to begin to discern what that was.
I think I can safely identify that the first two years of Yale I didn’t prioritize the time to build a solid foundation for self-love and self-directed motivation. I lost sight of what I really cared about; I joined extracurriculars and in several activities went from one leadership position to the next because I felt it was the expected thing to do, rather than something I really wanted. I stayed involved out of fear that I was locked into the tracks that I chose at the outset of my freshman year. I lost sight of the passions that originally led me to particular activities and that sustained me throughout the beginning of my time at Yale. Some of my interests changed. In this, I realized that what I was involved with no longer gave me the same joy as it once did, but that I also had the choice to change that. It is this sentiment that has led me to the decision to take time off.
I came to Yale for the great quality of its education, an education that is, in part, intended to develop students as human beings. I do not dispute that Yale is a wonderful institution academically that has enriched my life so much for the better. However, there are aspects of success and lessons about humanity that Yale cannot teach us, namely those of happiness and self-acceptance. Surely, there’s a reason why Psychology and the Good Life was so popular last semester. The course explained the behaviors and science behind wellbeing, and presumably this knowledge should have armed Yalies with the tools necessary to be happy. Yet for all this, why are so many of my peers unhappy? Why was I so unhappy?
The reason for this, I propose, is that Yale provides its students the tools, but those tools are no more effective than the will of the students to put them into practice. Put another way, I can have an intimate intellectual grasp of Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy if I don’t apply the tenets to my own life. Structurally, the rigors of Yale in most cases don’t allow for the time or space to focus on the self. Taking time off for self-care feels bad because it is detracting from the hours in the day to work. Efforts to change the culture surrounding this are deeply needed, but I worry that the nature of Yale as institution will never allow us to fully disentangle ourselves from demands upon our time as we are people who hold a diverse set of interests and are passionate about them. If this sounds familiar, I believe it’s because my experiences are rooted in concerns that many Yalies share and this is especially why a gap year has already proven to be such an effective decision.
Here in Seoul and away from Yale, outside of class and homework, I have more than ample space and time to work on myself as a human being. Making the movement to come here has entered me into a liminal space. I know where I have come from, things are currently in flux, and I have no complete vision for how I’ll completely develop by the time my year here ends. But, I know that I don’t have to feel bad about binging a series on Netflix. I can read all the books I’ve been dying to for two years, those that I always kept telling myself I would read, but never did. And horror of horrors, working out has become a new passion. I’ve even made the decision to take up flower arrangement and to teach myself French (as soon as those textbooks arrive). There is a level of control over my time I possess that the constraints of Yale simply could not support. Even the plain knowledge that I was not returning to campus this fall felt like a burden was lifted. It certainly is daunting to not know what will exactly turn out, but at the same time it’s an austere luxury. There’s a certain beauty to letting structure fall away for a time, to leave behind the regimented chaos of GCal.
I’ll return to Yale all the better for it. It was incredibly difficult to make the decision to not see so many of my friends this year, but I am confident that I made the right decision. I have an entire extra year to think about what I want from the rest of my college years regarding academic plans, extracurriculars, and my aspirations beyond Yale. The new, absolutely different environment and rhythm of life I inhabit have pushed me to become more comfortable and intimate with my own femininity and to move ever closer toward self-actualization. To have a reset, a practical renewal on the blank slate that I entered Yale with, is an incredible blessing. The opportunity to view the world from an entirely different perspective and to mature as a regular person, rather than as a Yale student, is an invaluable treasure.
Though my gap year is only in its infancy, I’ve begun the process of developing interests that are passions on my own terms, of dispelling long-standing self-doubt, and of cultivating genuine self-love.
In reflection, I worry that Yalies often miss the forest for the trees; too often, we focus on achieving that next accomplishment, one of many in a series of steps that will yield a greater result. In focusing on achieving a desired end, the experience of the process, the journey that gets us from where we are to where we want to be, is sacrificed. It’s easy to fall into this clockwork motion when all one has as a reference point is being at Yale, surrounded by many like-minded students. Yet, in my opinion, it has incredibly detrimental consequences. It’s been painful to witness the unintended effects of a Yale education come to bear upon my friends’ psyches. Whether it’s one person’s usual bubbliness being dimmed by the constant stress of balancing a junior year courseload with recruitment season, or another recovering from one bout of illness only to get sick again immediately after, it’s difficult at times to reconcile that I’m here and not in the trenches. It feels like a privilege to be here and have this time, but it’s something I wish more people at Yale would take the opportunity to experience, especially given the robust sources of funding available in the form of the Light Fellowship and multitudes of other outside fellowships and grants.
Though it may be a futile exercise, with college and all its stresses at the moment fairly inconceivable, literally an ocean away from me, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen to remain at Yale this year. Perhaps I would have come to some of the same conclusions, found some gems in the midst of shopping period, and joined some different clubs, but I know that there is so much that I would have never been aware of, so much potential and pure joy I would not have discovered. I’ve never considered myself someone who would use the word “thriving” to describe herself, but the plain truth, a truth I feel with a surety formerly unbeknownst to me, is that I am thriving here.
By Lauren Lee