iC Dingbat

Slacker or Scholar?

Story by: Jenny Chen '13J

As a high schooler I thought 2012 would be my golden year. By summer I would be a college graduate, poised to enter the workforce as a member of the CIA or an investigative journalist for some hotshot news agency. Or I might be entering one of the top law schools of the country—if not Harvard, maybe Yale.

I never thought that I wouldn’t actually be graduating.

When I told my friends I was taking some time off, there was always a pregnant pause where they would think—“Oh, she just couldn’t handle academia.” My dad didn’t want to tell his friends I’m graduating late because he thinks it sounds like I was held back. In elementary school I was always a year younger than everyone else because I skipped an early grade, which makes feeling like I’m behind schedule a real blow. And yet, as my gap semester came to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder if more people should consider doing what I did.

I see tremendous value in stepping away from academics to gain a broader knowledge of self and the learning that occurs at a place like Colby.

During my junior semester abroad at the University of York in England, I met a 26-year-old exchange student from Germany.

Julia had taken not one but several gap semesters during college—sprinkled among her academic years like walnuts in a good banana cake. She took time off to act, to teach in Thailand, to volunteer in the Philippines, and to study abroad. She was also one of the most thoughtful, mature, and fun people I have ever met.

In Europe, taking time off is much more common than it is in the United States. In Britain many students take one or two years off for “sabbatical”—a term I love because it puts us on par with professors. For professors a sabbatical year is a time for research, reflection, and rejuvenation. Why not for students as well?

When I came back from England and looked my senior year in the face, I felt myself sinking into the dreaded rut: the rut where you look at a packet of calculus problems as a high schooler and wonder what the point of all the squiggly integrals is and when you’ll ever use it in real life. After college would be work, and after work would be … what? Instead of waiting to find out, I sent an email to my advising dean saying that I would be taking a semester off, and I threw myself into a semester of freelancing, farming, dancing, teaching, and anything else I could get my hands on—desperate to find out why I was spending four years atop a hill in Maine.

Like any good professor on sabbatical, I conducted research. On myself. What were my strengths? My weaknesses? What did I fear most? Did I have the courage to face it? I tested the limits of my body over a month by breaking new ground at the local community garden and hauling horse manure for three hours straight. The editor at the local newspaper, which I had freelanced for in the past, heard I was in town and asked if I’d like to cover some events. I chased after interviewees who were MIA and learned to coax answers out of them. I learned never ever to miss a deadline and what happens if you do. (It’s not a simple matter of begging the professor for an extension.)

But it wasn’t until I started teaching first graders about poetry at an afterschool enrichment program that I began to get a feeling for what this semester was all about. After finding a way to encourage a boy with low self-esteem, I realized that my ability to draw connections between seemingly unrelated things might be a way I could make an impact.

Maybe the world needed more people who could see the interconnectedness of things. How a Tibetan setting himself on fire was connected to the steel worker in Ohio who had just lost his job. How the teenage protestor in Syria is connected to the Chinese grandmother visiting her family in America for the first time. By weaving these seemingly unconnected things into a common narrative of the human existence, maybe we could work towards something more resembling a common peace. After all, it is a small world that’s only getting smaller.

Some might think a gap semester is a waste of time—an unnecessary pause in an otherwise direct track to a successful career. I couldn’t disagree more. I had the opportunity to integrate everything that I’ve learned in my past 15 years of school into my own worldview. I still don’t have all the answers, but at least I know that I have what it takes to find them. It was one of the best things I could have done to maximize the college year I have left—and, perhaps more importantly, the years after that.

Jenny Chen '13J
North Potomac, Maryland
Majors: English, International Studies...