At the end of my sophomore year in college, my advisor asked me an incredulous question: “Have you thought about taking some time off?” I was confused and angry that he even suggested it. Did he think I should leave the school? Did he think I wasn’t cut out for this? ‘I’m not that bad of a student,’ I thought. It turns out, he was right about taking time off, and not because he thought I was a bad student or wasn’t cut out for MIT, quite the opposite. He thought I could do more and be more.
I pushed back against taking time off for several months before giving in. I had so many ties I didn’t want to cut – even temporarily. I was on the field hockey team, I was in a sorority, I was in an a capella group. And I was supposed to leave all of that, why? Because I wasn’t perfectly happy? No one is, and they all (mostly) make it through college. Who in the world chooses to take a gap year in the middle of college? Well, I did – and it turned out to be one of the most fulfilling years of my life. I discovered my ultimate career passion: international humanitarian aid. I got to live in Milan for five months. I got into eating healthy and working out regularly. I started reading philosophy books and thinking about what it means to be happy and lead a successful life, and I turned out so much better for it. Here’s the story of just how that happened.
Taking time off, whether a semester, a year or several years, isn’t an easy choice. It took many factors to convince me it was the right move. The first reason I took time off was due to mental health. As many of you know, college is a lot different from high school. For me, transitioning from a subpar public high school to a top tier college was nothing short of jarring. By the end of Sophomore year, I was burned out. I was placed in a pressure cooker environment and felt I wasn’t performing as well as I could be, primarily because I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I knew that I had to be proactive about my mental health and that it was impossible to care about myself and function fully if I was spending all my time studying and in a research lab. So, I decided to take time to figure out exactly how I worked as a person. I kept a diary and discovered bubble baths are one of my favorite ways to relax, along with singing. I found that if I started to feel overwhelmed or anxious, counting things, such as tiles, helped me focus and calm down. I also, as mentioned earlier, took the time to explore philosophy. I was so frustrated with how difficult everything was and how many hoops I had to jump through, especially as a pre-med. Reading a few philosophical texts helped me think about the “bigger picture” and helped reframe my thinking and reorganize my values a bit.
Another reason I decided to take time away was that I felt disconnected from school. I enjoyed my classes overall, but part of me yearned for something immediately applicable. I was pre-med because I wanted to help people— being a doctor was my dream job. I wanted to get out of the school bubble and experience the real world. I wanted to solve a real problem that I cared about, not an imaginary physics problem that had nothing to do with my major. I wasn’t ready to commit to the long slog of years of medical school quite yet, without understanding why I wanted to be a doctor and what my career possibilities were. Related to this, I wanted to take advantage of opportunities that might not be possible later in life, or at least, would be much harder.
During my summer and two semesters off, I had three internships. The first was at the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute. I won’t spend much time talking about this since it was a fairly normal summer internship, but it did teach me that I absolutely don’t belong in a dry research lab. Finding out what you don’t like is just as important as finding out what you do!
The following Fall, I was lucky enough to intern at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in New York City. I didn’t find out until the last minute, and nothing else had worked out yet, so I honestly was questioning my decision to take a gap year. But luckily, the Medical Editor gave me a shot, and I got to be part of the New York morning bustle for a few months.
The atmosphere at MSF was different than anything I’d been a part of before. A large part of that was because it was a humanitarian NGO. Everyone at the office was there because they believed in the mission of MSF; they wanted to help people and believed that quality healthcare should be available for all. Even though I wasn’t in love with my day-to-day job of documenting research articles, I loved the people I was working with and the organization I was working for. I heard doctors talking first hand about how they spent six months in Bostwana fixing cleft-lips and I thought, “That could be me.”
The next semester was even better. I found a member of MIT’s international department who was willing to work with me to find a scholarship so that I could intern abroad in Italy. Through the grapevine, we found an organization similar to MSF named EMERGENCY. EMERGENCY is also a medical humanitarian NGO, but they’re a bit younger and, of course, their headquarters are in Italy. I loved living in Milan, and I clicked with EMERGENCY even more than I had MSF. EMERGENCY has a special focus on sustainable development to ensure that the communities they helped would grow to be independently capable of supporting and advancing their level of quality healthcare. The emphasis of sustainable development sparked an interest in me. I took several development and anthropology courses when I returned to MIT, which have since into a minor! I also felt at home in the environment of EMERGENCY, and my boss even wrote several letters of recommendation to support me in applying for scholarships.
After my year off, I was recharged. I felt like I had a connection to the real world, I knew what I career path I wanted to take, and more than anything, I was beyond excited to start that journey. This vision and recharging have sustained throughout my last two years at university, but I’d be amiss if I didn’t acknowledge the difficulties of coming back from a leave of absence. Becoming a student again was a bit of an adjustment, but the hardest part was missing out on a year with my friends.
Taking time off has significantly clarified my interests. It has made me more sure of what I want to do in life and given me the courage to take some time off in between med school so I can broaden my horizons. It has opened my eyes to other interests that I can combine with medicine to fulfill my original goal of helping people in the most effective, multifaceted way.
Taking a gap year can seem like you’re veering off track. Maybe the idea bothers you because it feels like “giving up” or resigning that you’re “not good enough”. But none of those are true. The truth is, taking a gap year is becoming more and more common and for good reason. It gives you an opportunity to have different experiences (maybe even boost your resume!), learn about yourself, and be certain about your path moving forward.
What would you do on your gap year?