Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard. Decision Day had arrived and while all my friends were announcing their acceptances into elite colleges, I was buying what my sister calls “grandma sandals” and a 70-litre backpack for what was, and is, supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime. I sat there, observing the stream of committed students and proud mothers, attempting to quell my frustrations. Their senior years had been a breeze as soon as winter holidays hit. Applications were done, and their fun could finally begin, but I was in a different boat.
With the decision of taking a gap year comes a few complications, the first being that most all of the colleges I want to apply to don’t accept deferments. Unlike everyone else, whose grades past their application date are to some extent irrelevant, all my grades are taken into account. However, I didn’t have grades until I started taking classes at my local community college. “Why Leela,” you might ask, “What do you mean you didn’t have grades until community college?” Well, my high school is what I lovingly refer to as a “crunchy granola private school,” and I was legally registered as a homeschooler because my three day a week “learning community” didn’t meet the hour requirements for a legitimate school. For someone who wants to go to Stanford, waiting a year has its pros and cons. On one hand I get more of a chance to prove my worth. The extra time means they have more grades to look at when I apply. On the other hand, I have to take summer classes while everyone else is on vacation because I want the best chance of acceptance possible. Admittedly I’m not looking forward to it, but my saving grace is my gap year. Although, it wasn’t always so easy to say that.
It was the end of junior year, and my school had it’s annual college prep class: five days of exploring secondary education and—more pertinently, alternative options to attending university. My dream gap year was exactly that: a dream. Murky and unknown, with only a few concrete details. I wanted to travel, I wanted to learn about the world beyond my front door, and I wanted to come back with a better idea of what I wanted to do with my life so I wasn’t attending college just to say I was. I had minimal resources and poor planning skills. In addition, traversing the globe alone sounded mildly terrifying for the moment, and I wasn’t sure how much I’d learn if I just did the whole “I’m going to Europe!” thing, so I used that five-day course to explore my options. There was a semester at sea, a year in Ireland, and a handful of other eye-catching options, but none of them quite struck me as fulfilling. In fact, by the time that course was done, I wasn’t quite sure I even wanted to take a gap year anymore. I have a habit of giving up when the going gets hard, and boy was it getting hard. But I kept searching, and one day there it was, a small advertisement sitting in the middle of my facebook feed at two o’clock in the morning: Winterline (cue the commercial music).
My parents were more than skeptical when I told them the next morning. They didn’t really believe that I’d go back to school if I stopped, and to be honest, I felt it too. But I stood there in my fleecy plaid pajamas and I told them my truth: I felt silly applying for esteemed colleges that cost immense sums of money without a plan in mind. Yes, straying from the path is scary, but where I was, and where I am currently, with no clue what I’d even want to study, is scarier. I mean, most everyone has at least an idea of what they wanted from life, and me? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. As I am now, I know who I am, I know my flaws and my strengths, and I’ve finally become very confident in myself and my personality. But ask me what I want to do in college or what I like to do in general, and I’ll probably change the subject.
So yes, this gap year idea is strange, and mildly terrifying. In fact, it was so scary I didn’t even send out grad announcements. I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to ask me what I’m doing this year, because as excited as I am, there’s still so many questions that I have. And of course there’s the ever looming thought of not getting into my dream school afterwards, that all this work will be for naught. Even since beginning to write this, I’ve had a few panic attacks.
Yet, for all the hard work I’ve been sloughing through; for every party I missed because I had an 8AM class in the middle of July the next morning, for every invite to the lake I declined to work on my SAT studies, and for every late night where I was lost in the plethora of existential crises that plagues my brain; for every one of those moments, there is a moment where I picture myself. Past this summer, past the gap year even, right after the most wonderful adventure in the world. When I think about the end of this, I hold one very specific image in my head: I am settled down one evening, a September sunset streaming through my dorm room window, thinking about my road so far; remembering every obstacle I encountered, and how euphoric it felt to overcome each one. And then future me looks up and smiles, she looks me straight in the eyes and says, “It was all worth it, and Paolo Alto is beautiful.”