Opinion / From the Readers

Gap year: A way to discover clues about your future

By David Zhu (Yingnan Zhu) ( Updated: 2015-06-25 17:04

Gap year: A way to discover clues about your future

A group photo from the GCC annual New York convention, March 2011.[Photo provided to]

Editor notes: This article, written by David Zhu (Yingnan Zhu) in the summer of 2011, is part of our coverage of these who undertake a gap year. We share his story about his eight-month “gap year” in Beijing and hope it helps those who still have no clues about their future in this graduation season.

In late 2010, I was deciding whether or not I should take a gap year and suspend my studies at Columbia University. I hesitated for several months before deciding that I would fly to Beijing and explore myself in a city where I am familiar with the language and culture, and do so in a city that is filled with opportunities.

Eight months ago, I took a leap of faith and decided to take a year off from my life as a student. It was the first time that I was not one since kindergarten. Schools are fun, and having been through 10 different schools growing up, I can confidently say I was not so afraid of switching again to a new environment.

People had all sorts of reactions to my decision. At first, I cared a lot. My parents were vocally against it and my college friends thought I was doing something terribly stupid. Unsurprisingly, I grew further from some of my closest friends in college by missing out on my senior year, but such is how many college cliques works - bonds fueled on the amount of time spent together. But I was not without support and looking back, I must thank those that inspired me to take this step.

Eight months passed. When I now tell someone that I took a year off, I still get lots of questions:

Q: "Why did you take a gap year?"

A: Because I wanted to.

Q: "What did you do?"

A: A lot.

Q: "What did you learn?"

A: A lot more.

I wish there was a simple way to describe it all with words. But words do a terrible job in capturing emotions efficiently. The most I can do is list my projects and achievements in resume-like fashion as if it was an interview. But that's not the whole story; it's just the cover, and maybe the table of contents.

Taking a gap year was about living the unpackaged life, displacing myself from the support system that it has gotten so used to. It was testing assumptions, be wrong, be right and formulating a view less breakable, a mind less shakable. It was introspection.

How often do you think to yourself: "I'm not like that," "That's not who I am," "That's not how I do things," or "That's not what I want"? If you think like this often, then congratulations, you seem to know yourself pretty well. For me, these lines didn't come up often enough throughout my three years of college. Sure, it was important to keep an open mind, but open-mindedness is hardly self-awareness, and one doesn't always lead to the next, because too many different experiences at one time can sometimes confuse you and make you less aware of the self.

Exactly one year ago, I was struggling between the idea of becoming an entrepreneur and taking the traditional corporate path. I had trouble deciding if it's better to make a thousand acquaintances or maintain a dozen close friends. I couldn't decide if I should dive into China as early as possible before the window of opportunity closed, or spend more time in the US to develop myself before doing so. I sometimes relied on the judgment of others because I didn't trust myself enough. I had a strong desire to take my path to China and reconnect my roots, but I didn't know how.

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