Harvard College encourages all students to take a gap year. From traveling across the country to pre-professional work, COVID-19 has prompted students to take time off and explore different environments. A year beyond academic limitations gives gap year students more maturity and clarity on how to maximize their undergraduate experience.
Chris Kim ’26 explained his reasons for taking a gap year. “I would have been seventeen when I entered college,” Kim said. “I wouldn’t have the same level of personal discipline when it comes to getting work done or managing myself.” Kim believes the daunting aspect of a gap year releases the same adrenaline as the first few weeks of college. “Everybody has a safety net at home. When you take that away, you really realize what you can do on your own.”
Despite COVID protocols being strict and travel partially halted, Kim was still able to participate in a 90-day field trip across Asia, fueled by dreams of learning Mandarin and connecting with his culture. He did community service with the local indigenous people and studied oceanography, often through scuba diving.
Like Kim, many gap year students have completed pre-professional internships to guide their academic path at Harvard. Lexi Monk ’26 regrets not taking a gap year. “Being a medical student with at least eight years of school ahead of me, I really wish I had taken some time off,” said Monk. “I wish I had explored this avenue of unconventional learning before I threw myself into college.”
After his semester abroad, Kim transitioned to two pre-professional opportunities: working as a dermatologist’s assistant in New York City and later an internship at a quantitative fund in Florida. He delved into two distinct but possible career interests – an opportunity that many undecided Harvard concentrators would find useful. “The gap year really allows you to branch out, especially when you’re not sure what you want to do. At least you’ll find out what you Not want to do,” Kim said.
Like Kim, Matthew Thompson ’26 split his gap year between a pre-professional internship and international travel. He began as an intern for New York Congressman Gregory Meeks on Capitol Hill. For Thompson, the most important part of this experience was exploring the hill, attending intensive briefings, and making connections.
In the three months following his internship, Thompson left his phone at home to attend a Senegal overseas travel program as part of Where There Be Dragons, a group overseas travel program. The trip consisted of three separate homestays, which became real connections for Thompson, so much so that he still keeps in touch with them. “I feel like I have three homes in Senegal. It’s an insanely hospitable place, you just show up and people have food for you,” he said.
Thompson hoped to solidify a professional field of interest, but rather learned what he did Not want to do. “That’s not a bad thing,” Thompson said. “I’m really glad I had this experience and I would recommend it to anyone.”
Unlike Kim and Thompson, Grace Bida ’26 always knew she wanted some time off before college. “Instead of memorizing facts and being confined to one room, I’ve always wanted to learn through experience,” she said. “Why do I want to study? Why did I want to explore different topics? I wanted to explore my own inner compass.”
Grace Bida ’26 started her gap year with no planning at all, other than knowing she wanted to work with children. After intensive research, support from her father and contact with the Harvard Gap Year Society, she came across the opportunity to become an au pair for four families in France, Austria, Scotland and Italy. Working as an Au Pair has fueled her burgeoning interest in sociology and early childhood education, and more specifically in reimagining learning opportunities for students both inside and outside of the classroom.
Bida appreciates being able to gain a foothold on your own before studying. “Sometimes it was incredibly stressful traveling alone, but in the end it was really amazing because I could always choose what I wanted to do,” she said right way is for you.”
The three students will always remember some outstanding moments. Kim raved about the shimmering bioluminescence as she gazed down at the ocean and up at the glittering starry sky; two things we never see on campus. Thompson recalls coming home in the evenings and breaking the fast with his host families as the sun went down during the month of Ramadan. Bida recalled her first stay at home on a beautiful farm in the Austrian Alps in November, coincidentally at the same time as Taylor Swift’s release of Red, the re-recording. “When the first snowfall started, I put on my headphones and listened to ‘All Too Well’ while the snow ‘glittered as it fell,'” she said.
Gauri Sood ’26 ([email protected]) wishes she dropped out of Harvard for a year.