Ephs take a break from books before college

While most people were traveling the world during their gap years, Alex Kopynec ’09 was working seven-day workweeks on a construction crew. For 14 straight months, Kopynec worked eight hours a day renovating buildings and even constructing a house from scratch. It wasn’t the typical gap year, but it was far from forgettable.

“I decided to take a gap year for a couple of reasons, both personal and financial,” Kopynec said. “I needed a full-time job to get the money to go here. I think the great thing about taking a gap year is that you don’t need the right reasons going into it to get something out of it. I mean, I know one of my reasons [for taking a gap year] was terrible.”

Although Kopynec may have blundered originally in some of his reasoning to take a gap year, the experience was life-changing. “I ended up getting more out of it than I anticipated,” he said. “I was able to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. It was just nice to take time and breathe and adjust to the change from high school.”

Most people spent their freshman fall semester doing just that: switching to a completely new mindset after high school. For Kopynec, the transition to college was much smoother. Because he had already taken time off after high school, Kopynec believes that he was able to jump right into the collegiate life.

“I was so excited when I got here that I wanted to participate in as many things as possible,” Kopynec said. “I honestly believe that if I had come straight to Williams after high school that I would not have been excited as I was, which means that I wouldn’t be as involved as I am right now. I think it takes being out of high school for a while to figure out what you want to do, and lots of people waste first semester getting to that point.”

After working his blue-collar job for over one year, Kopynec came to appreciate both the opportunities he was offered and contributions of his co-workers. However, at the same time, Kopynec didn’t want his experiences after high school to be his defining attribute. “I didn’t try to be more mature, but at the same time it is impossible to do something like that and not come out with a different understanding,” he said.

Although Noah Fields ’11 didn’t spend his gap year working, he was far from idle as a student at a conservatory in Salsburg, Austria. Fields used his time off from school to learn about European culture. “I learned German in high school, so I got to solidify what I had learned,” Fields said. “I went to a music school in Austria part-time, which was great because it allowed me to try things in a less stressful situation.”

Once in Austria, Fields tried his best to become fully integrated into European society, only speaking German and befriending European natives. “My German got a lot better [in Austria],” he said. “I picked friends that weren’t American or English-speaking. A lot of kids I knew only hung out with other English-speaking students, but I chose to isolate myself. Most of my friends were from Austria or Germany. I also went home with friends, which was really cool. It was a good way to see the world because I actually got to see how people lived, not just the hostels.”

Spending time outside of the country was a way for Fields to experience things outside of his comfort zone. After being home-schooled for over five years, Fields had to adjust to being away from his family and living with hundreds of students in a foreign country. Although he quickly settled in to his new routine, Fields was forced to adjust to the different European mentality.

“It was nice to place myself in a Western context that I had not understood before,” Fields said. “I mean culture in America is a digression from how people think in Europe. For example, I would walk past Mozart’s house everyday, and I had studied his music for years. It gave context to things I had learned earlier so that they weren’t foreign anymore.”

Fields learned plenty about European culture, but shifting back to the rigorous learning environment in college was not so easy. “I appreciate going, but it did make it harder to go back to school in such a tough academic setting. I guess I could say that I became more mature, but that’s not true at all. If anything, I got less mature,” Fields said jokingly.

Glenn Yong ’11 also had a hard time getting back in the academic mindset after taking three gap years. Like Kopynec, Yong was getting a taste of the real world, training and serving in the Singaporean army.

“For two years I served in the military,” Yong said. “I had no choice because it was compulsory to be in the military. While I was there, I worked on the bomb squad on missions, specializing in communications and local operations.”

Although boot camp at the initiation of his years in the Singaporean army was both difficult and stressful, Yong gradually became accustomed to the lifestyle. After the demanding training, Yong even joked about the pleasure of playing field hockey for the rest of his term. He may not have voluntarily joined the army, but the experience was far from regrettable. “I ended up learning a lot [from the army],” Yong said. “In fact, I nearly decided to be a pilot after my basic training, but my mom told me I had to come here.”

Aside from his military training, Yong also worked in a bank and traveled to China to teach English before arriving in Williamstown. The years away from high school allowed him to get his bearings in the work sector and help him figure out what he wanted to do after college.

“I think everyone should at least take one year out of school,” Yong said. “If you have never been in the world, how are you supposed to know what to do [after college]? You can take some econ. classes, think you like it, and then work in a bank and realize you hate it.”

Kopynec also recommends taking a gap year to self-reflect and to take a break from the rigid academic mindset drilled into most students. “I think a gap year is good for a lot more people than may realize it,” Kopynec said. “Lots of people think that they need the momentum after high school to get through college, but I think the opposite is true. Sometimes you just need time to breathe.”

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