Filling in the gap (year)

I, like countless other members of the Class of 2012, am in a predicament of excess – an excess of mind-blowing, community-driving and horizon-expanding opportunities. Put into less opaque terms, I simply cannot decide what I want to for my junior year. My friends tell me I could make a good JA; my Williams conscience is pushing me to take on that double major or thesis; and my restless 20-year-old spirit is yearning to travel the world and learn new languages. Sound familiar?

Having long ago ruled out the possibility of embarking on eight months of unpaid first-year babysitting, I recognize that my choices might be somewhat narrower than some of yours. However, even if I could easily relinquish my double major ambitions (which in itself would be a difficult decision), I feel like I might be reduced to a world map version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey if I had to choose a single study abroad destination today.

While studying abroad in Japan seems logical enough, seeing as I am currently enrolled in Japanese 101, a strong case can also be made for me to continue my study of Mandarin in China, where I’ve already studied abroad for a total of over a year and a half. Furthermore, having grown up bilingually in metropolitan Montreal, a semester of re-immersion in a francophone environment, perhaps in northern Africa, would be an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding experience.

Contemplating these various options, my mind rested on an obvious yet strangely elusive potential path for equivocating sophomores like myself: the possibility of doing a gap year abroad in lieu of going abroad junior year and missing out on two semesters of on-campus education.

When I took a gap year between sophomore and junior years of high school to study abroad in a Chinese secondary school in Nanjing, I was able to return to the West with new perspectives, renewed academic vigor and an abundance of close Chinese friends and potential contacts, all on top of a strong proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. Moreover, the time I invested in China has already demonstrated great returns, not only giving me an edge in the college admissions process, but further providing me with two summers of interesting overseas job experience in Beijing, along with a State Department-funded language research scholarship this past summer.

Considering the advantages of taking a gap year abroad, particularly in the context of the College where it would allow one to also contemplate JAship and/or double majoring, it is quite perplexing how few students choose to undertake such a path. Discussing the matter with a professor who had personally suggested that I take a gap year, I learned that the College tries to discourage students from taking gap years in part because an increase in gap years adversely affects our College’s standing in the U.S. News rankings. Is this really a factor that should be influencing how we weigh important decisions regarding our futures?

Many Ephs may feel like they are legitimately deterred from the gap year option because of a fear of not graduating with their peers or, perhaps, the stigma that surrounds students who do not graduate “on time.” Last time I checked, however, our time in college is not a race. A gap year will certainly force you to adapt to a new social environment and make new friends. Yet the payoff in foreign language dexterity, along with the extra year of academic exploration spent in Williamstown – benefiting both the mind and the resumé – might just be worth the costs.

Another strong argument for taking a gap year abroad is that it allows for personal growth and maturation amidst the pressures of a stressful and often cloistered college experience. Spending a year outside of the purple bubble engaged in experiential learning would definitely prove invaluable not only in the classroom, but also in considerations about one’s post-graduation plans.

While I remain unsure over what path I’m going to adopt come next fall – whether I’ll be in Asia, North Africa or tranquil Williamstown – I do know that I’m open to all options. College, after all, will most likely be my last opportunity to prepare myself for “the real world.” I usually agree with the age-old adage, “You can’t have it all,” but this just might be an exception.

Adam Century ’12 is from Montreal, Canada. He lives in Morgan.