For the past semester, alumnus Hillel Zand has been spending time in Israel with Kivunim, a secular Jewish gap year program. For Zand, Kivunim provided a compromise between the world travel he craved and the experience in Israel his parents wanted for him.
“We are based in Jerusalem, but we take frequent trips to countries around the world,” Zand said. “We study the Jewish communities, many of which were previously big and thriving and now may be dying out, in the places we look to visit. I’m enrolled in courses such as Civilization and Societies, Hebrew and Arabic to better my understanding of these communities.”
Although the program has a strong academic focus, Zand believes the structure of the courses, in addition to the traveling opportunities, provides a unique, experiential type of learning that differs from a high school education.
“I’m learning here, but it’s a total 360 from Paly,” Zand said. “We focus on things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the greater Middle East and we do case studies on specific countries. The best part, though, is that we go out and we practice what we’re learning and see it play out in the real world. This helps us gain a worldly and multi-dimensional perspective on things and makes us realize that things are much more connected than they seem.”
Taking a gap year has clarified Zand’s vision for his academic career and assisted in personal character development.
“Going into this year, I was undecided about what I wanted to study, and now I have a clear vision,” Zand said. “The experience has reaffirmed my desire to major in international relations and double minor in economics and music. Also, this gap year has forced me to become more self-sufficient. It’s a transition year before beginning college, but being on my own halfway across the world also feels like a taste of adulthood. Additionally, it has left me more appreciative of my childhood spent in Palo Alto.”
Although Zand admits there are some factors related to taking a gap year that many may perceive as negative, he believes the benefits significantly outweigh the disadvantages.
“One thing I was concerned about was the psychological barrier of knowing I’d be one year behind the class I graduated with,” Zand said. “It’s been a little difficult seeing friends go to school, then hang out at home on break, but I can say that taking this year to do something different has been so fulfilling — easily the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Shivonne: Teaching and Learning in Morocco
Influenced by a passion for international relations and foreign service, alumna Shivonne Logan currently resides with a host family in Morocco, where she is spending the year as a participant of the highly selective National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLIY).
“This program was created by the State Department after 9/11, with the goal of expanding critical language skills and cultural understanding for students,” Logan said. “All of the students participating are doing so free of charge.”
Logan’s weekly routine consists of five three hour Arabic lessons, taking academic courses and spending time with her host family. In her free time, Logan does service work in the community.
“I teach English at a center for women’s empowerment that assists women who may be considered outcasts of Moroccan society — single mothers, mothers out of wedlock,” Logan said. “I work with these women on training for restaurant jobs, making sure they have the language skills for interacting with tourists. What’s exciting is that I am Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) certified, meaning I can continue instructing English around the world in the future.”
Living and attending school in Morocco has granted Logan a heightened understanding of different traditions and cultures around the world. For Logan, who possesses a great interest in women’s issues, contemplating the role of women in her new surroundings has been particularly compelling.
“All of my host sisters wear hijabs, and my host mother wears a niqab, which covers everything but her eyes,” Logan said. “Initially, I respected and understood the philosophy and religious purposes behind this, but I wasn’t fully aware of the range of factors that could play in influencing a woman to wear a hijab or niqab. There is an underlying desire for respect that exists within all individuals, and for many Moroccan women, dressing conservatively grants a certain level of respect and protection. In Palo Alto, hijab is slightly taboo, and some consider it oppressive. Living here has made me realize that [the hijab] is something a woman wears as she walks out the door to feel empowered, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Logan’s experience abroad has not only expanded her global understanding, but has caused her to contemplate plans for college and future careers.
“I’m still interested in focusing on developing conflict and post conflict regions, but I’m interesting in exploring this through different majors,” Logan said. “I’ve realized there are different ways to help people; diplomatic policy is not the only option. Non-profit work is a possibility.”
Logan believes her gap year has pushed her to consider perspectives she may not have otherwise been exposed to.
“I’ve realized that although I’m very proud of being American, I’m more concerned with being a global citizen,” Logan said. “For example, living in Morocco has made me conscious of different points of views. With the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Je Suis Charlie movement has been spreading rapidly, but over here, the Je Suis Ahmed movement, which honors the Muslim police man who died defending the journalists, has been very popular. Overall, it has been an interesting and complex struggle learning how to interpret being both an American and a global citizen and how to live within and understand other cultures.”
Sam: Traveling in Asia and Eastern Europe
Despite being excited for college, Paly alumnus Sam Kelley decided to take a gap year in order to discover himself. Kelley spent his time visiting 17 countries scattered across eastern Europe and Asia, the most noteworthy being Myanmar and India.
In India, Kelley volunteered for a program to help teach basic English to primary school-aged children, some of whom had learning disabilities. The classroom teacher left Kelley stranded with the challenge of teaching the students himself.
“I felt like the sooner I got out of there, the more they would benefit because when I left the volunteer program, the actual teacher was going to come back,” Kelley said. “Ultimately I felt like I was making the situation worse by trying to help. And I was getting a lot more out of it than the kids were.”
Kelley next traveled to Myanmar after hearing it from a few friends that he had made in India.
“Myanmar was interesting because it was isolated for a good portion of the 20th century, so tourism is still a fledgling industry there,” Kelley said. “It felt more real to me, just because they were open telling me about their way of life and trading experiences.”
While in Myanmar, the locals helped Kelley reach a secluded “White Beach” which a tourist agent had told him about.
“The beach is almost completely inaccessible; it took a lot of help from locals giving me rides, taking me along hiking routes, and taking me on fishing boat rides to get there,” Kelley said. “It was a real testimony to how helpful the people are there and how much they want to interact with someone new. Once I got there, it was probably the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen — absolutely picturesque — that was an awesome experience.”
Experiences like these cannot be achieved at college. Kelley recommends for anyone who hasn’t found their passion yet to seriously consider taking a gap year.
“Once you get to college you’re going to be bogged down with the same amount of work as you are at Paly and it doesn’t leave you a lot of time to explore your own interests,” Kelley said. “I thought I could better use my time in college if I took more personal time to figure out who I am as a person and where I would fit into in a potential workplace.”
Freddy: Research on the Retina
For Freddy Kellison-Linn, the idea of taking a gap year started to seem appealing before it did for most others. During the summer before his senior year, Kellison-Linn worked at a research lab at Stanford studying the retinas of macaque monkeys. He inquired if he could extend the opportunity into the year after high school, and the head of the lab approved.
“It’s definitely been a positive experience,” Kellison-Linn said. “I wasn’t super excited about college at the end of high school. It’s not like I was dreading it or anything, but I just wasn’t pumped to go off to college and I had stuff I wanted to do here. But at this point after talking to my friends after they’ve come home, I’ve definitely gotten more excited and I’m very ready to go off to college.”
During his gap year, Kellison-Linn has continued to research the retinas of macaque monkeys. Currently, he is living in an apartment with his friend in Redwood City, Calif.
“Specifically what I’m working on is electrical stimulation of the retina,” Kellison-Linn said. “So being able to look at what neurons there are in the piece of retina that we’ve cut out and then go in with our electrodes and, if we want to activate a certain cell, we apply a current with certain electrodes and figuring out how we can do that without activating any other cells or any axons running through the space. So, the ultimate long-term goal of this is to develop a futuristic prosthetic retina that could potentially restore sight to people who have had deterioration in the photoreceptors or cannot see for some other reason.”
Based off of his experience, Kellison-Linn recommends seniors to consider taking gap years if they have something they want to do that they cannot do if enrolled in college.
“I think not being super excited about college is a good reason to take a gap year, but not in and of itself. I think it can be a motivating factor. I took a gap year because there was something I wanted to do. The idea of a gap year had been appealing but it was always sort of abstract and I didn’t want to really consider it unless I had something I knew I wanted to do. I didn’t want to sit around my parents house and play video games for a year.”
Audrey: From the Pacific Northwest to Spain
For alumna Audrey DeBruine, the option of taking a gap year presented a rare opportunity to stretch herself beyond her comfort zone. Particularly, DeBruine craved the experience of not knowing what exactly would come next.
“I wanted to feel uncomfortable,” DeBruine said. “I had felt like up to this year, I’ve always known what would come next. Every year of my life, I’ve known the next year would be different, but it would still be predictable. A person can anticipate the following year of his or her life with substantial accuracy throughout middle and high school. Although college is a new experience, I still knew what I was expecting, and understood how I would fill the role of a college student. With taking a gap year, I couldn’t get a full picture of what my day to day life would be, and that’s what made it something I wanted to do.”
This desire to dabble into the unknown greatly influenced DeBruine’s planning of her gap year. In the fall, she joined a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course, during which she explored the Pacific Northwest.
“I did a NOLS course, where I went backpacking, rock climbing and learned how to sail,” DeBruine said. “I wanted to do this program because I knew that living outdoors for three months was something that I might not get the chance to do in the future.”
In addition to the semi-structured semester with NOLS, DeBruine reserved the remainder of her gap year for travel in Spain. Pairing an organized NOLS program with a relatively unplanned second semester in Europe granted DeBruine the ability to test her self-direction and independence.
“Dealing with swaths of free time is a daunting task,” DeBruine said. “I tend to do well with a lot of structure, so I wanted to experiment with having to create my own plans as opposed to having someone do that for me. I wanted to push myself to create meaningful use of my time.”
Currently, DeBruine is taking Spanish courses in preparation for Spain and hopes to become relatively competent with the language by the end of her trip. She plans to live with an aunt who resides in Madrid.
Although another adventure from which to learn from awaits, DeBruine has already come to a few realizations at her gap year’s half-way mark.
“I set many expectations for myself at Paly that proved to be unattainable, and I definitely paid for it,” DeBruine said. “I’ve learned to reevaluate success; there may not be anything necessarily inherently negative about the track that urges students to get a 4.0 in high school, then a 4.0 in college, then get great internships and then get a high-paying job, but there’s something to be said about making sure that was the right thing for myself, or considering how I could manipulate that route to work best for myself.”
Chuckling, DeBruine shares a lesson learned on the mountains.
“The NOLS program taught me that I could live in the outdoors with a minimal amount of supplies and services,” DeBruine said. “I really only need to shower twice a week.”
Levi: Working at Carbon3d
Levi Schoeben is spending his gap year working for a stereolithography startup called Carbon3D. Carbon3D is working towards designing technology that will allow printed parts to be final products and is based in Redwood City.
“It’s been great taking time off of school and to explore what I really want to do with my life,” Schoeben said. “I work as an intern in the lab and focus on printing various parts for companies that are interested in working with us or just want parts to compare. Being a small, about 40 person company I also get to be a part of the path towards launch, including working with the chemistry, software, engineer, design, and marketing teams. It’s a very eclectic multidisciplinary office space, where everyone seems extremely excited to work on something that really feels like the future everyday I go into work.”
Schoeben’s decision to take a gap year was not entirely of his own volition, as he had health conditions that required him to stay in Palo Alto. So, Schoeben decided to take a break from educational institutions to better understand how he wanted to structure his college plan.
Though Schoeben’s circumstances made taking a gap year the best option, he believes that most will be able to find worth in taking a gap year.
“If you are the type of person who is even thinking about it [taking a gap year], then there is some real value,” Schoeben said. “Find what will complement your high school education and pursue that. Be it travel, working, volunteering or whatever. I think it’s very important to be given the freedom and responsibility of doing anything you want for a year while still being supported by your parents. It’s a great way to kind of get a trial run of adulthood.”
Spending his gap year working, Schoeben believes this experience will serve him on much later in life.
“My gap year is giving me a taste of the real world,” Schoeben said. “It’s helping me get exposed to a ton of professions and what jobs can come from what backgrounds. My job will certainly shape how I choose my classes and thus shape my college degree.”