Adventures of a Prefrosh: My ‘Year On’ by mitblogs
...and why you should listen to Matt McGann. [by Vicky Thomas '12]
[by Vicky Thomas ’12]
Like most of you reading this, I stalk these blogs pretty frequently. Unhealthily frequently, actually. So, last week, when I was sitting at work… er… my room… and I noticed Matt’s entry “On taking a ‘Gap Year'”, I remembered that I’ve been meaning to write my own entry about the same subject for a while now. I have also been follow-up stalking (I like to think of this as “scanning for comments by my fellow ’12s in an effort to get to know them better”) Matt’s entry to see if anyone has made an interesting comment, and I’ve noticed that some people really seem to hate the deferral idea. Their reasoning seems fair enough, considering it aligns pretty much exactly with the hesitations I had last year when deciding to defer. Now that I’m almost done with my gap year, though, I can assure you that ignoring those hesitations was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while.
Before I dive into what could potentially be a very over-excited description of what I’ve done for the past 11 months, I want to dispel the negative connotations that seem to surround a gap year. One of the concepts that I found particularly helpful with this came from Interim Programs, a Cambridge Massachusetts-based program that helps people plan gap years. When I first walked into their office (I actually didn’t end up working with them, because I wanted to plan my year on my own), I was struck by all of their literature that promised to help me plan an unforgettable “year on”. I really liked this phrase because it negates the notion that a “year off ” is a year-long vacation where you don’t actually do anything productive. Not only that, it suggests that the year will be even more productive than a year of your normal routine. And mine definitely has been.
To prove it, here’s a play-by-play of my year so far.
After I graduated from high school in June ’07, I shipped off to the Bay Area for a super-incredibly-fun-mind-blowing-unbelievable-and-other-similar-words internship with a renewable energy startup company. At this point, I was actually still technically a member of the Class of 2011. While at Squid Labs out in Alameda, CA, I worked for and with some of the smartest people I have ever met, a lot of whom have degrees from MIT. It was pretty cool to see a bunch of fairly young people making a difference and solving real problems and having a blast doing it. I could go on for a while as to what exactly the internship entailed, but suffice it to say that I designed and built Howtoons, helped test technologies that harness high-altitude wind, helped build a massive roof-deck, went kite-boating, went to Google (and more importantly, ate in one of the many AWESOME Google cafeterias), and met a bunch of really inspiring people. Actually, the internships were later featured in a MAKE article by Saul Griffith (he spelled my name wrong, but hey, I was pretty stoked to be quoted in an article and have one of my Howtoons published all in the same issue)!
As July ’07 was coming to an end and I was in denial about having to leave Alameda, I started to reconsider the concept of a gap year; a concept that my parents had been pushing since I skipped 5th grade and became really young compared to my classmates. The whole age thing (I would have been 16 when I started MIT if I hadn’t deferred) was one of the main reasons I was first considering taking a gap year, but I was just so excited to start learning and researching and developing and contributing to all the good stuff at MIT that I didn’t want to delay what seemed like my entire life for a whole year. However, at Squid Labs, I started to realize that I could learn and research and develop and contribute to a lot of exciting things in a lot of exciting ways if I took a year away from traditional schooling. Still not completely convinced, I figured that leaning towards maybe possibly taking a gap year was about as decided as I was ever going to be. I try to live by the mantra no regrets , though, so I just went with my gut feeling and sent a short outline of what I thought my year would entail off to the admissions office, and I got a prompt reply back from McGreggor:
Hi, Vicky. Thank you for your letter requesting a deferral. We will be glad to grant you a deferral – your gap year sounds like a ton of fun.
For students who defer, we request that they write us a letter summarizing the events of their past year. This letter is due in February, and it can be an email or hard copy.
Also, you will need to complete all financial aid forms anew. These are due in February, and include the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and the MIT FinAid form.
From this point forward, you will be a member of the MIT Class of 2012.
We look forward to seeing you on campus next year, Vicky, and please email me or call if you have any questions or concerns.
And that was it. “From this point forward, you will be a member of the MIT Class of 2012”. No turning back.
So, I headed back to the East Coast, and interned with the Lemelson-MIT Program (more on that later) while searching for a volunteer program abroad. I ended up finding Projects Abroad, a UK-based program with volunteer projects all over the world. There are a whole slew of these pay-to-volunteer programs out there (as you will see if you run a Google search for gap year programs), but Projects Abroad seemed to be pretty legit from what I could tell, and they had programs that interested me in equally interesting places. When I got to the French-speaking town of St. Louis, Senegal, (we’re now in late October 2007, by the way), I moved in with my host family and was informed that even though I had signed up to teach English in a high school, I had been switched over to a different project. I ended up teaching preschool and organizing meals for Talibes (boys whose Qur’an teachers beat them and send them to live on the streets when the boys’ parents don’t pay for their lessons). This was challenging for many different reasons – namely that preschool-aged Senegalese kids don’t speak French yet, so I had to learn some Wolof, and that there were always way more Talibes than bread, so we had to turn some away. It was definitely an incredible experience, though, and while I struggled with culture shock during my first week, I didn’t want to go home at the end. I could go on about Senegal forever, but then you would be here forever, and that wouldn’t be good. So I hope these pictures elaborate a little bit, and feel free to ask me any questions!
The class I taught in St. Louis, Senegal, (photo courtesy of Lauren Scott). They don’t like to smile for pictures…but really, they’re cute…
The street view of the school/Talibe center I volunteered at (photo courtesy of Lauren Scott….I conveniently forgot my camera battery at home)
Sledding down sand dunes in the dessert. Note the baby bath that we tried to use as a sled. As you can probably guess, that didn’t work very well…
If you haven’t noticed yet, I don’t like to sit still. So, about a month after my return to the States, I headed back overseas – this time was to India with my parents. My younger brother is doing his junior year of high school at the Woodstock School in the foothills of the Himalayas, and during January, his school takes the foreign kids on a month-long tour of the country. They invited parents and families, so we joined in for more “Chaiiiiiiiiii, Coffeeeeeeeeee” and 30-hour train rides than I care to remember. I have to say, the Taj Mahal was a little disappointing up close (it was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but I had it built up to be this huge palace when it’s really just a tomb with one room you can go inside). The birthplace of Buddhism, sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi, and the Himalayas were incredible, though. I have to say that all of the near-death bus and train rides (driving in Boston is a piece of cake compared to driving in India) were SO worth it; I love experiencing new cultures, and seeing my brother after 7 months was one of the best parts of my gap year, hands-down.
Pilgrims bathing in the Ganges at sunrise
My brother and me riding an elephant! Actually, it was kind of anticlimactic…elephants are slow. But the driver steers with his feet behind the elephant’s ears. That was cool.
Just another day in Kolkata…
Surprisingly, not at Taj Mahal tourists are foreigners. And, I thought these colors were pretty amazing.
I think this was taken right before a deep conversation on what exactly it means for an Indian train dinner to be “veg” or “non-veg”.
About a week and a half after I got back from India, I headed off to Colorado to take flying lessons. “Why Colorado?”, you ask? Because the instructor I took lessons from does this really cool “adventure training” where you get to fly around the southwestern states as you learn to fly. So, I flew over the Grand Canyon on my second day of flying, Lake Powell on my third, stayed in Winslow Arizona (and stood on the corner), met Clay Lacy (!!!!!) and a bunch of cool fighter pilots who were happy to let me sit in and turn on the brand-new Learjets they were flying (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) all in one weekend. I was not just bitten by the aviation bug, I was completely eaten alive; I figured I would go out there and get my private pilot certificate and be done with it, but now I want to get my instrument, commercial, and multi-engine ratings after I finish my private (the weather was pretty bad in Colorado, so I didn’t finish by the time I had to come home…I’m working on finishing up in New Hampshire now). While I was in Colorado, I got to see and sit in one of these being built, and I flew one of these on my last day. Actually, I now want to major in Course 16 at MIT. Plus, I recently discovered MIT’s Flying club. Man, this school just keeps getting better and better.
View from above the Grand Canyon
L-R: Random film crew, me, Clay Lacy. Clay Lacy’s Learjet, “Lacy Lear”, is behind us. Yes, that is a camera sticking out of the top of his jet. Yes, that is what he uses to film cool stuff like Top Gun.
Yeah, I am sooo going to be type-rated to fly that someday.
Here’s what I actually learned to fly in: a G1000-equipped Diamondstar DA40.
This one is kind of unrelated but I had to share it with you. On the way to the airport one morning, I saw a bunch of deer jumping over the fence. Well…trying to jump over the fence.
So, I guess that brings me to what I’m doing now. As I mentioned, I was interning with the Lemelson-MIT Program in the fall, and I’m back working for them again until EurekaFest at the end of June. I work primarily with Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, the Lemelson-MIT Program’s grants initiative to foster invention and innovation in high school students. I was on an InvenTeam in high school, and that experience is the primary reason why I even considered MIT for college. Right now, I’m helping with a lot of administrative tasks while getting to know MIT better. I’ve actually gotten to meet a lot of people and attend some really interesting seminars, lectures, and events – all of which have convinced me even more that MIT is the perfect place for me.
So, with all of that said, I really hope that you will take Matt’s advice and at least consider taking a gap year. I know that there are a lot of concerns, but to every concern, there is a pro-gap year response. Isn’t it isolating? At times, but you learn so much about yourself, and you learn to branch out. Won’t I get bored? I definitely didn’t. Go out and find some of the unbelievable opportunities that are out there. There are a lot. They won’t always come jumping right out at you, but once you break into the network of exciting opportunities, they will unfold like crazy. Won’t a gap year derail my education? Not unless you let it. I learned so many valuable lessons in my gap year that answered the question of “why” instead of the question of “what”. I now have a much broader understanding of why I learn what I learn in school, and what I want to do with the skills I gain at MIT when I graduate (basically, I want to be Amy Smith, and build airplanes on the side). Plus, a gap year is a great time to recharge and rejuvenate; I kept my mind active while resting the burnt-out-from-high school portion of it. AND, a gap year is a great chance to teach yourself things that you’ve always wanted to learn but never had time for. I’m sure there are a lot of other concerns out there, but I think those are the three major ones. I would be more than happy to answer/respond to any other concerns that you guys have about gap years, though – just post a comment and I’ll do my best to get back to you quickly!
The campus seems a lot quieter now that all of the other prefrosh have gone back home after CPW (WHICH WAS AWESOME), but the excitement and adrenaline that filtrated the air last weekend still linger in me, and I can’t wait to see everyone again in the fall. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned this year is how exciting and important it is to meet and collaborate with the world’s many extraordinary people, and how valuable people’s differences can be. From my fellow volunteers in Senegal and my host sister, to the students I met in India, to the Lemelson-MIT Program staff and the current MIT community, to the aviators in Colorado, and finally to the MIT Class of 2012, I have learned so much and been very inspired this year. And let me tell you, I am more excited than ever for the next four.