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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.

Yours truly,
McGreggor Crowley

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.

29 responses to “Adventures of a Prefrosh: My ‘Year On’”

  1. BB'12 says:

    That sounds amazingly fun but RIDICULOUSLY expensive. Was any of it covered by any sort of grant/scholarship?

  2. Harish says:

    Ah! There’s an aviation following at MIT? That makes me even happier.

  3. kayla '12 says:

    that sounds absolutely amazing. i’m jealous.

  4. Becca says:

    That sounds awesome. I don’t think I’m taking a gap year, but I spend a year abroad in high school, and it totally changed my thinking. I want to be Amy Smith too– I’m assuming you are wanting to do D-Lab, M-Lab, and all the other really cool classes MIT has for that. I’m excited to be able to start, but there are times I wonder if I can really do everything I want, but then I see everything that MIT has to offer, and know that maybe I can actually do it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Your picture of the Taj Mahal is seriously one of the prettiest pictures that I’ve seen in my life. I want to frame it. wink

  6. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely amazing blog.

    This why I love MIT blogs and the bloggers–so many people do such amazing things, simply because they pursue their interests.

    Your entry, and many others’, broadens our perceptions of what a person is capable. You guys are just absolutely amazing.

  7. Ty'12 says:

    Wow. It sounds INTENSE! Wish I could fly too, but I am looking forward soooooooooo much (it is ineffable) to MIT that taking a year off would probably kill me–*what do you mean I have to wait a year before I go to MIT!?!?!*
    I have already waited more than 4 months–I can’t wait any longer!!

    Also, welcome to MIT Class of 2012! Looking forward to meeting you.

  8. karen says:

    vicky is right.

    doooo it.

    BB: you can find programs that are not as expensive. it takes a lot of research.

    Ty: I know you’re really excited, but I feel that the MIT experience is really more valuable once you know more in-depth what you want.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I skipped a grade as well, meaning that I’ll also be 16 when I go to college. I’ve been considering a gap year for a long time, and from this post it seems like it’s everything I imagined it would be. smile

  10. Anonymous says:

    Oh, and did you try bathing in the Ganges? It’s cold, but once in a lifetime…

  11. waitlist says:

    Do people that took a gap year last year take up one of the 1040 spots for freshman?

  12. Tanmay '12 says:

    hahaha I live near (ummm…. about 20 miles) Woodstock School. grin

  13. Vicky '12 says:

    @ waitlist: I asked Ben about that to make sure, and he said that the people who deferred last year do take up freshmen spots.

    @ Tammy. COOL! We never got to actually go to Woodstock…I was jealous. I’ve seen pictures, though, and it’s gorgeous!

    @ Ram – A parent: Yeah! We saw lots of those religious services you talked about in your post. It was such a cool immersion experience.

  14. Ben says:

    Oooops, sorry, I was confusing when I answered that. People who defer a year (or two) count against spots in the year in which they are admitted, not the current year… so Vicky will not take an admit spot in the current cycle, for example.

  15. Vicky '12 says:

    Thanks for clearing up, Ben!

  16. Steph says:

    Beautiful Taj Mahal picture.

    I really enjoyed this blog. I like things packed with adventure. The Grand Canyon looks breathtaking from that view.

  17. Natasha says:

    You thought the Taj Mahal was a palace? lol, I can kind of imagine where the misconception might have developed. Its pictures are misleading, it always looks like a palace in them and seems to be way too grand for just a tomb.
    But that said, I think that the Taj Mahal is a bit overrated. There are several other monuments in India that are just as, if not more, breathtaking.

  18. Anon says:

    At the risk of raining on the parade, this post rubs me the wrong way. Someone questioned the expense, and the authored admitted as much (that it was expensive.) Vicky’s gap year comes across as exciting, loaded with adventure, and terribly indulgent (most of it.)

    With so much need and suffering in the world to be mitigated, I would hope that others in a quest to balance themselves before going to college would opt for volunteer opportunities purely for altruistic reasons, and not couch them in the context of an expensive adventure. I’m sorry, it comes across to me as excessive.

  19. This is an awesome article. Looks like you have had a wonderful gap year!

    The photo of the Ganges banks brought back fond memories. I went to the engineering school at Banaras Hindu University – that was 34 years ago. Yet, looking at that pictures, some things never change! On those steps leading up to the waters, it is funny to see those platforms propped up on loosely stacked irregular tiles and stones! Don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it is scarry(and funny) to see full scale religious services conducted on those rickety platforms.

  20. caltech '12 says:

    excellent post; well-written and informative; you have a lot of enthusiasm so keep it up at MIT!!

  21. Heather says:

    Vicky! Your year sounds ridiculously fun… almost as fun as jumping off couches dressed as superheroes…

  22. Barclay says:

    I hope that you will do another posting right after CPW next year so that you can offer the perspective of being another year out and can answer the following questions of others who might be considering deferral:
    1. Did the year off result in any appreciable dulling of your math and science skills at the time you graduated from high school so that you had trouble keeping up with your “straight through” classmates
    2. Did your experiences make you feel somehow out of step with your “straight through” classmates?
    3. With the benefit of a year’s perspective would your recommendation of a gap year be stronger or weaker?

  23. Vicky '12 says:

    @ BB: Karen’s right about the expense. Also, there are programs and fellowships that you can apply for when you’re actually at MIT that will allow you to go abroad and work and volunteer. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, you know? You just have to look hard. It’s definitely worth it.

    @Harish: http://web.mit.edu/mitflying/

    @Ty: I look forward to meeting you too! But seriously, consider taking the gap year. I felt exactly as you do right now about a year ago, but let me tell you, the feeling hasn’t worn off. I’m still really excited for MIT, but I feel so much more confident and have a much broader perspective with all of these experiences behind me. Again, it’s worth it. I promise.

    @karen: thanks for the good responses!

    @ anonymous asking about the ganges: no, I didn’t! We were on a really tight schedule, unfortunately. My younger brother did go tubing on the Ganges though, he said it was pretty incredible. From your post, it sounds like you’ve experienced it?

  24. Thanks Ben for clearing the doubt put forward by ‘waitlist’..the same question was running through my head as well.

    @Vicky
    Nice post!
    With my dad in the Indian Army, I have been to almost every corner of India..My dad was posted in Agra for like two years and every other random visitor at my place had to be accompanied to Taj Mahal…so my visits there have been countless…
    Yes, the interior of taj Mahal encloses just a small room…during those days they didn’t even allow visitors to go down the stairs right in the middle of the room leading to the actual place of burial, due to some safety concerns…i guess its just the beauty of the outer marble structure that attracts all.

  25. sindu says:

    Illumination! Thanks for all the pics and the link to projects abroad. Is it possible to know a little more about ur volunteering in senegal? was it through projects abroad? (just to let u know, teaching, in my case, is an inherent passion, the joy of bringing about understanding…exceeds ecstasy)Those kids do look cute! =)

  26. Vicky '12 says:

    @sindu – yes, it was through projects abroad. feel free to find me on facebook and send me a message if you have more specific questions!

    @barclay: i’ll see what i can do about posting next year! in the meantime, i have been doing some calculus review in my free time.

  27. Piper says:

    ANOTHER PILOT! YAYYYY!!!