You’ve likely seen a few 2018 grads strolling the halls this week. A final farewell is in order for a large number of our
students alumni who, now in the midst of packing, are preparing to board planes and call a new campus home.
But you would be foolish to imagine that ALL of our most recent seniors are determined to jump head first into the textbooks, lectures, and test-taking trials of academia. Yes, it’s the most common trajectory for post-SAS study, but certainly not the only option. Some students begin their national military service. And an increasing number consider a healthy break from the stress of the past year.
Yes—stress. It’s all we talk about. It’s all we listen to. It’s all we think about. Our entire environment is built by pillars of pressure, getting weaker and more fragile with every summative assessment handed to us. Over the course of high school, we were conditioned to work towards gaining the “prestigious” status of having a 4.0 GPA. Justified by college requirements and prerequisites, the stress that we accumulate during high school can be seen across every demographic: in our darkened under eyes, in our wrinkled foreheads, in our slumped shoulders. But we all grew accustomed to this by the end. It’s nature. We grew older, retained more responsibilities, and got more mature. In exchange, we sacrificed our contentment to the evils of stress.
While there is a range of different catalysts for giving students’ stress, its effect is similar universally. When I began applying for college last year, I felt the weight of every textbook, study guide, and prep book I’d ever read through. I remembered 2am study sessions, cramming supreme court cases in between races, and the thousands of itty bitty circles I’ve bubbled in and thought to myself: I deserve to go to college. I went through all of that stress. I worked hard. By the time November 1st had arrived, I had done everything possible to get my future on track for success.
On the various “decision” days throughout our senior year, the stampede of college-bound acceptances barged into the high school caf. Seniors were decked out in their respective school’s sweatshirts and merchandise. You couldn’t go a minute without seeing a name of a college on a water bottle or on someone’s torso. My friends were getting into their dream schools: the ivy leagues, small liberal arts, and big party schools. I, on the other hand, was not.
“Following careful consideration of your application, I am sorry to inform you that we will not be able to offer you a place in the first-year class.”
“After careful review of your application materials, we are unable to offer you admission to the university.”
“We are grateful for the time you invested in researching the University and completing the application process. However, after evaluating your credentials in the context of a talented group of candidates, we regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission.”
Those were just a few of the many lovely rejection letters I got over the course of the season. After opening them, I thought to myself, “Great. Awesome. Cool. Yeah, that’s just good. It’s alright. It’s okay. Whatever. If they don’t want me, I don’t want them!”
Shock turned into sadness which turned into panic. “Oh my gosh. I’m not going to college. I’m a failure. It’s simple. I’m just dumb.” I started asking myself why? Why didn’t I get into that college? Why did I work so hard? Did I even work that hard? I couldn’t answer myself. I lost sight of passion and purpose, somewhere midway through high school I stopped thinking about my future as an open door and started thinking of it as a labyrinth I had to solve in order to unlock the glitz and glam I’d dreamt about.
When I was a Junior, I had already anticipated future successes and accomplishments, like graduating college, getting my degree, and getting a job, without considering the amount of work and dedication necessary to complete those things. I was so caught up in trying to speed things up, I had planned ten years into my future into a robotic structure lacking any break periods.
Researchers have found that most of adolescence is spent stressing out over the theorized necessity of material outcomes, like money. When I looked at my “10-year plan” I saw just that; the final accomplishment I had in store for me was ‘getting a job.’ After conversations with adults who gave me advice for my impending future, I concluded that in spite of differences in age, stress over issues of employment and generating a higher income carries into adulthood. And furthermore, my goal to ‘get a job’ was superfluous. Before having been forced to re-evaluate my plan, I’d never thought about taking a step back to see the bigger picture and its flaws.
The concept of taking a break has always been attached to laziness or unproductive behavior. The stigma against gaps stems from its hiatus from traditional classroom education. In media, students taking gaps are either aimlessly backpacking across Europe or stay-at-home couch potatoes. This stigma was even highlighted when Malia Obama announced that she would defer her admission to Harvard University in 2016 to pursue a gap year. The internet exploded with critics, uncertain about her decision.
People argue that you’ll lose your academic motivation, waste your time and that it’ll just be another vacation. Before doing my own research, I concurred with this theory and believed that students on gaps were just squandering their time and their parents’ money. However, after taking a second glance at the option, I found the jackpot of internships, jobs, volunteering opportunities, real-world experiential education, opportunities I’d always thought about doing later in life, after college. And suddenly, my plans shifted. I deferred my admission to college.
According to Ms. Takacs from the College Counselling Department, only about 1-5 seniors at SAS each year choose to take gaps after high school, excluding National Servicemen. According to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research, and Education, this is contrary to the trends in many other countries, like in Turkey, Denmark, and Norway, where more than 50% of students take a gap before college.
At SAS, less than 2% of any graduating class will take gaps whereby the majority will flush right back into the routine of quizzes, tests, exams, essays, MCQs, FRQs, research papers, staying up till dawn, procrastination, and stress.
Although college is the mainstream line that everyone from SAS ends up swimming, I worry that students forget to give themselves a break from this structure, every once in a while at least. While students in our community are more likely to go straight into college after graduating high school than to take a year off to pursue traveling or work opportunities, it irks the question; when will you take a break? Or when can you take a break? With stress feeding itself, continuing to proliferate without limitation, stresses continue to progress as you get older, ranging from building your portfolio, searching for employment, and making a sustainable amount of income for you and your family. The cycle of work, stress, work, and stress doesn’t end. After graduating high school, you’ll go straight to college, then you’ll end up either going to grad school or trying to find employment. All of which involve a high demand of work and as a result, stress.
If you’re scared of the potentiality of a decay in your academic motivation or a decline in your cognitive abilities if you decide to take a gap or just simply take a break, I urge you to compare that with the potentiality of an increase in levels of stress, expectations, and financial pressure. While taking a gap semester is the method I’ve found to pull myself out of the whirlpool of stress, I know it may not be the most ideal option for everyone. But by taking a gap semester, I’ve given myself time and space to look back, reflect, and think deeper about what I want to do with my life.
So, dear scholars of SAS: You may have 100% certainty in your determination to accomplish your future plans, however, you should still consider the expanse of possibilities that are ahead of you including the possibility that you might just fail. Quoting Calvin E. Hobbes, “We are so busy watching out for what is ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.” Don’t make a 10-year plan or lay out your life in a To Do List. Enjoy what you have, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to give yourself a break.