“This is one of my favorite paintings,” says Olivia M. Tai ’21-22, pointing to a giant canvas roughly the size of a 70-inch flat-screen TV, which I’m helping her haul back to her room.
The winds of Cambridge on a February afternoon are seldom friendly — and even less so when you are carrying a giant wood frame wrapped in canvas (in other words, a sail). Olivia and I face a treacherous journey to Lowell House, up a narrow stairwell, and through the door to her cozy (read: small) common room. We tuck the painting into the corner, suspend it precariously on top of a couch, and sit down to begin the interview.
“I ask this question to people a lot, actually,” she says, after I ask how her friends would describe her.
“I’m playful and silly, and sometimes a bit childlike — but not necessarily childish. But in other moments, like, more thoughtful or wise or mature.”
A good reporter isn’t supposed to take an interviewee’s answer to this question at face value, but in Olivia’s case, I’m tempted. She sits cross-legged on her couch, framed by a pastel blue Totoro plushie and a framed diagram that reads “how to shove your opinion up your rectum.” But talking to her feels, in many ways, like talking to an older sister, or to a Buddhist monk who happens to have reached enlightenment in the Lowell dining hall.
“I took two fall gap semesters,” she says. “The first one happened in fall 2019, and the second one happened in fall 2020 — so I had a pre- and post-pandemic gap.”
I asked Olivia what led her to take her first gap semester.
“Especially during my freshman year, I was feeling … a bit disjointed, and a little bit lost. I felt like I wasn’t in the right spaces, or I didn’t have the right goals, or just something wasn’t aligned to make me feel like I was my best self,” she says.
Consequently, she spent a lot of her sophomore year asking questions — big questions: “How can I self-actualize more? What is that thing I want to rally around? Do I have the capacity for depth?”
“I just felt like a really interesting way to answer those questions could be taking time off from school.”
Olivia describes the rest of her gap semester, which she spent living at home in the Bay Area exploring different things and, in her words, “creating my own curriculum.” And as she did, I came to realize that Harvard is a place with very few Olivias.
“I think it’s a core facet of Harvard students to follow paths that have very clear steps to achievement, to a kind of external validation,” she says. “Whereas a lot of the uncertainty around trying to take time off — the effort and uncomfortable feelings you have to sit with if you were to actually pursue that idea — people [look at it and say] it’s just too much.”
I will refrain from expounding upon Olivia’s argument here because Lord knows how many Crimson articles and op-eds have been written about how Harvard students hate uncertainty and taking risks and love to maximize optionality and safety nets.
I will say, though, that Olivia makes a pretty convincing case for why gap years are the antidote to this Harvard student hamartia. ( I use “gap year” and “leave of absence” and “taking time off” interchangeably — “gap year” does not refer specifically to taking time off before freshman year.) She’s someone who got hit with the Harvard sophomore slump (emotional and social listlessness combined with panic about the fast-approaching realities of post-grad life — an early indicator of McKinsey Fever, HLS Syndrome, or Goldman Sachs Disease) and was thoughtful and deliberate enough to do something about it — to take some time away from Harvard to reflect and reevaluate. It’s a hard choice, one that makes Olivia such a rare breed of Harvard student.
But of course, the pandemic changed everything.
“I’m from Maine.”
This is the first thing that Elijah B. McGill ’23-24 says when I ask him to introduce himself.
“I’m definitely like that person who’s known for where they’re from,” he explains.
The 2020-2021 school year saw the most significant increase in leaves of absence in Harvard College’s history, with nearly 20 percent of the entire undergraduate population opting to take time off. Eli is one of the 20 percent.
“I ended up talking to three or four professors that I trusted over the summer, and every single one of them was like, ‘If it was my own child, I would definitely tell them to take a gap year,’” he says.
It’s not too hard to see why the percentage quadrupled (from 5 percent in a normal year) to 20 percent. Harvard is a place that prides itself on outside-the-classroom activities: the vibrant and plentiful extracurricular scene, the opportunities to meet famous people, study abroad, touch really old books, the late-night pset sessions, and even-later-night common room conversations.
The problem is, the old “most of the learning at Harvard happens outside the classroom” adage doesn’t really work when all that’s left is the classroom — and a virtual one, at that. Zoom school was, to put it lightly, not great. Hence, the 20 percent — four times as many than in a normal year.
“I worked for the census bureau and just went around talking to people and knocking on doors,” Eli says, describing his gap year experience. He “ended up working for an NGO doing grant-writing,” but also “worked for my congressman during the spring, and last summer worked as a park ranger out west.”
Eli’s gap year was eventful, to say the least: cleaning bathrooms in Hell’s Canyon, the nearly 8,000-foot deep canyon that forms the border between Idaho and Oregon, getting stuck on the New Jersey turnpike for five hours, running into a bear while solo backpacking in the Redwoods.
“I was off-grid, too, where I was based,” he says, “so I read so many books. I hadn’t read that many books since I was in like the eighth grade probably. I think I went through 50 books.”
What he learned from his year off was, to some extent, exactly what you’d expect.
“On the most basic level, time away gives you time to reflect — to decide what you value and what you want to spend your time on,” Eli says. “I definitely came back being very convinced I wanted to do Environmental Science and Public Policy and ecology stuff — which was a thought before my gap year, but was certainly solidified on my gap year.”
John F. Griffin ’25, who spent his gap year hiking the Appalachian Trail, feels similarly.
“I had time to calm down and relax,” John says. “Taking the gap year made me realize that there isn’t this tunnel or ladder of Harvard that I have to go through.”
Obviously, not all 1,500 students who took time off spent their days hiking forest trails and whitewater rafting.
David A. Paffenholz ’22, who took the entire 2020-2021 school year off, spent his year interning for Snapchat — at first remotely from his home in Germany, and then in France with a friend, and then in Spain with his girlfriend.
“I think there were two factors that led to me taking a gap year: one being that a sizable portion of my friends were taking a gap year,” he says. “Another being I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to extend my internship.”
I ask David why he chose to gap.
“[Snapchat] offered to keep me on for the entire year,” he says. “If I hadn’t been offered to continue at my job, I think I most likely wouldn’t have taken the gap year.”
I’d hazard a guess that spending a year working a 9-to-5 at Snapchat provides less opportunity for reflection than living in the woods without internet or cell phone reception. That isn’t, however, to discount the value of David’s time off.
“From a friendship perspective, it definitely had a big impact. Being physically far from most of my friends made it [require] much more conscious effort to actually stay in touch,” he says. “Also, I’ve been focusing much more on classes that I was actually really passionate about rather than the ones that I thought, you know, would look good on my resume.”
And so, to summarize the past 1,400 or so words of this piece: taking time off is, generally, a good thing.
Yes, it’s a hard decision to make, one that requires some deprogramming of the addiction to ladder-climbing that got us into Harvard in the first place — but for those who choose to take the leap, it’s an invaluable opportunity to reflect and reevaluate.
But what about those who are never given the choice in the first place?
Rabsa R. Sikder ’24 is described by her friends as a happy, friendly person — to which she responds, “I don’t quite know that that’s true.” Evidently, she’s humble, too.
“I’m a recent immigrant. I moved to the U.S. in 2016,” Rabsa says. “My parents, as recent immigrants, are limited as to what kind of jobs they can do.” For Rabsa, this fact greatly influenced how she viewed the possibility of taking a gap year.
“Sometimes I feel like ‘Oh, I should take a gap year,’ but at the same time, I don’t know how that would impact my parents — one more year of supporting me,” she says. “I don’t want to burden my parents even more.”
Among the 80 percent of students who remained enrolled through the 2020-2021 school year, there’s no shortage of people who simply lacked a desire to take time off: people who didn’t mind Zoom school, people who wanted to finish concentration requirements as soon as possible, people who didn’t want to give up extracurricular opportunities, people who preferred the number 22 to 23 — the list goes on.
David A. Andrade ’24, for example, speaks about how “the ability to just roll out of bed, go to class, and then scroll to office hours — I appreciated that I was able to maximize my efficiency of time.”
But scattered amongst that 80 percent who remained enrolled is a significant number of students who possessed the desire but lacked the means — who wanted to take time off but couldn’t. And sure, the barrier could be a number of things: visa restrictions, strict parents, health problems. But over the course of my reporting, one reason loomed above the others: money.
“I personally know quite a few people who took a gap semester and just hung out in Korea and Israel and New York,” says Alyssa, a first-generation, low income student who prefers to remain anonymous. “And good for them, but not everyone can live that life.”
“If I was rich, I would 100 percent take a gap,” she adds.
And this is, to some extent, common sense: Rich people often have the means to do things that poor people can’t — gap years included.
But when I say “money,” I mean more than just bearing the immediate cost of the gap year, more than the dollars and cents that it takes to afford a cabin in New Hampshire or a round trip flight to Seoul. I’m talking about money as a lens through which FGLI students experience Harvard, an experience that I think Alyssa puts best: “When you come from a lower socioeconomic status, not being financially stable is an undertone for everything.” “Coming from a first-generation, low income household, my parents didn’t really understand the idea of taking a gap year,” says Ryan D. Morillo ’23, a joint concentrator in English and Theater, Dance, & Media who remained enrolled for the 2020-2021 school year.
“A lot of my parents’ mindset is that you finish college in order to go to graduate school or to graduate and start making money.”
This doesn’t feel like a particularly hot take for most students across the country. You go to college to get a degree to get a job. And sure, it can incidentally be a very enriching and fun time — but ultimately, there are student loans that need to be repaid.
Very few students, in the grand scheme of things, have the luxury of the Harvard Experience — attending college to experience “intellectual, social, and personal transformation,” as this university advertises on its website. And within Harvard, FGLI students often find themselves estranged from this lofty ideal.
“Coming from a FGLI background, you view education as something you cherish in a way where it helps you obtain your goals,” Ryan says. “You see it as more of a transitory period, rather than something you need to enjoy in the moment.”
It’s not hard to see how this pressure to view college as a means to an end rather than an end in itself makes it hard to justify a gap semester or year.
“For first-gen families, there’s that connotation that you gotta get there, you gotta get stuff done, you gotta constantly work to succeed, and you can’t take time off because that’s just showing that you’re lazy,” James L. Walkingstick ’21-’23 says.
I want to be clear in what I’m saying here. It’s not that FGLI parents tell their kids, “no you can’t take a gap year because it’s a waste of time and reflection is bad and we hate you.” It’s that the condition of coming from a FGLI or immigrant background — the precarity, the struggle, the sense of duty to uplift your family — makes it difficult to choose to take a gap year. It creates barriers of mental guilt in addition to barriers of financial access, which, in many ways, are even more difficult to overcome.
And so FGLI students, as a result, are robbed of the opportunity for growth that could come with taking time off.
I hesitate to use the word “robbed” here because it implies the existence of a robber which I’m not sure exists. If there was one, I suppose it might be “income inequality” or “immigrant precarity.” Some might also say that the robber is Harvard — but as much as I like to villainize Harvard, I’m not sure that it’s justified in this case.
Harvard’s commitment to full, need-based financial aid is already huge. Beyond increasing it even further to the point of actually paying students to attend, there’s not too much that Harvard could do to alleviate the impact of this financial burden on FGLI students. And so we are left with, in many ways, a tragedy without a villain.
There is another element to this tragedy, one that I think is unique enough to devote a section to: the stipend.
In July 2020, when the College announced that it would only invite back freshmen and select upperclassmen for the fall 2020 semester, it also announced a “Covid-19 Remote Room and Board” stipend for students on financial aid. Essentially, if you remained enrolled and opted not to move back to campus, you would receive up to $5,000 based on your level of financial need.
I am not one to take Harvard’s financial aid program for granted. It is, indeed, one of the most progressive and generous in the world, and I, myself, am immensely grateful to be a beneficiary of full financial aid.
However, the stipend was, in many ways, a Trojan horse.
The experience of being a FGLI student at Harvard is one of making choices — frequent and difficult ones. On a spare Friday night, choosing between going to a party or helping your parents renew their Medicaid application. When sophomore year comes along, choosing between a concentration you care about or one that will ensure that stable post-grad job. As spring break approaches, choosing between a trip to Puerto Rico with your blockmates or staying on campus for the week to save money.
And then, of course, there’s the choice between taking time off or remaining enrolled. That decision, as I have framed it so far, is one that pits the personal enrichment that comes from taking time off against the fulfillment of familial obligations that comes from remaining enrolled.
In creating this stipend, Harvard tipped the scales towards the latter.
“I was really quick to say ‘I’m not taking a gap’ once I heard about the $5,000,” says Vincent Pan ’22, a senior studying Statistics and Theater, Dance, & Media. “Obviously we were still in the pandemic, and my parents needed the money.”
Many of the other FGLI students I interviewed cited a similar reaction — that regardless of how on the fence they were about gapping prior to the announcement, the stipend solidified their decision to remain enrolled.
“[The stipend] was such a huge confirming factor that I didn’t even doubt what I was going to do,” Ryan says. “I didn’t have the space to waste that money that Harvard was giving me.”
Again, I am tempted to name Harvard as the villain. For Harvard to not have offered the stipend at all, one could argue, might have increased the percentage of FGLI students who would have a transformative gap year experience. But then again, doing so also would have deprived many families of that financial stipend during a particularly difficult time. And so we are left, again, with a tragedy without a villain.
But yet, I can’t help but think about Rabsa, who says that her “ main motivation for staying enrolled was the [$5,000 grants Harvard sent] to students who stayed home.” I think about her spending the first year of her Harvard experience — an experience overwhelmingly billed as transformative — in her childhood bedroom.
And then I think about the other members of the class of 2024 — the freshmen of the Covid-19 semester — who came to campus, for whom the stipend wasn’t an enticing enough incentive to stay home. Who, despite the restrictions and regulations, were able to meet each other in person, make friends, and have at least some semblance of a normal freshman year of college.
And I can’t help but think that somewhere along the way, something went wrong.
I conducted one final interview for this piece, with Juan Guzman ’22.
“I was born and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts. My family is from the Dominican Republic,” Juan says. “I don’t really mess around with a lot of people, so I’m really just like a floater. Yeah.”
We’re talking over Zoom. I’m in my common room. He is in what I’m almost certain — based on the palm fronds and water fountain — is Currier d-hall.
We talk briefly about his decision to remain enrolled throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
“I couldn’t go off-campus because there was no space for me at home, like I didn’t have a bedroom at home,” he says. “I didn’t have the money to go anywhere or do anything.”
Much has been written about what we — we as humans, we as 20-something year-olds, we as Harvard students — lost as a result of this pandemic. In some ways it seems trite to linger on this point.
But I do think it’s important to think about what those who were unable to take time off lost as a result of this pandemic year: Juan, for example, who began the pandemic as a sophomore and returned to an in-person Harvard as a senior.
“In the Square, there’s a bunch of different restaurants, right?” he says. “I’m a little bit of a foodie … but I can’t afford to go to restaurants every day or every week. Throughout the year, I could try out a handful of restaurants — compared to someone with a higher economic status, who could maybe do that in a month or two.”
But, he adds,“given enough time, I could try them all. And that’s the point — time is an equalizer on campus. Poor people can have the same experiences as rich people, over time.”
I find this a really poignant metaphor. I mean, that’s the point of this whole Harvard thing, right? Bringing together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and giving them as level a playing field as possible? Sure, it’s not perfect — it will never be perfect — but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. It’s why, for example, house sorting is random, why someone can’t just buy their way into Lowell.
In a sense, the most nefarious thing about this part of the pandemic was that by putting gap years back on the table, it reintroduced time as a variable: a variable that could be stretched or conserved if you had the means to do so.
And for those who didn’t?
“I just know that I have so little time left,” Juan says. “And I feel like I didn’t have a good sophomore or junior year college experience at all.”
Even after coming back to campus for his senior year, the effects of the pandemic year lingered.
“My friends who took time off, they have enough time to make friends; it’s actually worth it for them to do activities and try new things on campus because they have so much more time left,” he says.
Again, I don’t mean to belabor the point of how much we lost due to the pandemic, nor am I under the delusion that Harvard students had it the worst over the course of this past year.
But I will say that, over these past two semesters, it seems like the primary focus has been on a return to normalcy — a focus on re-establishing club cultures, on reviving social traditions, on restoring the “normal” Harvard experience. And in our rush to move past this pandemic, there’s been little recognition for all that we’ve lost, for those students — most often, from FGLI backgrounds — who struggled the most during this past year and didn’t have access to an alternative.
“I know that I would have preferred to really experience college, especially being the first generation in my family [to do so],” Juan says. “My college experience is the one that’s representative for my family.”
We only have four years here. Eight semesters; a hundred or so weeks. And there’s so much to do. People who took gap years talk about how time off allowed them to make the most of their time here; it’s a shame that not everyone has that privilege.