I threw all my plans into the air for a gap year

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College dropout, but unironically.

That was the line that graced my Instagram bio for much of the past year. I thought it was quirky and cute. The nonchalance of the line made it seem like my gap year hadn’t started out as a decision rife with indecision and fear.

I committed to UC Berkeley in May 2020. But in the midst of stay-at-home orders and an online graduation, I was already considering a break. 

After all, school would most likely be online for fall semester, and I wanted that “college experience” complete with dorm life, parties and friends. Virtual classes the last few months of high school had been lacking, and I was afraid I would simply slack off if I were to go through online school again. A gap year would be an excellent opportunity to do some self-exploration.

All good reasons, right? But the decision still terrified me.

Despite the rudimentary plan I had drawn up for what I would do each month of my gap year, it was hard to contend with the possibility that not everything would turn out exactly as I imagined.

Not to mention that a gap year would put me behind everyone else. All my life, I have wanted to take things at warp speed and achieve that lofty goal of “success” as early as possible. I took AP Chemistry freshman year, thinking I would get ahead. I considered graduating a year early from high school and considered the same for college.

A gap year would mean falling even more “behind” everyone else. I’d end up graduating at 23, an age that seemed unfathomably old to me.

What if I ended up doing nothing and wasted an entire year? What if deciding to take a gap year turned into the worst decision of my life?

But what if a gap year turned into the best decision of my life?

I didn’t have answers to these questions, so instead of choosing right then and there, I drew up plans for both scenarios and postponed making a definitive decision.

In June, I turned in a deferral request the day of the deadline. I told my parents and my relatives I was taking a gap year. At the same time, I started summer classes at UC Berkeley (to get ahead, naturally) and planned out my freshman year classes.

When July rolled about, my deferral request was denied. I could still withdraw from UC Berkeley, an option that would cancel my registration entirely and require me to apply to colleges. Again.

The indecision was even worse. What if I didn’t get into UC Berkeley again? What if I didn’t get into college at all?There was still time to consider, so I signed up for fall classes, acting as though I was fully committed to enrolling for the fall.

I didn’t withdraw from UC Berkeley until the day before fall classes began — the very last moment I had to make a decision.

Over the next year, I was pretty productive in the traditional sense: I knocked out all my college apps a second time, taught English to kids in China and completed a gap program with The School of The New York Times.

But it was the activities that would never have contributed to my resume that I was proudest of. I practiced watercolor, an art medium that pushed me outside my comfort zone. I explored cities across China, learned to have fun on my own and started getting more comfortable with not having a plan all the time for what I wanted to see and experience. I learned to hold myself accountable, not only with building habits and reaching goals, but also knowing when to step back and take a break.

Did my gap year turn out exactly how I planned it? No, of course not. But seeing my plans unravel before me wasn’t as scary as I had initially imagined. Plans changed, so I let myself be frustrated, then adapted and changed with them. 

And yes, I did get back into UC Berkeley. But I’d like to think I would have been OK even if I hadn’t. I simply would have altered my plans and gone on with life and what I wanted to accomplish. A college decision doesn’t define the future that I make for myself.

Choosing to take a gap year was a bit like hitting the pause button on my life. Instead of leaping toward a future career immediately after racing toward college, I stepped out onto the sidelines. And when I took myself out of the race, I stopped trying to catch up to and beat everyone else. Life is less like a race than it is a maze with a billion different paths — they have their lives and I have mine.

With a gap year under my belt, I do feel calmer about what my future looks like, which is to say nothing at all. I’m not sure what I want to major in, what internships or jobs I might want to apply for or, as people love to ask, where I see myself in 10 years.

The future is blank, a canvas for me to let the paint fall where it may, and there’s a certain beauty in that.

Contact Ailun Shi at [email protected].