What my gap years taught me

An illustration of college graduates throwing their graduation caps into the air
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I turned 27 earlier this semester and I now clench my jaw a bit tighter whenever I disclose my age to my fellow undergraduates. 

Transferring to UC Berkeley at 24, I hadn’t quite experienced the same amount of intrigue from other students upon revealing my age as I do now. I was lamenting about this peculiar predicament with one of my friends and they sagely observed that it’s because people subconsciously round my age up to … wait for it … “30.”

I graduate at the end of the semester with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and anthropology. I can happily report that I’ve had nothing short of a stellar quintessential college experience during my three years here. I think this is likely due to the bedrock of gratitude that supported my navigation of this campus and my appreciation for everything that it offered.

I worked numerous “professional” jobs before I entered academia, and so I was elated to experience this microcosm of a world that is our university and its sublime emerald campus. As someone who lived very solitarily post high school graduation, experiencing UC Berkeley and its emphasis on community, relationship building, fun and learning has been a gleeful relief.

Now that I’m close to graduating, I fondly reflect on my enthusiasm as the product of having had gap years, which are years of an academic hiatus usually between high school and college. Whereas most gap years are about a year-long, my gap years spanned about four years as I started attending community college when I was 22 and came to Berkeley at 24. Being the age of a “non-traditional” student, I have had a novel perspective on the more “traditional” aspects of being a student and participating in campus culture. 

It was distinctly pleasurable to explore everything at Berkeley, from orientation and game days to Greek life and political protests, juicy post-discussion session discussions and majestic libraries as secondary abodes to interesting student organizations and the bohemian co-ops, and all the other prominent and obscure pockets of niche experiences and groups at this historic university. I didn’t take the opportunity to experience these as a “given.”

When I reflect on 17- and 18-year-old students coming straight from their competitive high schools to this enthralling campus, I wonder if they inadvertently perceive their time and experience here as nothing but another rung to be climbed on the ever-lengthening ladder of life. I graduated high school almost nine years ago and shudder to think how I would be functional at all as a university student at that age. I don’t wish to say that it’s impossible, but I likely would have not developed autonomy or had the sufficient time or means to grow into myself as a person; much less decided who I wished to be in relation to others.

And that’s where gap years come in. 

I think the concept of taking gap years is brilliant, it allows students everywhere to take a necessary breather, decompress from what they have come to perceive as the obligation of education and come to appreciate what education actually ought to be — a privilege and a joy. Moreover, it’s an endeavor that they are able to do in the company of their peers and soon-to-be friends. You are nowhere near becoming who you are at 18, and time is needed to conceptualize a sense of identity. 

As someone who’s experienced the challenges and vulnerability that come with adulting, I jumped at the opportunity to make lifelong friends at university. Making friends is so hard sometimes as an “adult.” One of the hallmarks of your 20s is loneliness: You either are too burned out from work to try to find new friends or feeling as though you have to move on from your historical friend groups. Having the comfort of a community and the means to create one is truly precious as you get older. Even though I was older when I came to UC Berkeley, I was so gratified to feel like I “belonged” somewhere. 

As an older undergraduate student, I get asked why I decided to return to academia. My response is usually that I consider it a uniquely enriching experience and that everybody should strive to be lifelong students. Upon coming to Berkeley, I felt as though I was in an immensely pleasurable microcosm, or a simulation. In it, you get to learn with your peers and people from around the world, have intellectually riveting exchanges, and experience self-discovery, all punctuated by youthful wonder and fun.

Although I’m certainly in the advanced stages of senioritis, take it from this weathered Golden Bear: Enjoy your walks to class more, relish those late night study sessions with your classmates, savor the decadence of the library’s you’re studying in, go to that party and detox in a sweat box with your friends. 

This experience is a once in a lifetime thing and you are among the lucky, tiny demographic in the world to be able to have it. We go to one of the best and most robust schools in the world in one of the most desired places in the world: the San Francisco Bay Area. An infinite amount of resources and experiences beckon. If your circumstances allow, don’t be in such a rush to graduate and get a job — you literally will be doing that for the rest of your life.

I know you probably need a full-body massage, a two-week vacation and a therapist. You deserve it, you’re working so hard and doing so much. But don’t forget to be mindful of being present and appreciative of these moments here, because they’re going to be the grandest highlights of your life. Go Bears!

Contact Moideen Moidunny at [email protected].