Upon returning to the United States after five months in Cameroon, Sara Feldman ’17 was surprised to be able to turn on her kitchen sink and fill up her water bottle.
“First of all, the water comes out, and second of all, I don’t have to purify it,” she said.
Clean water was not all Feldman missed during her gap year: she learned of the Boston marathon bombings last April on CNN, in a Cameroonian village thousands of miles of away from her home in Lexington, MA.
“Someone was like, ‘Look on TV!’” Feldman said. “My family and friends were dealing with such a dire situation, and I felt so far removed. Obviously my parents had been worried about my safety, and meanwhile in Boston there are these bombings. It goes to show you that you can’t judge safety by where you are.”
The same holds true for some other students who took gap years: they ended up finding safety, and even nirvana, far away from home. Zachary Kramer ’17, who traveled through Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and Israel during his gap year, recalled stumbling upon a meditation hostel south of Sydney.
“There was no speaking, eye contact, writing, reading, or technology,” he said. “Buddha said, ‘This is the way to mediate, this is how to get enlightened.’ They feed you three meals a day, all vegetarian, and you just sit. You just eat, sleep, and mediate. All you’re trying to do is clear your mind. But it’s so exciting, because all your childhood memories are coming back, and you’re having the best ideas ever, but you have to block them out of your mind to get to that blank space.”
After Australia, Kramer’s once-in-a-lifetime adventure continued. He dug rice patties and planted banana trees in Thailand before walking across the border to Cambodia.
“I got to touch the walls of the temples at Angkor Wat,” Kramer said. “They’re going to close them down to the public really soon, but I climbed over them. Crazy.”
For Kramer, abandoning a fast-paced American lifestyle after high school—he is a native of Bethesda, MD—was the obvious choice.
“I joke that I had a lot of reading to catch up on,” he said. “And that’s sort of true. I’d been part of the structured educational system for 13 years. I’m a very independent person, and I’m enthusiastic about being an individual. I knew I was going to college. This was my chance to see amazing things and enjoy my life.”
Others struggled with the decision to take a break. Emily Pfoutz ’16 began as a member of the Class of 2015; she left school after a month and spent the rest of that year training horses in her native Iowa, as well as volunteering and backpacking in Thailand.
“It felt shameful at first to leave when all my friends were in college,” Pfoutz said. “I loved Wesleyan, but I was just really burnt out from high school, not grounded. I couldn’t take advantage of the things here, because I had no direction at all.”
Like Kramer, Pfoutz saw her year as an opportunity to take a hiatus from the educational system in which she had been entrenched for most of her life and to tap into unconventional wisdom.
“I went to a pretty competitive, typical college prep school on the East Coast,” she said. “I loved it, did well, and was always busy. I was so excited for Wesleyan, and very much on that path, but I started to lose the point of why I was doing it. I met these backpackers in Thailand who weren’t in school, but they knew how to connect to people to get the most out of life.”
Kramer’s similar opportunity to be less heady unleashed zealous creativity, which culminated when he was harvesting apples in Israel. His year ended with a Birthright trip, offered to Jewish teenagers.
“In Israel I rewrote the story of Genesis, and it’s super weird in a different way,” Kramer said. “I had a lot of intellectual energy—that sounds so pretentious—that had nowhere to go, and it came out in this manic typing episode. It was pretty cool.”
Yael Horowitz ’17 also traveled to the Promised Land, though she went as a member of Workshop, a gap-year program that facilitates conversations about the Zionist youth movement and placed Horowitz into communal living on a kibbutz.
“There was one bank account,” Horowitz said. “We did all the dishes together. It was a socialist lifestyle. I hadn’t ever lived in a commune before, and it’s really hard. Basically, you’re putting 22 18-year-olds in one house with tiny rooms, and telling them to cook for themselves, clean for themselves, and share all their money for the first time. It challenges you on a personal level, and our relationships were based on something extremely real.”
Horowitz’s year carried a service component as well: After her time on the kibbutz, she relocated to a city to partake in what is referred to as “revolutionary service.”
“I worked with Ethiopian Jewish kids in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, doing in-school and after-school programs three times a week,” she said.
Born in the United States, Horowitz spent most of her childhood in Tanzania with her parents, who are partially Israeli. Like Pfoutz, she found herself ready to take a break from school.
“I became so tired of academics, of grading, of measuring myself by my grades,” she said. “I wanted to measure myself in a different way. I had lived in places without big Jewish communities, and I wanted to go back to my roots and explore my heritage.”
Horowitz’s return from Israel collided head-on with her freshman year. Already, she’s sensed a difference between herself and her peers.
“There’s the freshman mentality of ‘Oh my God, I’m living alone for the first time!’” Horowitz said. “I feel a lot more mellow. I can go to bed at 10 on a Saturday night if that’s what I need to do.”
Kramer shared this sense of distance from peers.
“I don’t get FOMO—fear of missing out,” he said. “When you’re abroad, you have to be super decisive. You have to get yourself food, find out where you’re going to sleep, and find your way to places. People would’ve classified me as a confident and directed person before I left, but now even more so. Just seeing people getting wasted, I’m like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I like to sit down with one person and have a conversation.”
Feldman, too, feels more mature and real-world-ready after her challenging, high-paced job for a non-governmental organization in Africa. She did, though, report that she often felt weighed down by the enormity and the complexity of her task. For her job, Feldman promoted the use of often-discarded natural fibers—the leaves of banana fruits, for example—to make sellable items for people in poverty.
“It’s going to be five years before anything gets done,” she said. “I don’t think I changed lives. But I did something there—something happened.”
That elusive “something” is what now propels Feldman’s academic career.
“I still don’t know what I want my career to be but I know I want to do something with the environment,” she said. “I know I want to be going abroad and learning other languages.”
For Pfoutz, too, travel was clarifying.
“It was mostly empowering that I had made a decision for my own health rather than to fit with what everyone else thought I should do,” she said. “Traveling to Thailand and staying in local villages made me interested in anthropology, but it also confirmed the fact that I want to work with people, traveling and learning languages. I came into Wesleyan wanting to be pre-vet, but I found myself more interested in people.”
Feldman noted that her experience in Africa often intertwines with her classes.
“I’m in the Environment and Society in Africa class—I just signed up for it because Africa was in the title,” she said. “Now I can relate to everything that’s mentioned in class. We were just learning about the domestication of crops like yams and palms for palm oil. I worked with the farmers who grow yams and the farmers who grow palms for palm oil. I know what that tastes like.”