Like most college-bound high school seniors, I assumed I would be heading off to college immediately following high school. I never even considered taking a gap year, so naturally, I never could have predicted that I would actually take one. But as I waded deeper into the blurry, post-high school summer, my clearly drawn plans smudged as well. At that stage, I didn’t even know I would be attending Wesleyan: I was still trapped in the academic purgatory of college waitlists.

I was eventually freed from this waitlist, with one catch: I would be a member of the class of 2018 rather than the class of 2017. So, brandishing my trademark impulsiveness, I immediately decided to eschew my former university plans and accept an offer of admission to Wesleyan, even if it meant deferring formal education for a year.

Ignoring the baffled disapproval of my friends and relatives, who demanded I justify my decision, and who urged me to reconsider with warnings of, “You’re wasting a year of your life!”, “You’re not actually going to do that, are you?”, “So what are you even going to do?”, “Do you even have a plan?”, or “Exactly who is paying for all of this?”

In response, I would normally laugh a little nervously and tell them I had it all figured out, even when I hadn’t even begun to plan for it, that of course this was what I wanted, and that dammit, this was my choice and they didn’t need to like it, because I did. Of course, I had next to nothing figured out, and I had been asking myself the same set of questions, albeit privately.

So I did what any confused, suddenly gap-yeared student would do: I decided to take up circus arts and pretend that this was my plan all along. Not quite an expedition through Southeast Asia or a quest to build a school in a developing nation, but hey, now I get to say that I ran off to join the circus for a year.

As it turned out, I loved my gap year. It taught me a lot about how I learn outside of a well-organized system, and how I self-motivate. It led me to hobbies and passions I never thought I’d have, like photography or contact juggling. It made me more creative. It made me confident. It killed my habit of procrastination.

But as the year drew to a close, I couldn’t help noticing the sharp pang of mixed enthusiasm and anxiety that followed each letter or email I would receive about impending freshman orientation. The forms and pamphlet-packed red folders seemed as though they were beamed down from another dimension, or ripped out of a dream, or left over from a different lifetime. I couldn’t believe it was finally happening: Was I really picking out classes and a meal plan and Facebook-messaging my future roommate? By the end of my gap year, Wesleyan had taken on the role of some ethereal and distant beacon on the horizon: a theoretical destination that, though I consciously knew I would reach, never seemed real until the days before I left.

Lists of thoughts scrolled through my mind. What would it be like to return to formal classes? Would I be able to keep up? What if I couldn’t? I had already decided that I would say as little about my gap year as possible. In fact, I didn’t even plan on bringing it up, let alone the circumstances that led to me taking one. I didn’t want my legitimacy as a student, or whether or not I deserved to be here, to be called into question.

With all of this insecurity, I was surprised to find that when classes finally started, getting right back into school work felt so natural, it was almost as though I had never taken a break from it at all. I was even more surprised that when I shared with some of my new friends the real story of why I took a gap year (as opposed to my watered down, “I wanted to learn circus arts” version for parents and family friends), that their responses were not only non-judgmental, but overwhelmingly positive.

My subsiding fears about transitioning back into the world of glossy books and structured classes has not eradicated moments of doubt. In an effort to take advantage of Wesleyan’s open curriculum, I decided to take several classes in subjects that were completely foreign to me, and then panicked when, surprise, surprise, the material was unlike anything I’d ever done before. Two weeks, and several anxiety attacks in, and I’m starting to realize that maybe I don’t have to be entirely comfortable just yet, and maybe that’s okay. Taking a gap year has not hindered my ability to reenter a formal academic setting. If anything, it has made me more inclined to flee my comfort zone. And isn’t that what we’re all here to do anyway?

Pappas is a member of the class of 2018.

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