Dressed in black gowns and strange neck pieces, we marched through Wallace Wade Stadium triumphantly. We listened to the wise words of Melinda Gates, swayed to the sound of our Alma Mater and knew without question that it was our time to take on the world. And in a whirlwind of congratulations, photo-ops and teary goodbyes, we left with sheepskin in hand and rode off into the sunset toward happily ever after—Class of 2013. That must be what it looked like, anyway. That was certainly how it appeared when we watched the class above ours graduate. But for many of us newly minted Duke alumni—and particularly the premedical kind—this “happily ever after” has a name: the gap year.
Sometimes referred to as “the glide year,” and not to be confused with the break between high school and college, the “new” gap year refers to the time after college and before professional or graduate school when students pursue activities that might include research, work, travel or volunteerism. To all students out there, even those with the best-laid plans: This is probably an option that you’ll at one point consider.
But what does a gap year really look like? Facebook tells us one story. Peruse the profiles of these so-called “gap year-ers,” and you’ll see them living large, traveling to the far reaches of the globe, playing the professional at international conferences and delighting in culinary masterpieces documented through a variety of Instagram filters.
For another perspective, take the brief biographies of our four authors:
Paul Horak is a Peking University Young Health Economist Fellow in Beijing, where he is leading a team that assesses Chinese hospital management practices before he begins a post-baccalaureate premedical program at Johns Hopkins University next year. Sanjay Kishore is a policy fellow at the advocacy group Families USA in Washington, D.C., where he’s contributing to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Kristen Lee is a Truman-Albright Fellow at the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy in Rockville, Md. Jocelyn Streid is a Hart Fellow conducting pediatric palliative care research at a children’s cancer center in Kuching, Malaysia.
We all want to be physicians, and we walked away from Duke last May with degrees in Economics, Program II, Sociology and English, respectively. To anyone reading our resumes, it might seem like we have it all figured out: Without missing a beat, we soared from graduation to gap year in order to explore healthcare through a broad range of experiences. Yet to accept this description of the gap year and the mythology of its “happily ever after” is to buy into a reductive narrative of what this adventure actually is. These descriptions are only one part of the data analysis, snapshots of our public selves. Given the increasing numbers of Duke graduates deciding to delay professional and graduate school, we four columnists wanted an honest and unhurried space to discuss the questions, growing pains and learning experiences that brought us to and continue to accompany this experience.
To former generations of matriculating professional and graduate school students, the gap year bucks the predetermined path set by the golden calf of precedent. But now, more than ever, there seems to be a template to follow in pursuit of the gap year. We’re researchers, health advocates and policy interns, but we’re also Duke grads just trying to figure out life beyond the familiarity of our Gothic bubble. We want to break open these tidy templates with our decidely untidy questions. For instance, what is it like to be adults in the real world? Are we adults? Is this the real world? How do we measure our efficacy without the handy standard of test scores and paper grades? And what happens if we mess up? In 750-word portions to be distributed on a weekly basis, we’ll parse out all these haphazard thoughts. And as your not-so-old elders, we promise not to let nostalgia get the best of us. We won’t wax poetic about patchy green quads and K-ville at sunset, and we’ll stifle the urge to dispense prosaic advice about savoring every moment, attending every lecture and wearing sweatpants every day while you still can.
Instead, let us say this: Welcome to campus. Much like a gap year, a new school year is a fresh start in a new place or a new start in a familiar one. This is your year, and we hope it is ours as well. We hope to shine a light on the year post-university and on this thing called young adulthood, because before long, you’ll be the ones wearing black gowns and silly neck pieces, being ceremoniously nudged out of this wonderful institution you call home.
Paul Horak, Sanjay Kishore, Kristen Lee and Joselyn Streid are all Duke graduates from the Class of 2013. This column is the first installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.