Guest writer Thomas Rigby, an undergraduate student at Stanford, shares his experience taking a year off from school after his junior year.
Growing up, I never had any doubt what my life would entail: I would graduate from high school, go to a four year college, graduate, and get a job in an office. Because of my upbringing, I thought that was all that life offered; I was never exposed to an alternative. I never imagined that there could be so many alternatives to what I thought was the societal norm. Little did I know that in the spring of my junior year at Stanford, I would decide to veer off course for a view of the sights that life has to offer.
Last April, I was struggling; I was having a hard time finding a summer internship in the Bay Area, I was burnt out from school, and I was in an unhealthy relationship that kept me in a high state of anxiety. I didn’t want to come back to my hometown of Boise for the summer, but it was looking more and more like that’s what was going to happen. Facing this fact, I reached out to my boss from the past two summers to ask if I would have a job. That conversation turned into one where she asked me to relocate to San Pedro, Belize to run a spirits and liquor company that she and her husband were buying. She asked me to commit to the job for at least a year, and I jumped at the opportunity. I was going to be employed for a year, I was getting out of my academic responsibilities, and I was escaping my toxic relationship. After one conversation, all of my problems were solved. Or so I thought.
In June, I moved to Central America. As it turns out, selling liquor in a developing country is not as glamorous as it sounds. I returned to Boise after 2 months.
I learned that running away from your problems doesn’t solve them. Now that I was back in the States, I still needed a job, I still needed to finish school, and I still needed to deal with my relationship and the mental state that it put me in. I went through serious depression; I viewed myself as a failure and was struggling to find my place in the world. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for work, but I wanted to do something that was as ‘cool’ as selling absinthe. I was caught up on what people would think of me for not finishing what I had set out to do. How could I top a story of island life? The answer eluded me.
By the grace of good timing, I ended up getting a job at Trailhead, Boise’s startup hub and co-working space. Day after day, my confidence returned. I started making a little money, and I was able to move in with my friend and out of my parents’ house. It was during this unlikely period — my gap year — that I began to blossom; I believe that I met myself then for the first time.
After retiring for medical reasons from the Stanford track team at the end of my sophomore year, I had yet to find an activity that provided both the physical and mental stimulation that running had given me. It turned out that yoga was what I was missing. I had been interested in yoga for some time, and wanted to get more involved. I expressed this interest to my coworker at Trailhead, and she connected me with a yoga teacher that was looking for someone to check students in before class. I got the position, and was given unlimited yoga classes. At my first class, I wept uncontrollably. I left emotionally drained and totally confused. “Why was I crying?” I kept asking myself. I had to learn more.
For the first time, I was learning about self-love, self-forgiveness, and mindfulness. Yoga teaches that we aren’t supposed to be this way or that way, but that we are perfect exactly the way we are. Living in the present became my obsession. I began to walk everywhere (I would actively turn down car rides to walk somewhere) to experience the sights and sounds of the city. I distanced myself from my phone to be more engaged in the encounters and conversations I had with my friends. Most importantly, I began opening up. After my previous relationship, I’d become so closed off from others, so scared to be vulnerable, that I had forgotten how to genuinely connect with those around me. Once I began to practice self-love and forgiveness, once I began being the most genuine and authentic version of myself, I realized that people are attracted to that. When someone is authentic, genuine, and vulnerable, they allow others around them to also be authentic, genuine, and vulnerable. Thus, a deep and meaningful connection can be formed. Nelson Mandela said: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” I try to live every day of my life with this in mind.
My gap year did not go as I had planned, but it has been a gift of time: time to learn about myself, time to find out what I love, what I hate, what works for me, and what doesn’t. It has been time to explore the world, to see new sites, and to experience new cultures. It has taught me many lessons that I am so grateful for, but more than anything, it has forced me to discover myself, to be okay with myself, and to be vulnerable and open with others. Once I stopped isolating myself from everyone else and began viewing myself as simply a part of this crazy thing we call life, I uncovered the bliss and inner peace that had been absent from my life for so long.