Spotlight: Zoe Lockhart on Gap Years
I've recently spent a bit of time talking with students considering taking time off from school. Despite the name, gap years don’t need to last an entire year, and can happen at any point during or after high school. Some undergrads, for example, are considering leaves during spring 2021, anticipating COVID-related restrictions on college campuses.
Zoe Lockhart, currently a junior at the University of Chicago, took a gap year immediately following high school. I was excited to reconnect with her and chat about her experiences. While Zoe’s gap year happened prior to COVID, her insights and advice are still spot on.
Why did you take a gap year?
After graduating high school, I didn't really want to go to college - as in ever go to college. It didn't seem right for me because I thought I would be taking classes that would fulfill requirements, rather than be interesting. I felt that following another passion would be more fulfilling. So, I wanted to take a year off to see if following my passion (which was baking) would result in any long-term opportunities. I also just wanted a year to explore other things rather than continue in the very "traditional" path of going to college.
What did you do?
Since I loved to bake, I wanted part of my year to revolve around that. However, I also didn't want to do something involving baking for the entire year, not only because I wanted to explore other things (such as travel and other interests), but because I wanted to make sure that if I didn't enjoy the experience, I wouldn’t be stuck doing it for an entire year. I had a couple of friends who took gap years to WWOOF, and I thought that farming might interest me. So, I worked on a farm in Maine for the first three months (not through WWOOF, as I was getting paid).
For the second part of my gap year, I travelled to France, where I went to a language school in the south of France for a month and a half (both to learn the language and to explore parts of France that weren't Paris). I then went to pastry school in Paris for three months. During that time, I also travelled around Europe.
Are you glad you did it?
Yes. Over that year, I got to meet some amazing people, have some unbelievable experiences, and became more mature and independent. I was forced out of my comfort zone (which can easily be avoided if you're living in dorms in college), and got to do things that made me more aware of "real life" than anything college could teach me. I would also say saving up for my gap year helped me mature (even before my gap year officially started). I saved up a lot of money, and also worked occasionally during my gap year.
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I learned a fair amount about myself. I learned that I could be more independent than I ever thought I could. I learned that I'll always want traveling to be a part of my life, and I learned that it's important to me to get out of my comfort zone.
Did your plans for the next few years change from the beginning of the gap year to the end?
Sort of. At the beginning of my gap year, I didn't want to go to college, and hoped that I would get right into the pastry world. By the end of it, I still didn't want to go to college, but felt satisfied that I had a chance to explore other interests. I realized I would have to go to college, but it didn't necessarily make me want to go.
Did anything about the gap year surprise you?
Parts of my gap year were extremely eye-opening, and helped me understand how different people come from very different backgrounds and circumstances than I do. I was also surprised at how much/little I enjoyed the various experiences. I was challenged in ways that surprised me, especially the challenge of figuring out how to do a lot of things by myself.
What would you recommend students think about if they are thinking about a gap year?
Students who have even slight doubts about whether or not to take a gap year should do it. It's better to take a year to explore rather than go straight to college and regret not taking that opportunity. I would also recommend trying to balance the number of things you do with the amount of time you do each one. So, you should consider having multiple different experiences, but make sure that you're not having too many short-term experiences that you might not get anything out of them. Based on my experience, having two or three different experiences that each last two or three months is perfect. Try to make them different, so that if you don't enjoy one, you’ll have other experiences that might be more fulfilling.
You mentioned still not wanting to go to college at the end of your gap year. Why did you?
I went to college, at the time, mostly because my parents made me. They expressed a lot of anxiety about what I would do if I didn't go to college. I also wasn't really sure what I would do otherwise, and I knew that I was interested in medicine, so I figured I would try it out.
Are you glad with this decision?
I'm definitely happy with my decision. Although I still hold the same beliefs about college, I do value the experiences (both academic and social) it has given me.
Are you studying what you thought you would, and did the gap year influence your academic choices/path?
I've always been interested in medicine, and, in my third year, I still intend on pursuing it! I hope to go to medical school. The gap year didn't really influence that decision, although I guess I realized I didn't really want to become a pastry chef.
Thanks, Zoe, for sharing your experiences with me!