What is the longest time that an undergraduate can stay at Harvard?

“Harvard allows seven years between gap semesters, so technically you can stay around Harvard for a span of 39 years,” posits Enrique Ramirez ’17, who took one year off after his freshman year.

Even though this alternating-on-and-off strategy hardly sounds like a wise solution, it does reveal Harvard’s flexibility about leaves of absence. Malia Obama’s decision to take a gap year between high school and college quickly drew the world’s attention to gap years at Harvard. However, she was surely not the only one who made this bold decision. Thanks to Harvard’s wide-open policy for leaves of absence, many Harvard students choose to take a gap year before, during, or after college for various reasons: opportunities outside of campus, breaks to explore themselves, healing of mental issues, or a mixture of all kinds.

By making its policy flexible and accessible, Harvard tries to convey that gap years are more than a simple break from school. It is a philosophy: the ability to take a step back, to open one’s mind, and to explore something outside of one’s comfort zone. As described by Williams Fitzsimmons, dean of the Harvard Admissions Office and Financial Aid, a gap year should be a “model” that lasts beyond college.

A Message From the School

The pre-college gap year tradition dates back to the “grand tour” in the 17th century, when young men from upper-class British family travelled to learn about art, music, and architecture beyond textbooks. This tradition evolved to be a gap year among high school graduates in the UK in the 1970s and started to gain popularity in the United States starting in the 1980s.

At Harvard, this practice started before the idea of gap years swept across the United States. Fitzsimmons said that the school started to encourage this option in admission letters in the 1970s, at the same time when gap years took popularity in the United Kingdom. “Students may or may not take a gap year eventually, but we hope that they will at least take time to think and to consider this possibility,” Fitzsimmons told the HPR.

On a Harvard webpage devoted to advising prospective students on college preparation, an essay entitled “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” warns students of the detrimental effects of becoming overly ambitious and stressed out. “Perhaps the best way of all to get the full benefit of a “time-off” is to postpone entrance to college for a year,” it says.

In addition to top-down administrative efforts to promote the notion, bottom-up, student-led efforts are common on campus. The website “Gap Year Harvard College,” founded by several “gappers,” is designed to offer reunion information for gap year students. Last year, Yuqi Hou ’15-’16 proposed an off-the-record panel about taking time off to the Bureau of Study Counsel after coming back from her gap year. “I organized the panel hoping to target students who were considering taking time off but did not have a plan yet,” Hou told the HPR.

Despite the enthusiasm for gap years, Harvard has insisted against a structured gap year program for students, like Princeton’s Bridge Year Program launched in 2008. Since students can take a gap year for various reasons, Harvard believes a structured program will destroy the purpose of a gap year. “We prefer to leave students the freedom to plan the year themselves,” said Marlyn E. McGrath, Director of Admissions.

Leaving for Opportunities

Most leaves of absence at Harvard are voluntary. When opportunities outside of campus knock on some students’ doors, they decide that Harvard can wait. Such opportunities can vary vastly, ranging from a mission trip for the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-Day Saints, an internship at Campaign for Hillary, to a Thiel Fellowship for start-ups.

Ramirez grew up in the local wards of the L.D.S. After freshman year, he left Harvard to be a full-time missionary, a role that he wanted to take on since his childhood. Cherie Hu ’17, a statistics concentrator passionate about music, worked for a music tech start-up called “Jamplify” during her gap semester in junior spring. Rebecca Brooks ’18 joined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign full-time in her sophomore spring. Cynthia Cheng, an incoming freshman admitted for the Class of 2020, has planned to attend a Chinese language program in Fudan University in China and travel afterwards in her gap year before college.

These are just a few of the many examples of students who stepped away from Harvard for exciting opportunities elsewhere. The choice seems risky to outsiders and even to “gappers” themselves. There are two main reasons that eventually tip the scale for these “gappers.” For one, these once-in-a-life-time opportunities are often just that—singular chances that won’t open up again—but Harvard will always welcome them back due to the school’s generous policy. Secondly, time off the campus and time at Harvard are opposites that are not contradictory but complimentary: the insights students gain outside of school may make their post-return campus experiences more fruitful and meaningful.

Additionally, one’s socio-economic status could affect his or her decision about gap years. Taking a gap year usually mean one more year’s financial dependence on parents. Students on financial aid do not receive it during gap years. As a result, questions of financially supporting oneself arise. Cheng was grateful that her parents would still support her financially for the next year. “I think the majority of students come from well-off families, based on people I personally know, and looking at the kids in the Faceboook gap year group,” she said. Hu chose to work in New York so that she could stay at home to reduce costs. But it is also possible to live on one’s own: Kiyomi Lepon ’13, one of the co-founders of “Gap Year Harvard College,” sought financial independence by working as a ski instructor at the world’s busiest ski school for six months. “Knowing that I can financially support myself is empowering,” she told the HPR. 

Leaving for Self-Discovery  

While in an academic environment that stresses productivity, it is common for students to use cost-benefit analyses to evaluate gap years. If they do not have plans with potential benefits that outweigh those of an academic year in college, they feel that it is not worth it to take a gap year. But McGrath, who oversaw hundreds of students taking gap years, provided another perspective: a carefully structured gap year, though a good option, should not be the norm: “Oftentimes, students may have little idea of what their gap year would be like when they first made the decision.” McGrath’s elder daughter, Elizabeth M. Lewis ’09, was one of them.

Though an Admissions Officer, McGrath was still “stunned” when her daughter announced her gap year decision without any plan in mind. Despite the anxiety of her mother, Lewis deferred the enrollment. By a lucky coincidence, Lewis got the opportunity to work for an environment activist in Massachusetts for the first few months. The initial exposure into the field shed light on her decision to be an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in college and her entry into consulting career after graduation.

“She figured it out on the way,” McGrath described her daughter’s experience. She said that the ability to find something for oneself was an integral part of the gap year experience.

Ratna Gill ’16 echoed the comments of McGrath. Upon receiving the admission letter in April 2011, she clicked on the “defer enrollment” button without having a clear plan in mind, except for a little bit of travelling. Having graduated from Harvard this past May, she reflected on her decision four years ago and admitted, “Gap year was great when you looked back, but you could feel scared when you were in the middle of it, because there were too many uncertainties.” But it is the uncertainty that brought her the constant drive to look for meaningful things to do: she found a job-shadowing opportunity at Sasha Bruce Youthwork near her home and a job as a Latin coach for her high school. She said this motivation to look for and manage the resources around her was essential in helping her adjust to college life in freshman year.

Leaving for Healing

Outside opportunities and self-discovery are the most popular reasons for taking gap years, but not the only ones. Some students take gap years for health reasons, something that people rarely consider when the phrase “gap year” comes to mind. Harvard is exciting, fast-paced, and sometimes overwhelming, especially for students facing health issues. When Harvard determines that the resources needed to cure a student’s mental issues exceed what HUHS could possibly offer, the school requires the student to take a leave.

Grace Young enrolled in Harvard as a freshman in the fall of 2013. In her sophomore fall, she started to struggle with health issues, including depression and suicide thoughts. “When I ended up in the hospital, I knew it was time to leave,” she said. “And even though I didn’t want to, I would have to,” because Harvard requires her to do so.

In her gap year, she first worked at a bakery in her home state for several months, a childhood dream of hers, before moving to San Francisco to live on her own. Reflecting on her two-year time off from Harvard, Young told the HPR her break had helped her deal with her health issues. “I definitely look at things differently now—the things I care are much different from that in college,” she said. Young has no definite plan of returning to school. She petitioned for return multiple times but was allowed to withdraw her application every time.

Similarly, Chris V. Winkle ’18 was required to leave school in the middle of his sophomore year for mental health issues. Having taken a voluntary gap year before college, Winkle had as much freedom in his second gap year as in his first one, except for the procedure of returning to school. According to the Student Handbook, the return for an involuntary leave of absence is dependent on the mandatory consultation with HUHS and an encouraged “substantial period of employment at a non­academic job and a suitable letter of recommendation from the employer or employment supervisor.” Unlike Young, who now works as a data scientist at a start-up called Tribe Dynamics in San Francisco, Winkle has been backpacking in Northern Vietnam for the past eight months. Though he initially wished to come back in the fall 2016, his current plan is to return in the following spring. “I feel like Harvard would want to see an employment history,” Winkle said.

Even though leave for medical reasons is mandatory, Harvard does not distinguish voluntary or involuntary leave of absence on its transcript. Furthermore, students who wish to take a voluntary leave rather than being placed on involuntary leave will ordinarily be allowed to do so. Perhaps what is more important than the procedural flexibility is the message that Harvard hopes to send: whether mandatory or not, a gap year is for students to take a breath and evaluate their lives in a different light.

 A Model Beyond College

Students take gap years out of various motivations and for different goals, but they experience some things in common: the freedom to make decisions on their own and the courage to challenge themselves. These insights refresh their perspectives on campus life and change their experience at Harvard after returning to school

But such an attitude could go far beyond college. People today are likely to occupy many different jobs and even careers over their long life. Fitzsimmons suggested that students give themselves a gap year in their late twneties, thirties, and even up to fifties to explore a different possibility of profession. “We hope that it is a model about how students conduct their lives well beyond college,” he said.

This piece of advice is good news especially for those who regret not taking a gap year before or during college. There are still opportunities for “gap years” in the course of life: a break after graduation or even after years of career, either to travel with travel fellowships or try out another profession. The definition of “gap year” changes, but the essence remains the same. “This is a model of being able to step back, to think about what you really value, and to think about how you want to spend your precious time,” said Fitzsimmons.

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