Mind the Gap: Stories of Five Milken Scholars On Leave During the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Felix Bulwa |
Most Milken Scholars take a familiar path: Graduate high school, study four years at a university, perhaps followed by grad school, then go make a difference in the world. But the shadow of COVID-19 has shaken the system with online learning and closed campuses. So this year, some students have reconsidered the familiar.
I decided to take a gap semester for the Fall of 2020. I’m not enrolled in any classes, so my school has prohibited any involvement in extracurricular activities. In September, I had no income, no housing, and no real direction. To be frank, it was a difficult decision.
A handful of Milken Scholars made the same decision, and I’m spotlighting five of them here: Karen Li (MS ’18), Joyce Wu (MS ’18), Haesung Jee (MS ’19), Isabel Musselman (MS ’18), and Mohib Jafri (MS ’17). Each has a different story – different reasons to take the break, different ways to spend the time, different long-term post-grad plans. But all of them accepted the uncertainty and found fulfillment in their deeply personal journeys.
In the time of COVID, there is no such thing as a traditional student. Whether you’re in high school, a Milken Alumni, or an enrolled Scholar considering a gap for Spring 2021, I hope you can find inspiration in their stories.
Karen Li, MS ’18
Karen Li, MS ’18, is living at home in Brooklyn for the year. She didn’t want to take the health risk of going back to Yale – despite having the option of going back to campus housing.
“I felt like if I enrolled, I’d be missing out on so much,” she explains. “I’d basically be taking online classes from my dorm.” After experiencing online classes last spring, she knew that was not her best path. “They were awful. And it’s really hard to engage with people over Zoom.”
The lure of travel and exploring career paths had pushed Karen to consider taking a gap year before, but she never had concrete plans. “I heard from some of my senior friends that one of their biggest regrets was not taking time off from college. There won’t be another time in your life when you can take a year off and have something waiting for you when you get back.”
“Hopefully in the future, I’d be able to experience Yale the way I envisioned when I first applied.”
For now, she’s ready to continue the gap into next semester and explore different opportunities. As an intern at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, she helps with creating “Know Your Rights” social media content and reaching out to clients who call APALRC’s helpline. She’s also working as a College Access Mentor at Breakthrough New York.
“I’m still involved in a lot of student organizations.” As Co-President of the Yale First-Generation and/or Low Income Advocacy Movement and the Community Relations Chair for the Yale QuestBridge Network, she continues to build a community among the College’s first-gen/low-income students.
Karen’s free time is very different from when she was a student. “I’m cooking a lot more,” she notes. “There weren’t any kitchens in our dorms.” Beyond trying out new recipes, she’s been exploring Netflix shows (Schitt’s Creek, anyone?) and devoting time to reading books from local bookstores (her most recent being The Lovely Bones).
After giving me some recommendations for my next binge-watching endeavors, Karen elaborates on her time management. “All my life, I’ve just been going to school and coming home and doing homework. But now I have to figure out my own hours, and schedule meetings instead of scheduling classes. It’s new ground for me.”
The lack of structure came with the realization that not all of life has to be perfectly planned out. “This time has allowed me to think about what I want to do in the future. It’s a question that has loomed over my head but I’ve never been able to answer.”
“I am slowly learning to accept that I don’t have to be in control of everything all the time. I can trust that things will work out.”
Karen has a message for students who are thinking about taking a gap semester in the spring: Start looking into internships and jobs now. “Deadlines are coming up. It’s okay not to have everything planned out, but it’s nice to think ahead.”
“It might be hard with pressure from family members to stay enrolled, especially with First-Gen students. Start planning now so you have concrete plans when you broach the topic with your family members. Then you can have a case to present.”
Before leaving our Zoom call, she encourages others to prioritize well-being. “If you're thinking about taking time off, go for it. The pandemic itself is already stressful enough. I was Googling this one day – not sure why – but I discovered that we need around eight hugs a day for maintenance. Obviously we’re not getting eight hugs a day! If you want to take time off, do it for yourself so you have time to think about what to do next.”
I ended the meeting thinking about Karen’s last call to action: “Socially distancing just refers to physical distancing. I think now is a wonderful time to reach out – cold email – people you never would talk to. Reach out to your friends to schedule a FaceTime. A lot of those casual check-in messages will make your relationships and the world a better place. You can only gain from that.”
Joyce Wu, MS ’18
Joyce Wu, MS ’18, is another junior at Yale. After spending the Spring abroad in China and Budapest, she wanted to be back in New Haven. “This gap semester plan was an on-the-whim thing. I missed learning, but I had a call with my college advisor and she convinced me to take the time off.”
Her motivation to take time off stemmed from the classes she takes. “College is only four years,” Joyce notes. “As a Computer Science and Arts major, I didn't want to take studio classes online for a semester or more. And I thought if I was living in New Haven, I could still see my friends and have good conversations with people. I’m young and have lots of time. I don’t think taking a gap semester will put me off track.”
It also fits in well with her post-grad plans. Graduating in December of 2022 will give her an extra semester “buffer” before entering the job market in the summer of 2023. She explains that those months could allow her to explore opportunities in the social impact space of tech jobs, unlike the traditional CS-major graduating in May. “I want some time to develop my own interests and decompress after four years of college.”
From the get-go, Joyce had a clear goal for her gap. “This semester is to prove to myself I am capable of taking on big projects for my company.”
She started working with the tech non-profit Ameelio this summer. The mobile app sends free letters to incarcerated people from their families, alleviating the usual high cost of prisoner communication. “Especially during the pandemic – in their cells 23 hours a day – they are feeling really isolated and need communication and connection to the outside world as much as possible.”
“I wanted to slow down and stay in the present and do things that make me happy.” Living with three other roommates in New Haven, she appreciates the physical separation between work and social life. “Being in my own room is really nice, compared to on campus when you're always ‘on’ in large suites. I appreciate coming home and having a group of people to lean on and have fun with.”
She’s also gaining more confidence. “Going into school, I was really excited to attend all the classes, but I got confused about how to manage time,” she recalls. “The work-life balance was really hard for me. Taking time away from that made me feel more like an adult and more like a human being. When I go back to school, I’ll approach school more like ‘I’m a person who is also studying’ rather than ‘I’m a full-time student’.”
Joyce is using the time to get a better grasp on her studies. “I think Yale CS is really theoretical, and it made me feel like I wasn't really good enough for computer science. But now that I’m working on an actual product, I feel really empowered that the things I’m coding are impacting people in a real way.”
Like Karen, Joyce urges prospective gappers to have a plan. For her, without outside financial support, it was important to find a paid internship. So figuring out a budget is a must-do.
“If you're considering a gap semester, definitely take it,” she advises. “It gave me a lot more perspective. Sometimes when you're in the zone and going through the motions, you forget what you're doing. Only when you leave can you reprioritize what your goals are.”
She plans on returning to Yale next semester. “I miss taking courses being away from school for so long.” After her year away from campus, she’s “ready and prepared” to go back.
Haesung Jee, MS ’19
Hopping away from Yale and to its Ivy League rival, I caught up with Haesung Jee, MS ’19, a Harvard sophomore spending the academic year at home in Los Angeles with her family.
Her main reason for taking a gap? Online classes. “I felt that the quality of my learning would be lower, not to mention the lack of personal interactions with peers and faculty that I consider essential to my college experience.”
Her gap has its own share of challenges. “It was actually really hard for me to adjust to quarantine life and a life without the constancy of school,” says Haesung. “While I was in school, most of my stress came from my schedule, while during my gap year, most of my stress comes from a lack of schedule.”
She found activities to fill the time, including doing image and data analysis with the UCLA Neurocardiology Research Group. She’s even kept connections with her school, taking on extra responsibility with a Harvard history of science journal and film festival. “I would encourage people on gap years to stay connected with their schools by staying involved in extracurriculars, corresponding with faculty, or attending virtual events you are interested in.”
And she still has free time to fill. “Over the summer, I took a beginning-French class, and I’ve been practicing by reading short novels and watching French shows. I’ve also gotten back into reading for pleasure, which I had not done for months. It feels good to read just because I want to, not because I have to.”
Her advice for those toying with the idea of gapping? Cast a wide net. “Take advantage of resources that are close to home, especially if you’re planning to be home for the semester. Reach out to local academic institutions, government centers, and companies in your hometown that you may have overlooked before.”
Haesung recognizes that taking time away from school and structure wasn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. “It was a struggle to be self-motivated, but over the past couple of months I figured out a routine that allows me to stay connected with my academic and career interests and also rediscover hobbies that make me happy.”
Isabel Musselman, MS ’18
Another member of the Harvard Milken Scholar contingent, Isabel Musselman, MS ’18, decided to spend her leave in Cambridge. She’s living so close to me, in fact, that we met in-person, masked, and outside a crêpe cafe.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to take time off,” says Isabel. “I knew I couldn’t be living at home, but I didn’t know if that meant I wouldn't be in school.”
Isabel has interned with a start-up restaurant-recommendation app since January and continued in a paid position through the summer. When they offered her a full-time 30-hour/week opportunity to work remotely, she became much more comfortable with her decision to take the gap semester.
“A big thing with taking time off is asking, ‘What are you going to do with your time?’ You can’t just be unoccupied. That gets old.”
She took online classes in the spring and summer and considered herself burnt out. “I don’t remember when I had a break, and I felt like I wasn’t getting the most out of my learning. It felt like a perfect opportunity to stop. I’m in college for the experience of being in college. I didn’t work hard to get into a good school to merely graduate. I don’t view college as transactional in that way.”
Now that her day isn’t crowded with school activities, she’s rediscovered some past hobbies. “I started watching TV again, which is so good. Because when the workday is over, I’m just done, you know?” She’s also delegated time to run, go grocery shopping, and regularly see friends at a distance.
Cambridge seemed like the best option for location since it’s a “natural congregation point” for Harvard students – enrolled or otherwise. Many of her close friends decided to take a gap and live near campus, “so socially, the decision seemed not only valid, but common.” But with the coming winter and early sundown, she isn’t planning on staying on the East Coast for much longer.
Harvard has yet to decide whether or not to welcome juniors back to campus, so Isabel’s unsure where her future plans lie. “I miss learning. I miss being in school.” Her lease is up in November, so she sees an opportunity to relocate, live with more people in her COVID pod, and escape the “dark and cold” of Cambridge.
Isabel pushes those considering a leave to carefully consider their reasoning. “Especially during a pandemic, things are weird and not gonna be what you’ll expect.” She reminded me that time off does not need to be full of pressure and expectation. “I don't think there has to be a pre-professional focus to your time off. You need an interesting job, but you don't necessarily need a job that will prep you for post-grad.”
“Taking time off is super funny. I’m a student, but right now, I’m not. It’s a half-adult existence,” she muses. “It’s giving me a lot of time to think, and too little to think about. Don't undervalue a job that requires a lot of thought. There’s only so much meal-planning you can do.”
Mohib Jafri, MS ’17
I finished off my interviews with the only senior of the group, Mohib Jafri, MS ’17. He Zoomed in from the San Jose, California, apartment he’s leasing with a college roommate from Harvard.
Mohib actually planned to take a gap semester off in the spring of 2020, before COVID sent students packing. “I was continuously asking how the work I was doing would apply to things I care about. Then I asked a deeper question: What are the things that I care about? I’m taking these fun and exciting classes, but I don't know how to put them to use.”
Further, he felt no rush to finish school. “It made sense to me when I wasn’t pushing against a particular date to graduate.” He saw the gap as “free learning,” giving himself the time to figure out where those passions lie.
His original plan was to take eight months to find those answers. In January, he moved to Reno, Nevada, to work at Tesla’s Gigafactory as a controls engineer for the cars’ motors and batteries.
When COVID hit the country, he took it as a sign to take risks, asking himself where he can push past his comfort zone. As an engineering student, he emphasizes the importance of hands-on lab experience in learning. That missing technical component, in addition to missing out on friends and campus life, pushed him to continue the gap into the Fall.
“You only get eight semesters at Harvard,” says Mohib. “I was hesitant to commit one-eighth of that time in a situation I didn’t feel I could give my best effort or be the happiest.” After deciding to extend his gap semester into a gap year, Mohib moved to Tesla’s headquarters where he now works on Autopilot, their self-driving car hardware. Yep, he’s making the cameras and tech that keeps Teslas between the road lines.
He’s grown into his new position, now leading teams to deliver Autopilot products across every Tesla vehicle, from the everyday Model 3 to the industrial Tesla Semi Truck. But his favorite part is the changing nature of his position. “Sometimes I’m a process engineer and learn the best way factory workers can install parts. Sometimes I’m a manufacturing engineer. Sometimes I’m in business development doing financial analysis. You wear every single hat at the same time.”
Outside of his work in Tesla, he dove deep into nonprofit and private ventures of his own. One is Kumo, a new app that centralizes all of one’s personal or professional contacts – nudging follow-ups and providing a space to log past conversation topics. The other is Help Aid Africa, a philanthropic organization that tracks donations of clothing and supplies from San Jose to Kenya. “The Red Cross is actually using our app right now. It’s crazy.”
Despite the number of jobs he’s taking on, he’s found time for some release. “When I was in Reno, I really got into climbing. It has a nice planning and intellectual strategy to it.” But the next activity came out of the blue.
“I’ve recently been getting super into kite-flying. I flew my first one on a perfect enough day to get hooked. It’s such a simple pleasure!”
He has his NorCal apartment until January, when he plans to resume his studies at Harvard. “My learning has been super exponential from the beginning of the year to August, but now I’m ready to finish out school,” he says. “I really, really miss my friends and really miss Boston.”
With only two months left in his gap year, Mohib reflects on a few key takeaways: “It works to treat life like an experiment. It's all about testing a hypothesis and finding a conviction that you think is interesting or important or impactful. The moment I reframed my thinking into that, it took away that pressure to commit to a lifestyle or a persona of myself.”
He even discovered things about himself. “Everybody has interesting stories, values, thought patterns, and models of the world. My personal best self is the sum of the best parts of the people I admire. I’m a product of my environment, and I’ve developed a greater intentionality regarding who and what I let influence my self-image.”
Mohib ends our call with a few words of wisdom to those anxious about taking risks. “In addition to goal-setting, there’s this powerful concept called fear-setting where you clearly define what the worst-case-scenario fear is. Once you do that, assume it will happen, then ask yourself how you would make the best of that scenario.”
“By setting that fear, you can lay out a plan,” he explains. “For example, I thought that taking a semester off would lead to losing friends and missing out on graduation... But I’ve reframed this as an opportunity to fail and an opportunity to learn.”
“A gap semester may seem intimidating in a place like college where there is an expected linear path to follow. It’s not worth debating if disrupting that flow is inherently good or bad, but rather it's worth experimenting with. Because your worst case probably isn't as bad you think it is.”
I still don’t know if I’ll extend my gap semester to round out the year. AirBnB listings, income strains, and stress about graduation dates all buzz around my head. So maybe I should take Mohib's advice about facing fear and being open to opportunity.
Without any job going into the fall, disrupting my flow could have led to a worst-case-scenario. But my experimentation led me to hidden gems. Intense searching landed me a meaningful internship with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, where I work with the Innovation Team to address the city's biggest challenges. Moving across the country to live with a COVID-secure pod of friends strengthened close relationships. And keeping up with the Milken Scholars Program allowed me to spend my working hours chatting with these five stellar people.
So whatever I end up choosing, I know I’ll be just fine. I’ll mind the gap and take a leap of faith.