College wasn’t working for us. So we left.

Aaron Price ’24. This article originally appeared in the Duke Chronicle on April 3.

Are you feeling burnt out from your classes? Floating through college? Have an opportunity outside of Duke you can’t pass up? A gap might be right for you. Gap semesters or years, where you take time off from your studies to focus on other things, aren’t just something you can take before you start college, but a valuable opportunity for any stage of your journey in higher education.

I took a gap semester. It was life changing for me and many others at Duke. Here are our stories and why I think you should consider taking one too.

I went to a high school where I woke up every morning excited to go to class. Some nights, I couldn’t fall asleep; I was too eager for the next day of school. Weird, right? My high school was project-based and I designed my own curriculum from 9th to 12th grade based on my interests and curiosities. It was a blast. Then I went to college — that’s what you do when you come from an upper-middle class home. I came to Duke because I was excited about the brilliant and ambitious peers, love college sports, basking in gardens and hate the cold of the northeast. 

College was entirely different from what I expected. My assignments were laborious and boring. I spent hours in Perkins completing problem sets that I deemed silly. I wasn’t getting to enjoy the friends, sports or weather that I came for. I remember taking a social innovation course in addition to my electrical and computer engineering courses my freshman fall. We read a chapter from a book in the class that I thought was fascinating. I wanted to read the rest of the book. I ordered it. It arrived but I never made it past the first page. I was too busy and tired. 

Duke is such a special place, but it wasn’t working for me. So, I left. I joined an early stage climate-tech startup in San Francisco as their chief of staff and lived in a co-op centered on deliberateness and spirituality with 15 other people. I worked a ton and learned so much. I was leading seven-figure deals, writing code for production and implementing projects serving thousands of users. I got to talk to experts in carbon capture, my climate heroes and entrepreneurs trying to change the world. I learned more and grew more in these months than at any other point in my life. At the end of the semester, the company gave me a generous offer to forgo returning to college and stay in San Francisco. I turned it down.

I wanted to go back to college. During my time away, I realized what I missed — the people, the walkability and the tenting for basketball games. In San Francisco, my adult friends had adult problems. At Duke, my biggest issue was if Skillet put meat in my vegetarian omelet. I realized that college is a sandbox and that I wanted to play a little longer.

Now, armed with this clear intent for being at school, I returned in the spring of 2023 and loved it. I had my best semester ever at Duke. It was a blast and it was all thanks to my time off. 

Taking a gap semester gave me three main superpowers when I came back to school. First, it gave me a clear purpose for going to college that I was able to lean on to guide my decision making. This made it easy to switch my electrical and computer engineering degree to computer science and drop the clubs that didn’t align with my recreational goals. 

Second, it provided me invaluable real-world experiences that I could reference in my classes. That spring semester, I took a marketing course. I was able to leverage my experience pitching and spreading awareness for my startup in our course discussions. The professor loved it and I had many special opportunities arise as a result. 

Finally, taking time off from school showed me that I can be a valuable contributor to the workforce even without a college degree. It took away the stress for me of finding a job or caring about getting straight A’s in my classes. The worry about getting a job totally dissipated and I moved through college freely.

This experience isn’t just unique to me. Students take gap semesters during college to work on all sorts of different things and every person I’ve talked to has grown immensely through and loved their experience.

One of those students is Emily Cole. Emily took a gap semester during Covid to create a culturally relevant computer science curriculum for elementary schools and write her book, “The Player’s Plate” which redefines health for athletes.

She told me, “It was a semester of extreme growth and reflection … This semester break from school was invaluable to helping ground me and realize what is truly important in life. The time away, and this opportunity to pursue writing my own book, gave me the confidence in myself and assurance in my values to return to Duke a better student, athlete and human.”

Adam Yook also took a gap semester. He spent his time building engineering passion projects. 

He shared, “Throughout my time off, I was able to uncover shortcomings and discover new areas of discovery that previously were unknown to me. Coming back to classes in the spring, I was able to connect some of the more abstract topics covered in the course material to the projects I had worked on to better understand their relevance and applications. This connection allowed me to better engage with my classwork as I found it more engaging.”

Further, he said that once he returned to school, “I better appreciated the elements of university that facilitate social connections with peers like clubs or just running into people at WU. Almost equally as important, I was able to slow down and just process the various aspects of my life that I really just didn’t have the time for in the constant rush of Duke.”

I’d be remiss to write this article without including Duke senior and gap semester advocate, Allison Chen. 

She left Duke for a semester to attend pastry school in France. She said, “Taking a gap semester forced me to explore both my personal and professional interests without the influence of other people. At school, I often feel guilty that I’m not following the traditional path, but I’ve discovered there are so many possibilities outside of school that we don’t know of or don’t talk about. Not only do I feel more confident in my own work and my own path, but I also got to bake pastries for eight months straight, and there’s no other time in my life I think I would be able to pursue that and eat that many pastries at once.”

I’ll be the first to vouch that Allison’s eight months paid off; her mochi are the best I’ve ever had.

So, consider a gap semester. Write a book, build a self balancing bike, make fancy pastries whose names I can’t pronounce or work on a startup. Do something that excites you. If you’re not having fun at Duke, you should leave. Take a semester off and do something you’ll enjoy. I bet you’ll want to come back after because you’ll realize there’s more sandcastles to be built on campus. And now, you’ll be ready to play in the sand.

By Greg Victory (he/him/his)
Greg Victory (he/him/his) Assistant VP Student Affairs/Fannie Mitchell Executive Director, Career Center