October 7, 2014

Give Me A Break: Why I Wouldn’t Trade My Gap Semester For Anything

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By CAITLAN SUSSMAN

Last fall, with my sophomore year right around the corner, I decided to take a semester leave of absence from Cornell. It was an incredibly difficult decision to remove myself from the very environment that had given me so many wonderful opportunities — the expansion of knowledge, the leadership and service initiatives, and the many strong relationships for which I was so thankful. But I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

I chose to take a gap semester to gain more experience and perspective. I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, bungee jumped in Costa Rica, and participated in service projects in Nicaragua during my freshman spring. What I was looking for was real-world work experience. I had moved to the United States from Europe where I grew up in order to attend college, and arrived just two weeks before the fall semester of freshman year. I came to Cornell undecided about my academic or career direction, so I set out to try everything at once. I ran for Student Assembly, auditioned for Concert Band, got involved with Cornell Figure Skating Club and took a wide range of classes from Introduction to Cognitive Science, to History of Political Philosophy, to Beginning Russian. I arrived at the end of freshman year just as undecided as I was at the start. I couldn’t fully appreciate all of the wonderful opportunities that were available to me because I was overwhelmed.

I was no stranger to pushing boundaries, but now it was time to venture out of my comfort zone in a different way. It was time to go out into the work world to figure out exactly what I was really passionate about. My gap semester was a whirlwind of new and exciting opportunities. One of the most rewarding experiences was working as a paid intern at the Atlantic Legal Foundation, a non-profit, public-interest law firm in my new hometown of Larchmont, New York. Law was something I had always been curious about, and I was thrilled to be chosen to work with three incredibly skilled lawyers who made every effort to teach me about what they did. I wasn’t getting coffee or filing papers. Instead, I was doing research for amicus briefs to the Supreme Court and the New York State Court of Appeals, scouting out potential donors for the Foundation, and, most of all, I was getting that much closer to honing in on my interests. I discovered that I could spend all day writing and researching, that it fed my curiosity. I enjoyed grappling with ethical issues and legal questions that arose from my work, and applying them to my own life. I found the law fascinating.

My desire for engaging work experiences did not stop there. I had always loved teaching; in high school I had mentored fifth-graders in flute and tutored younger students in foreign languages. Since the age of eight, I had also been an avid figure skater, and, several years ago, became a licensed skating coach in England. I applied for a coaching job at a local rink, and landed a position teaching the basics of figure skating to children of all ages. Watching them progress from tripping over their feet to mastering their first spin or jump was inspiring. It challenged me to break down the components of an element like a one-foot glide into small steps, and to communicate effectively with students of all different learning styles. They say teaching makes you a better student, and I completely agree. I felt immense satisfaction every time I helped a child take their first steps on the ice, and I discovered that I had a real gift for education. Teaching confirmed that I was passionate about people. It was something I knew had to be a part of my life, whatever I ended up doing.

I came back to Cornell the following spring, refreshed both physically and mentally. I was ready to dive back into academics, but this time I had the perspective I needed to narrow down my interests. I loved writing, I loved research, I loved teaching and I loved people. Now that I knew what was important to me, I could focus on those things with a new energy and enthusiasm. I began writing for the Sun, and the ability to express my opinions and interests in writing without fear of being graded, was liberating. I continued my involvement with Cornell Bridges to Community, this time as Fundraising Chair. I was invited to be a TA for a Psychology class, and a got a job as a Writing Tutor at the Knight Center to fuel my love of teaching and writing.

I began to see the patterns in my interests, to connect the threads that ran through the activities in which was I involved and the classes in which I was most interested. I had discovered my passions and was able to put them into practice. The moral of the story, however, is not to strive for complete certainty in life. I did not have a life changing revelation in which I discovered exactly what subject I wanted to study and what career I wanted to pursue. Now, in the middle of my second semester of year, I have declared majors that best suit my interests: Government and Psychology with a minor in Cognitive Science. What I discovered on my gap semester was more important than finding the perfect major or career. I began my sophomore year knowing that I could meet whatever challenges came into my path head on. I know myself better now; I know what drives me. I am confident that whatever I do in the future will be shaped by the knowledge I gained during my time off, and the passion that guides me. And I am not afraid to take risks.

Caitlan Sussman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cms447@cornell.edu.