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Life Lessons from Cal Students Who Took 1-Year, 2-Year, Even 38-Year Breaks from College

March 30, 2015

Name: Brendan Shih-Chi Liu
Age: 24
Major/Minor: Music
Class: 2012
Gap: 8 months
When: June 2008-January 2009
Why did you leave? A couple of months before finishing high school I was informed that I wasn’t going to have any financial support once I turned 18, so I worked for eight months after graduating from high school to save up enough money to pay my tuition at UC.
What did you do? I was working seven days a week for nearly the entire 8-month span. For the first couple of months I worked in administration at an investment firm in San Francisco. For the remainder of the time I worked as the assistant to the director of Image Search at Google. Throughout that period I worked at a convenience store on my weekends as a cashier and stocker.
Why did you return to school? “I spent the Fall ‘08 semester working and as the Spring ‘09 semester approached, I had saved up enough to start at UC Berkeley. I could have stayed and kept working at Google but the work I was doing was not what I was interested in long-term. I knew that I was only doing it to save for college. It was really important to me to earn a college degree and to be able to do it myself, on my own terms.
How did your time off affect who you are today? The time I spent working between high school and college, and the jobs I had in high school were all work that I wasn’t very interested or invested in. My job at Google was very low-stress and paid well; I was comfortable there, but it was not at all what I wanted for myself. I studied music in college and am a professional musician now. It’s taken a lot of sacrifice and hustling to get to where I am but it’s been so rewarding to my life and my soul. The time off, which wasn’t really time off, just helped me focus on what I really wanted for myself, made me understand what I needed to do to get that, and made me not want to settle.

Name: Oscar Danilo Mendoza Regama
Age: 29
Major/Minor: Psychology
Class: 2015
Gap: 4 years
When: 2007-2011
Why did you leave? Financial needs.
What did you do? I worked as a Web Developer in San Francisco. I also was a team leader at St Cornelius K-8th School in Richmond and participated in and was a coordinator of young adult groups at my church and the Northern California chapter of Jovenes Para Cristo/Young Adults For Christ. During this time reached out to young Latino adults.
Why did you return to school? I needed to continue my education to get a job that is fulfilling.
How did your time off affect who you are today? It made me grow as a person in all areas. I obtained a broader view of life and it helped me focus on what I really want to do in life and for others.

Name: Matej Silecky
Age: 20
Major/Minor: Interdisciplinary Major/Dance Minor
Class: 2015
Gap: Summer/Fall semester
When: 2013
Why did you leave? I am a figure skater and had the opportunity to go to Canada to skate with a new partner to see if it worked out. I postponed my acceptance to Cal and moved to Toronto.
What did you do? I commuted several hours a day to Waterloo where I trained 8 hours a days on weekdays and 2 to 4 hours on Saturday. I competed a few times but mostly trained.
Why did you return to school? It didn’t work out with the skating partner and if I continued to postpone my acceptance to Cal I would likely lose my spot and have to reapply, which did not sound too appealing. And bouncing back and forth between work, training, and getting an education was too difficult.
How did your time off affect who you are today?The time away provided a lot of opportunity but also showed how difficult the administrative services at Cal are. It has taught me a lot about keeping organized and responsible. It also made me determined to finish school in two and a half years so I can get back to skating.

Name: Sabrina Leong
Age: 22
Major/Minor: Linguistics
Class: 2015
Gap: 1 year
When: Fall 2011-Spring 2012
Why did you leave? I was really depressed at school and had a miserable first semester (spring admit). I needed time off to recuperate.
What did you do? I worked full time and otherwise did things that I enjoyed.
Why did you return to school?I felt ready to come back and knew that I needed to finish/earn my degree. I also knew that if I took more time off, I risked not wanting to ever come back.
How did your time off affect who you are today? I got my first jobs in that time and also had the time to explore my sexual orientation, which would have been much more difficult – perhaps impossible – to do in the stressful environment of school.

Name: Scott Garrison
Age: 37
Major:: Physics
Class: 2003
Gap: 3 years
When: 1997-2000
Why did you leave? At first it was just to take a semester off to go hiking in Arizona, and get my head wrapped around a few things. I was living in Cloyne Court, one of the largest student co-ops, and the constant social distractions were interfering with my studies in Physics, which was challenging to say the least.
What did you do? A semester in Arizona became a year as I realized that coming back meant finding housing and applying for classes once more. While looking for an apartment, I took a job at an Internet company where a friend was working—he’d also dropped out of Cal. It was the DotCom era, so if you knew anything about computers there was a job with a decent salary waiting for you.
Why did you return to school? I wanted to do something meaningful, and in many ways Physics was the only real religion that I had. I also knew that the longer I waited the harder it would be.
How did your time off affect who you are today? It made finishing school much harder. I was now well aware of all of the distractions that life had to offer. I was also not as proficient in math as I had been when I left. It was harder to apply myself to the long nights of studying. The positive difference was that I was doing it for myself; completing college wasn’t just what was expected of me, but instead something that I was personally motivated to do for my own sake. My time away has also instilled in me a continual interest to grow and learn new things. I now view education as a continual process and not something that you do in your youth to prepare you for the “real world.”

Name: Mark G Hinds
Age: 64
Major/Minor: Theater and Procrastination
Class: 2011
Gap: 38 years
When: 1970
Why did you leave? We were on the quarter system and classes were disrupted due to the Vietnam War, so all grading went to pass/fail. Sensing I wasn’t actually learning anything I departed.
What did you do? Sold Real Estate, moved on to Insurance, opened my own insurance agency, which I still run. Raised six daughters. Did some community theater work.
Why did you return to school? Unfinished business and the challenge of seeing if I could keep up with undergrads who were all younger than my youngest children.
How did your time off affect who you are today? Well, I learned a lot about how things work in the real world. My professors when I returned seemed much smarter than when I was here before and I gave them considerably more respect, (and got much better grades.) I know I got a great deal more out of the learning experience by returning after outgrowing my “know it all” youth.

Name: Mara Constantine
Age: 25
Major: Sociology
Class: 2012
Gap; The year between high school and college
When? July 2007-May 2008
Why did you leave? I was restless by the end of high school and wanted to see another part of the world.
What did you do? Mainly, I was an au pair in a rural village in eastern Switzerland, taking care of two little girls (ages 2 and 5). I also tended sheep, chickens, and did other farm chores. At various times during my gap year, I attended a two-week French language program, visited distant cousins in France and Italy, worked for a different family in the same village who had an enormous Irish Wolfhound that dragged me around on walks, and stayed a month with a friend who was studying abroad in Norway.
Why did you come back? I was planning to be gone for a year, but after a few months away from the Bay Area I decided to apply to UC Berkeley. Missing my parents, who live nearby in Lafayette, played no small part.
How did your time off affect who you are today? I had so many adventures during my 10 or so months abroad, I was happy to settle down when I came back. Academic work seemed very easy and almost luxurious when compared with activities such as digging out weeds with 4-foot roots in the rain, hunting slugs by flashlight, and being “farmed out” to my employers’ friend an hour’s hike away. It made me more aware of the importance of good communication and not letting yourself be taken advantage of. And starting college a year later allowed me to meet my boyfriend during my freshman year. We’ve been together almost 6 years.

Name: Blanca Isabel Perez
Age: 32,
Major: Philosophy
Class: 2016,
Gaps: 2002-2006 2008-2010; Fall 2013; Fall 2014,
Why did you leave? I dropped out in the middle of my first semester after one of my best friends died tragically in a car accident.
What did you do? I decided to work and focus on my music (I am a singer) to stay distracted from her death. Because I couldn’t meet financial aid requirements, I decided to postpone returning to school until I was 24 and not tied to my parents’ income. To be honest, I was still dealing with my friend’s death and not motivated to return to school.
Why did you go back to school? When I turned 24, and the middle of a big singing break I became very ill and was forced to move back home with my parents. I went to community college but had no particular direction. I continued performing but then developed cysts on my vocal chords and could not use my voice for many months. I moved to Sacramento and attended community college for one year, but I was very depressed and felt that the cysts had forced me to go back to school against my will. But it was a blessing in disguise because I had found a sort of niche in philosophy. But I was still unsure about music. As soon as I got my singing voice back, I moved to Los Angeles. But after another bout of illness, I threw in the towel with music. I moved to Denver and enrolled full time in community college and supported myself by working. Philosophy was my focus and transferring to Cal was now my goal.
How did your time off affect who you are today? I now know that I was meant to be a student first and a musician second. My time off made me a better writer, listener, note taker, friend, student and professional. I cannot imagine having been a real student at 18-19 and making long term decisions about a life that hadn’t even been lived yet.

Name: Marie-Louise O’Rourke
Age: 23
Major/Minor: Communication/ Media Studies
Class: 2017
Gap: 3 years
When: 2010-2013
Why did you leave? I actually moved away from home after my sophomore year in high school to start at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and pursue a career in classical ballet.
What did you do? I lived in Sweden for five years and in Holland for two years working as a freelance dancer.
Why did you return to school? Because of budget cuts, many freelancing opportunities disappeared and I felt that it was hard to gain the experience needed to get hired, so I came back to the Bay Area to pursue a degree.
How did your time off affect who you are today? I really feel that it’s crucial for young people to be exposed to different cultures and places around the world. Whether through a study-abroad program or a gap-year experience it gives everyone a different perspective on their own lives, challenges what they know and what they are comfortable with. I have had the luxury of speaking a language fluently from birth, having a mother who is Swedish, but I would push this experience for those who aren’t multilingual as well. I really feel that my time abroad made me independent, and I proudly can say that I intimately know quite a few cities and can call them home. Now that I’ve returned to school, not only do I find comparing other cultures to be helpful in my classes, I find they give me a perspective not commonly written about or discussed.

Name: Denise Morilla Lyons
Age: 50
Major:: Architecture – with an emphasis on Ecological Design
Class: 2009
Gap: 22 years
When: 1985 to 2007
Why did you leave? I was put on academic probation at the end of my sophomore year and when my grades did not improve was dismissed, told I could finish my remaining core breath requirements at a local junior college and be readmitted as soon as I fulfilled them. I think I was still too young and undisciplined to face living away from home, and having had a very sweet, nurturing Peruvian über-mom, I was a very young 18-year-old, not like other more self-sufficient, focused classmates
What did you do? I had several jobs in retail, mostly in fashion. At 27, I went to community college part time—taking architecture, physical geography and art – and regained my confidence in my ability to do well in academics. In 1997, I began working in architecture firms, working up to project management—this all without seemingly needing my degree. The hope was to eventually return to UC Berkeley full time and finish my degree, but as 1993 was coming to a close, my husband, Jimmy, and I found out that we were having a baby. Our only daughter, Virginia, was born the following August.
What made you come back? In June of 2005, tragedy took my mother’s life and one of my brothers was also institutionalized. I was so distraught I had to quit working, decimated and comatose for weeks. That fall, encouraged by the love and fierce care of family and friends around me, and even of people I had recently met through the process of grief, I picked myself up and asked myself, “You have witnessed the worst thing that you could possibly imagine. Now, what is the best thing that you could realize for yourself?” The inspiration to return to UC Berkeley saved me. I reapplied to Berkeley for the fall semester. With scholarship programs for returning students, I enrolled full-time and there was no negative financial impact on the family.
How did your time off affect who you are today? The tragedy would have been if I, because of my mother’s passing, had become a casualty too. Something profound made me seek out education as a means of re-stitching myself. I am not exaggerating when I say that returning to school at age 42, and being cradled in the creative, academic arms of this university, saved my life; I could now focus my energy on architecture, photography, writing—creative expressions that would hold me together for the long run and to this day—and I would not just endure but thrive.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

student illustration

The benefits of taking a gap year off before college.
By Christina Schoefer
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