The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Jaya Dayal.

Throughout high school, my life primarily revolved around what went on within the walls of my campus in downtown Orlando. At my school of 13 years, where I graduated with many of the people in my Kindergarten class, I discovered things I was passionate about, courses I loved, and a coffee addiction that let me take on more than I probably should have. When school suddenly closed on March 13th, it felt strange to be isolated from the people and experiences that had driven me for four years throughout which I felt I had significantly grown. I was still doing school, and I hadn’t given up on my extracurriculars – but as many of us know, despite the best efforts of educators and administrators, distance learning isn’t the same.

LHP 2020 Graduation in Stadium

Everyone talks about how college is supposed to be a fresh start, especially when you’re in a situation similar to mine. I committed to Chapel Hill knowing only one out of the nearly 20,000 undergraduate students on campus. A “fresh start” has always been a bit of a scary thought for me. I had a great high school experience. I was comfortable in my relatively small school community and felt like my peers valued what mattered to me, my community service efforts. So, the prospect of starting over on a campus as large as UNC’s was daunting from the moment I got accepted. My anxiety only increased as I realized how much of my identity I associated with what I was always doing in high school. I knew that the moment I got to college, I would similarly get involved on campus and would once again fall into the trap four years later of having difficulty separating what I do from the other parts of who I am.

A gap year was something I started considering my junior year. The opportunity to slow down a bit and focus on one thing in more depth as opposed to balancing five things at once, like I had in high school, was incredibly attractive. But as I settled into quarantine and gained distance from high school far earlier than I anticipated, I realized the true scope of the benefits of taking a moment to breathe – it would give me a chance to understand who I fundamentally am.

As my plans for my gap year fell into place, I realized I wasn’t doing as much slowing down as I had dreamed about. For the next 9 months, I am working as a Corps Member with City Year, an AmeriCorps program through which I assist a middle school humanities class at an underprivileged school in Washington D.C. I am also serving as an ambassador for the Thirst Project, a non-profit I worked with in high school focused on empowering youth to end inaccessibility to clean water. It’s not the most dramatic change in pace. But taking a moment to breathe means more than doing fewer things. I truly feel like I am learning how to take time for myself, enjoy time alone, and be more independent. These are all small things that I didn’t even consider as I was getting ready for my gap year but have ultimately been a huge part of adjusting to my new life in D.C.

Although the placements I chose are reflective of me and my interests, I hope that taking a breath this year gives me the chance to understand and explore who I am and can be outside of what I do. It wasn’t easy to not go to school and live on my own for the first time. As hard as adjusting and adapting may be, it feels good because I know that the ways I am growing now will be helpful far beyond this year.