There's a term that's been coined to describe the experience of Stanford University students: duck syndrome.
"We compare everyone here to ducks because if you look at a duck from above the water, (it) looks super calm, cool, collected," explained junior Alka Nath. "If you go underwater, you see feet paddling furiously to stay afloat. There's a little bit of a stigma to not being able to handle things."
Nath and many other students have decided, for a range of reasons, to buck that stigma and take a year off to explore, to travel, to work, to recharge, to be well. Others take that year before entering Stanford by deferring their admission after graduating from high school.
But when these students inevitably return to campus, what awaits them? For two Stanford students -- one who took a year off and another who deferred admission out of high school -- what wasn't present was an easily accessible community of other students who had chosen to take the road less traveled during their academic career. So this quarter, they founded a student group called Bridging the Gap, hoping to create for the first time at Stanford a broader, established, more supportive social circle for students who have taken time off from school.
Bridging the Gap founders Jack Lane, a junior, and freshman Maddy Lisaius connected after separately seeking out such a circle when they started school this quarter.
Lane had just returned after taking four months of travel in Europe, Thailand and India, book-ended by jobs in Colorado and Menlo Park. He decided late in his sophomore year that he wanted to take a gap year.
"I took a year off because I needed a break," Lane said. "I'd been on the swim team my first two years here and quit the swim team at the end of my sophomore season. That had been my identity at school. For the past eight years of my life, I was a swimmer; I spent all my time doing that. I felt like I needed more than one summer to reorient and think about how I was going to come back to school and live a different life as a full-time student rather than a full-time athlete."
Upon returning to campus, he said he felt competent figuring out his classes and reorienting to school -- the kind of support university advisers typically provide students who take time off. What he needed, however, was a community of peers who understood what it was like to have this different educational and personal experience -- even if it was taken for very different reasons.
Lisaius started her first quarter of college after her bridge year, which was prompted by a months-long hospitalization at the end of her senior year of high school after draining family and personal issues.
"I had been intending to go to college but while there, it became clear that if I went straight to school, I might not be present or even remotely well," she said. (She actually deferred from another university and applied to Stanford during her bridge year.)
Lisaius is often asked how she spent her year off, after her hospitalization. (She worked with exotic animals that had been trafficked in an animal rescue center in Ecuador and then painted stripes on roads by hand in her Seattle area hometown.)
"Often the questions that people who haven't taken time off or away (ask) are, 'What did you do?' and not, 'Why did you make the decision in the first place?' which is sometimes more important. People are so interested in -- 'You worked with monkeys? Oh my gosh, you worked with an ocelot? That's so cool.' When really, it was about sitting with myself and reflecting rather than doing some cool adventure."
She said students like Lane understand that.
"Somehow, I don't know what it is, it seems like the superficial level of conversation is broken through really fast when you have people who have lived away from home, (who) chose to take a year and have done something that a lot of people said was not OK," she said. "Having those conversations, somehow it breaks through to this much deeper level very fast."
Bridging the Gap currently has an email list serve of about 40 students -- only about half of the approximately 80 students Lisaius estimates took a year off last year. (Associate Vice President of University Communications Lisa Lapin said that the total number of leaves of absence, granted by several offices, are not tracked; meanwhile, gap years are negotiated between admitted students and the admissions office, which does not share those numbers.)
A subset of that 40 have gone on hikes together and gotten together for a board game night. Lisaius wants to plan a weekend retreat for next quarter. They also envision compiling and distributing resources on the leave-of-absence or deferral process, creating a blog or some sort of compilation of students' stories of time away from Stanford. They'd like to be a part of Admit Weekend to let all incoming freshman know that taking a gap year is a viable option.
Bridging the Gap is the first student group of its kind at Stanford, though in 2002, longtime academic adviser Sally Mentzer created a support group for a similar subset of Stanford students.
The Returning Students Association supports students who want to return from a leave of absence that was longer than they initially indicated (which might be as much as 25 years or more), did not file the necessary paperwork to take a leave of absence, are returning from a completed academic suspension or are nontraditional transfer students (defined as 25 years or older).
Mentzer said there are about 100 to 150 "returning" students each year.
This group serves many functions that Lisaius and Lane want Bridging the Gap to -- welcome-back dinners each quarter, monthly lunches, weekly study sessions, scheduled guest speakers from around campus, a social email list -- but it's not student-run and doesn't include students who have taken time off in the way Lisaius or Lane have.
Alka Nath, the junior personally familiar with the draining impact of Stanford's duck syndrome, appreciates the gap the new student group fills.
"It's a community for people who are like-minded, and they're OK with having a more unorthodox education," she said.
Other students Lisaius and Lane know have taken or are taking time off to serve in the Israeli military, spend time with a sick family member, take religious mission trips, study Arabic and read the Quran, and dance professionally.
Lisaius and Lane don't want Bridging the Gap to be an advocacy group, but they feel strongly about the need to communicate to a larger community about the value of taking time off -- and that it's perfectly fine to do so.
"It's not that everyone needs to take time off, but ideally, there should be a culture of reflection," Lane said. "Am I doing this because everyone expects me to do it, because it's what everyone else does? Or am I doing this because it's right for me? And for a majority of people, maybe it will still be the right thing. But there should still be the same process of reflection for everyone. Right now, I haven't really seen that. I think most people don't experience that."
Nath took her gap year between sophomore and junior year, feeling like she had fallen out of love with learning after many demanding years in school. She felt apathetic and uninterested in classes.
"For me, I just wanted to break away from that environment where you have to be really good and OK with being perfect and everyone is trying to start a startup. I think those things are really great; I love those things about Stanford, but at that moment in time it wasn't really what I needed," she said.
"I wanted to go out and explore. I wanted to discover more about myself. I wanted to become more confident as a person and really push my limits of what I could do -- but not academically," she said.
So she went on Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program that takes place on a ship that sails around the world; she traveled to New York to see her favorite band play and to Chicago for a design conference; she dedicated one month to reading for pleasure and another to learning how to skateboard.
"I feel like I have so much more direction this year because of what I did last year," she said.
Lisaius and Lane do stress, however, that bridge or gap years aren't for everyone, and the issues students might have grappled with before leaving campus will still exist after they return.
"A lot of things that were hard for me my first years here, they're still hard for me," Lane said. "They're much more manageable now, but it's not like they all went away ... which, if anything, makes me feel more strongly about this group because it is something that I need support (for) -- continuing to work through my experience as a university student at this school, which can get kind of crazy."