The Perks of Graduating Early

Hello from Tenerife, Spain! Here I spent a week hiking, beaching and helping a German woman with her language start-up. Photo courtesy of Reena Jailwala.

Written by Anna Chen

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Anna Chen in Vinales, Cuba on spring break. Photo courtesy of Reena Jailwala.

This year is my gap year before the toils of adulthood. Like many Sternies, I have opted to graduate college early to reclaim a year’s time and tuition dollars. I’ve spent my time creating a Google-calendar patchwork of all my bucket list ambitions.

The result? During my senior year, I only sat through seven lectures (of PRL). Instead of other coursework, I visited ten countries in six months and juggled two NYC internships with a volunteer gig. I have served coffee in a bookstore, interviewed female inmates in prison and painted mosaics in the Spanish desert. If you think that’s random, you’re right. But I’m incredibly grateful for how this year has panned out.

The challenge of paving my own way empowered me to abandon my comfort zone. I essentially Tinder-swiped through dozens of ways to fill my time — which countries to visit, classes to audit or people to meet. Without many set commitments, I had the freedom to choose my actions. For example, I eagerly wanted to continue an NYU research project on prison policy innovation, so I arranged to do so virtually as I traveled and set my own hours.

But similar to online dating, the options can be overwhelming. I have spent hours reaching page 30 on a travel blog. And once I decided on a place, even more time went into sending couch-surfing or volunteer requests. A few frustrating times, facts or circumstances changed and I was compelled to start all over again. For instance, I initially set out to visit Tenerife, Spain to volunteer at whale research non-profit. The role involved logging whale sightings on boats in the Atlantic Ocean and helping the research team. After speaking with the organizers five days before I was supposed to fly in, I realized that I lacked confidence in their transparency and ability to make an impact. I cancelled with an apology and found a last-minute volunteer job helping a German expat set up her language start-up online. In my spare time, I hiked Mount Teide, the highest summit and volcano in Spain, and relaxed at the many beaches. Arranging those opportunities was incredibly gratifying but also exhausting.

On hectic days, I might even miss school. At NYU, our daily schedule is very clear. We pick extracurriculars and meet weekly to share interests. Friends study together for tests announced on day one. We are set on a “track” to graduation. These structures are inherently great at facilitating depth — depth of education through advanced coursework and depth of friendship through four years together.

I also recognize the benefits of staying on campus. Seniors can challenge themselves in other ways: gain more campus leadership, work on a thesis or even just make new friends. For some, senior year is the last time they will be in New York or in school. Might as well enjoy it.

My decision to graduate so early would have confused freshman year Anna. I entered NYU intent on savoring the hasty independence and world-class education. In fact, I distinctly recall telling a friend that I had no wish to graduate early and rush into a job. You may feel the same way.

I still have no real desire to rush into work, although I know I will enjoy it. The pursuit of  multidisciplinary learning is the core reason for my decision. Instead of using an extra year to start full-time (way more financially responsible), I can concoct my gap year to test all the possibilities.

Without regrets, I have basked in every moment.

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