Why I Did the Unthinkable—and Took a Gap Year

To my family, taking time for myself after college was a waste of time.

Paul Iverson / AP

Manila, the city where I grew up, boasts a metropolitan area larger than Beijing and as developed as Singapore by United Nations standards. But there’s a visible gap in this vibrant, cosmopolitan city between the wealthy few and the masses struggling to get by. Growing up, I quickly learned that the city’s offerings were reserved for those with the means to enjoy them.

So a few years ago, as my college graduation approached, it came as little surprise to hear my uncle offer advice my parents and family had repeated throughout my childhood in the Philippines:

“Remember,” he said, “money isn’t everything. But it is almost everything.”

To him and the rest of my family, the only sensible path was a direct line toward financial stability and success. So you can imagine their confusion when I announced that medical school wouldn’t be my next immediate stop after crossing Vanderbilt University’s stage.

Instead, I’d be doing the unthinkable: I’d take a gap year.

A gap year is a break in one’s education, whether that means a year off between high school and college or between college and graduate or professional school. Some spend the year gaining work experience—a sort of preview for the career ahead, or a chance to try out another field. They might travel abroad, or pursue community service.

Many might not think my own, less adventurous experience—working a full-time job in medical research, a productive pause before applying to medical schools—would qualify. But it still caused my family to worry that I was falling behind. Though supportive of my long-term goals, my mother feared, as a physician herself, that the already difficult road ahead of me would only get longer. A few relatives even began to question whether medicine was really still part of my intended future.

Through the utilitarian lens through which my Filipino family and friends see education, gap years are largely a waste. They picture aimless participants who are slow to find careers, delay receiving proper salaries, and pursue activities that don’t justify the money spent or earnings lost.

That anxiety is at odds with the apparent attitudes of American college students, who seem perfectly comfortable with gap years. Roughly three-quarters of each incoming class at Harvard University’s law school applied after taking at least a year off. Northwestern University students planning on medical school also tended to favor a gap year, while Rice University noted a good number of its students doing the same. After pointing out that more than three-quarters of Duke University’s students wait to apply to medical school until after they graduate, the school’s website adds that “students who engage in a year or more of experiential activity after graduation … are more mature, resilient, confident, and accomplished.”

Even for incoming college freshmen, gap years are becoming increasingly attractive: Attendance at USA Gap Year Fairs, a nationwide circuit of events involving relevant organizations and experts, has almost tripled since 2010.

Gap years have reached such a degree of acceptability, schools like Princeton and Tufts universities have started their own programs for students to take a “transformational year of full-time service, domestically or abroad, before beginning their academic studies.”

I moved to Houston after graduating from Vanderbilt with an ambitious plan for my time off before starting an MD-Ph.D. program. Because of competitive admissions, experience in full-time research and graduate-level biomedical coursework was my priority. Rice University, known for its rigorous academics and solid research opportunities, had already accepted me at the time.

But ultimately I chose to work in research at Baylor College of Medicine. A biweekly paycheck and the opportunity to pursue tuition-free coursework at Baylor’s graduate school for biomedical sciences were too enticing to pass up.

My friend Katharine Yang, now a second-year medical student, was there with me. She had decided to work full-time as a medical assistant at a cardiology clinic before starting at Baylor, and wasn’t the only one in her class to take a gap year.

“I wanted a taste of real life,” she said when I asked about the detour. During that time, Katharine picked up ballroom dancing and became involved in human rights advocacy through RESULTS, a nonprofit group that she still dedicates some time to as a med student.

Thinking back on it now, “I would maximize my time even more,” she said. “If I could do it again, I would spend less time watching TV shows, and more time learning about cultures, politics, and religion—things that I wish I could do now that I'm in medical school.”

Eduardo Medellin, a Baylor researcher currently applying to medical schools, had a different approach to his gap year. “I really appreciate the opportunity to network early,” he said, noting the career opportunities he was eyeing at the Texas Medical Center. Before hearing about the job opening during a mission trip abroad, Eduardo was planning to work as a pharmacy technician back home in Laredo.

He’s glad the opportunity presented itself. “Working here at Baylor was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. But I know most of my family don’t see my own decision that way. The message I’ve always gotten from them was that education was merely the means toward an end. Success was defined by whether I could provide for my family, reap the material rewards of my labor, and give back to God and country.

The 10 years I spent in the U.S. before graduating from Vanderbilt challenged my childhood perception of education: It became an end in and of itself. Instead of being unnecessary add-ons to an already lengthy career path, for example, doctoral programs ranging from bioethics to immunology were opportunities to broaden my future practice.

Even after my gap year, I’m still trying to strike a balance between the pragmatic priorities I was raised with and the vibrant ones I developed during my U.S. education. Medical school remains my goal, but I feel like a more complete candidate as I face down admissions interviews.

I learned the discipline of a full-time job and worked with physicians who I plan to stay in touch with, as both professional and personal connections. I juggled graduate coursework alongside employment, preparing me (in theory) for the hectic schedule ahead. For the price of a later start to my career, I learned how to pursue the kind of success my family taught me to value.

So while I appreciate my uncle’s advice, knowing full well he wanted the best for me, I feel compelled to reword it here:

Money is almost everything. But it isn’t everything.