For as long as I can remember, there’s been a set path for me to follow. Plans were made 48 months in advance, detailing when to start what. From ACT practice tests to internships to college tours, everything was set. Life was a train ride, and there was always a destination. 

But when COVID–19 hit, I got off the train at an unmarked station. I decided to take a gap year. 

For the first time in my life, there was no detailed plan. There was no school to pour my entire life into. For one year, it was just me, my thoughts, and time to grow.

Hindsight was not 20/20. I was a senior in high school getting ready to move 2,700 miles away from home for college. I had gone to a K–12 school in a suburb of Los Angeles where everything was beyond familiar. I drove up and down W. California Blvd until I had the timing of the lights memorized. The baristas at my favorite coffee shop knew my name and order. There was an indent on my preferred side of my bed.

But eventually I had grown tired of the beloved suburb I grew up in; I was so ready to pack my bags and move across the country. I described it to everyone as a four–year stint, 'just to see what the East Coast is like,’ and then I would come back to sunny California. I imagined that my first day at Penn marked the day my life would begin.

When COVID–19 hit, I refused to process anything, and the end of my senior year fell apart. I’d dreamt of the day I would walk across the field to receive my diploma from the place I spent 13 years of my life. The early days of the pandemic were spent doing Chloe Ting workouts, yelling at my mom for wiping down the groceries, and mourning the loss of everything I was looking forward to. Those days were also spent dreaming about how it would all be over soon, and my life would begin.

After our drive–through graduation, it slowly became apparent that nothing was getting better anytime soon. But I was in serious denial. 

During those summer months, friends were beginning to discuss gap years. My parents started questioning whether I should go to college in the fall. They would bring it up subtly, and I would immediately shut them down. I was dead set on going to college. 

Eventually, a picture of the abnormal first year that was to come began to take shape. After extensive discussion, I agreed to take a gap year with some disdain. Actually—a lot of disdain. I submitted my gap year application, withdrew it, and resubmitted it. At the end of July, I finally came to terms with my decision.

During my gap year, the days were long and filled with moments of frustration. When I look back at my diary, every other day there is something written along the lines of, “I can’t wait to go to college.” I spent Friday nights sitting with my family, watching a CNN documentary about American history. I aimlessly drove around LA in search of a specific salad and an overpriced coffee. 

Little did I know, while I was driving on the same streets that I had my whole life, I was growing more than I ever could if I was 2,700 miles away. I had time to work on self–love. I had time to play games with my ten–year–old sister. I had time to visit my grandparents and spend time with them. I had time to develop a personality separate from the pressure of achieving something evoked by school. I had time to slow down and appreciate what I have. Each moment, no matter how small, I was growing.

Upon finally arriving at college, though, something was off.  

I found myself in one of those “expectation vs. reality” YouTube videos from 2016. After so much buildup, I had dreamt up a version of Penn that Penn could never live up to. The gap year offered an extra year for my expectations for college to skyrocket. If I graduated in 2020 and came straight to Penn, I would've had x expectations. My gap year gave me x + 1 expectations.

Questions ran through my mind incessantly those first couple of weeks: Is blackout drinking fun after a year of playing mixologist with my quarantine family? Is running around looking for parties worth it when all I wanted was to meet up with friends for outdoor dining? Is getting back to academia even appealing after working in the real world? Along with these questions came countless threads of doubt. Should I be enjoying this more?

What I imagined during my pandemic–induced purgatory was that college would be an escape. I soon realized, it’s not. It’s just reality in a different city and with different people.  

I’m now a few months in with adjusted expectations. I know that Penn will allow me to grow in unforeseen ways. I spent the last two years thinking that happiness will come in the future, but that's not how life works—happiness is what you make of the present. I am riding a train again, but it isn't the same one. There is no set plan and no fixed destination—we'll see where it stops along the way.