Taking time off from college, or postponing one’s enrollment, isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a Williams education. But so-called gap years (for first-year students) and leaves of absence are a vital and beneficial aspect of many students’ trajectories.
In a typical year, some 15 to 25 incoming students request permission to defer their enrollment, while another 35 to 50 already on campus might take a leave for one or more semesters. Time off can give students the opportunity to travel, rest, work, help family members, mentally prepare for college or reflect on life goals.
Last year, as a result of the pandemic, the number of students postponing their first year of college jumped to 103. Students taking a leave numbered 231 for the fall semester and 90 for the spring.
“For many students, taking a leave from college turns out to be the best decision they could possibly make,” says Marlene Sandstrom, dean of the college and the Hales Professor of Psychology. “The experiences students have during that time often allow them to return to Williams with new perspective, motivation and excitement about how they want to spend the remainder of their time at Williams.”
As students settled back into a more typical fall semester, we asked six of them to share how they spent their time away and what they learned from it.
Working with kids has always been important to Max Litvak ’25. As a high schooler, he volunteered in an elementary after-school program. So when it became clear that the pandemic would radically alter his first year at Williams, he applied at the last minute to City Year AmeriCorps, which provides young adults with teacher training and lessons on racial and economic inequality and then sends them into urban classrooms.
Litvak spent the 2020-21 school year working as an assistant teacher in a virtual classroom at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan, Mass., where the majority of students are Black and Hispanic. Many had fallen behind in math, having spent the previous spring learning remotely. So Litvak and the lead teacher focused on the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions. “The learning was slow,” Litvak says. “Doing math on a computer is hard, especially for 10-year-olds.”
Litvak often worked one-on-one with students, which also gave him a chance to assess how they were faring at home. The students began opening up to him. He learned about their and their families’ struggles balancing school, work and life. “More than being a teacher, I tried to be a friend to my students,” he says.
At the end of the school year, he got to meet with his students in person twice. He says it felt like he learned more about them in those two days than in the entire time he’d spent with them virtually. And the connections were deep. “The thing I valued most about the year was that I could be there for these kids every day,” he says.
Now settled in on campus, Litvak plans to volunteer with students at Williamstown Elementary School. He’s interested in STEM courses and wants to take classes that extend his City Year learning. “I don’t yet know what I want to do,” he says, “but I do know that I want to continue contributing to my community and helping those with fewer opportunities than myself.”
Abby Vieira ’25 spent what would have been her first year at Williams at home in Winchester, Mass., but she managed to travel the world. For three months, she taught English to children in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic via video-
conference, meeting seven students ages 7 to 13 each week through Outreach 360,
a nonprofit that connects students in Latin America with volunteer teachers. “It was a really great experience answering their questions and seeing them become more confident in English,” she says.
She then worked with the New York City- based marketing firm JUV Consulting to help the company reach her demographic—Gen-Z, people born between 1997 and
2012—and pick up some marketing skills. She found fulfillment in watching her team’s plans get put into action, such as when they brainstormed strategies to promote a new movie, Voyagers, across platforms for Lionsgate and wrote press questions for the cast.
Vieira says two online courses helped her to focus on the future. For one, Boost, through Kaplan University, she worked on a team to solve real-world problems for businesses—an experience she says helped sparked her interest in fields including economics and political science. The other course, Global Citizen Academy, fostered discussions about current global issues, such as environmental policies and equal access to education, with peers from around the world. “It was so inspiring to see people from places like India, Chile and Uganda with the same passion to make a change,” she says.
Vieira plans to teach English to students again this summer. “The new experiences and connections I made helped me think critically about the things I value,” she says.
Experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic and watching several family members become ill with cancer, Nicolle Mac Williams ’22 had a growing sense that life was too short—and that she wanted to spend more time with the people she loved. So the rising Williams senior finished her fall classes, “took all of my savings, took the spring 2021 semester off and went to Argentina,” she says.
While the semester away was intended to be a break, she couldn’t help noticing connections to the Global Theatre Histories course she had just completed in the fall. The students studied the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentine women who in the 1970s began weekly marches in front of the presidential palace to protest kidnappings and killings carried out against more than 30,000 people who opposed the ruling military dictatorship.
Mac Williams’ parents are Argentine, which sparked her initial interest in the Madres. But walking around Buenos Aires in 2021, she could still see reminders of how the dictatorship affected the society for generations. That’s when she knew she wanted to deepen her academic understanding of the Madres.
She applied for a Williams Class of 1945 Student World Fellowship, which allowed her to remain in Argentina and work as a teaching assistant with the Universidad Nacional de La Plata through the summer. She TA’d for two classes in the popular music certificate program, which blends musical training with a study of human rights and political movements in Latin America. The program was also developed to preserve the history of the Madres, giving Mac Williams direct access to studying their legacy as she continued her own research on the relationship between the Madres and
the country’s military dictatorship.
“I was trying to understand the context that the Madres were working within, and what frameworks they used to be successful in their endeavors,” Mac Williams says. “Beyond that, I was attempting to understand their legacy in the long term and how the political movements that followed continue to move progress forward.”
As part of her fellowship, she produced a creative work that reflected her research. Mac Williams is a theater major interested in how performance intersects with social issues, and she initially thought about writing a play or a poem. She pivoted to painting, however, after taking classes in Argentina. The Madres often used paint as a form of expression, and her classmates were similar in age to the protesters.
“I wanted to use those skills and have an end product that reflected my experience there,” she says of the artwork in her final fellowship report. “No professor assigned this to me. I got to explore, to see where the path took me, to find what was interesting to me.” —Kim Catley
Carl May ’25 spent his senior year of high school learning online, an experience he didn’t want to repeat at Williams. So he deferred his enrollment to spend a year “doing work that was worth taking the time off my studies for,” he says.
As the grandson of the founder of Andersen Sterilizers, and as a way to contribute to society, May trained to become a sterile processing technician in the company’s lab in Morrisville, N.C. With skills in high demand, he went to work right away in the fall of 2020, sterilizing cotton swabs in an hours-long process for use in Covid testing.
The demand was so great that May usually had to prepare swabs the day shipments were received, turning them around to ship out the next day—“pallet loads,” he says, with more than 28,000 swabs to be sterilized, averaging three pallets per week. One mistake could mean reprocessing an entire load.
May felt a sense of responsibility as he acknowledged the importance of the company’s work. “The time urgency of these shipments can make the work difficult,” he says. “However, it was great knowing that the swabs were badly needed by hospitals around the country. I learned a lot this year. My previous science classes have all been theoretical. It was really interesting to learn the science behind the sterile processing of swabs and gain hands-on experience during this critical time for the world.”
May now plans to major in music and computer science, which he says surprises some people who know about his experience last year. Music filled in much of his free time while working for Andersen: He did some vocal training, performed in online vocal competitions and taught himself a music production software program in addition to practicing cooking, helping to care for a new family puppy and making a point of staying in touch with high school friends. “The experience I gained this past year is an excellent jumping-off point for my future work,” he says, though he doesn’t anticipate returning to the job. “I’ve gained an incredible appreciation for the time that I have here at Williams—dedicated time to broaden my perspectives, improve my knowledge and skill set and, in the broadest sense, actualize my vision of the person that I want to become.”
“The more I thought about it, the more I saw how Covid restrictions impacted not only my relationship with academics and social activities but also with myself,” says Beam Maskati ’25. So before enrolling at Williams, she used the 2020-21 academic year “as a period of exploration and discovery.” Based in Bangkok, Thailand, she
set out to gain a deeper understanding of her home country.
Maskati says she has always found solace in nature, so she spent a week on an organic rice farm in Sisaket and describes the experience as amazing but exhausting. While working full days in near-100-degree heat tending livestock and rice fields, building straw huts and collecting butterfly pea flowers, she learned from the workers there and enjoyed hearing their stories. “The whole experience allowed me to be both grateful and appreciative of nature and the environment but also critical of the systems of power that dictate social structure, job placement and money distribution,” she says.
She then went to the Lopburi province to teach English at the Sathya Sai School of Thailand. With a curriculum built on the Education in Human Values Program founded by the late Indian guru and philanthropist Sathya Sai Baba, the boarding school, which is funded entirely by donations, focuses on character building. The children “truly radiate love and joy and just pure happiness,” Maskati says, adding that the experience was “remarkably refreshing and hopeful.”
Maskati also took an online course in integrative medicine and holistic health. Pushing the boundaries of traditional medicine and wellness ignited in her a new passion, she says: “This was definitely both a personal and professional transformation for me.”
She hopes to become a certified health coach this fall. She also started seeing a therapist—in part because she was interested in the field of mental health and helping people to heal. “This was probably one of the best choices I have made, ever,” she says, citing her personal growth through self-analysis.
Like many students between high school and college, Maskati also took time to be with her family at home, cooking, watching TV and “giving myself space and time to just be.” Now that she’s at Williams, she’s excited to be working in small-group settings where she can connect with others and hear their ideas. She says her experiences in Thailand made her feel like a new person and allowed her to “hone my interest for psychology/neuroscience, environmental studies, public health and sociology. But I am perhaps even more open to taking fun courses that spark my curiosity.”
Originally accepted as a member of the Class of 2023, Brianna Dechet ’25 says she was “kind of desperate to run away into the wilderness” after high school. She delayed the start of her freshman year in 2019 when she was accepted to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Patagonia, a semester-long course that combines wilderness skills with leadership training, immersing participants in the language and culture of the South American region.
Dechet picked up mountaineering, sea kayaking and backpacking skills and learned about problem-solving and working with a team. She attended NOLS lectures focused on the relationship between humans and the environment that were specific to Patagonia but globally relatable.
A five-year student of American Sign Language, she planned to take an internship in the spring of 2020, working in Nicaragua and Peru to study the emerging Nicaraguan Sign Language. Plans fell through when she lost contact with a professor there, so she stayed with an aunt in Portland, Ore., to help homeschool her children. During the summer and fall of 2020, Dechet participated in a virtual global health internship with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), working with an epidemiologist who had several hepatitis-related projects in Rwanda. Though Dechet had no prior background in health care, she performed clerical tasks and compiled data that would be used to inform CHAI’s efforts to help build a sustainable health care system in Rwanda.
After completing her internship, Dechet spent the early months of 2021 earning cash in a bagel shop, followed by more outdoor expeditions that summer—putting her NOLS skills to work by leading youth backpacking and multisport camping trips in the Pacific Northwest.
Now at Williams, Dechet says she is enjoying an art history course and intramural soccer, and she’s a member of the climbing club. She says the two years she spent “outside and in the real world” before coming to Williams opened her eyes to possibilities she had not yet considered: “I’m looking forward to finding a balance here, where I can re-animate myself to expand my learning in this setting as well as bring in pieces from my gap years that I grew to strongly value.”