The thought of taking a year off from everything is paralyzing. I have to go to school to get a job! I’ve got to work to make money! A year off sounds like a long time, and it is, but it’s a year of figuring out what you want to do and learning about yourself.
Naomi Primero, Naomi Primero, 18, is finishing up her gap year before attending the University of California, Berkeley in the fall. She took a year off after high school to travel and figuring out how she was going to spend the next few years of her life. A year away from academic institutions has treated her well as she moves into the next chapter of her life to study a subject she’s interested in.
This is our interview with Naomi recapping her year off and the consequences of making risky decisions.
TUL: Tell us about yourself.
NP: One of the most constant things in my life is that I’ve been the short one. I used to be really sensitive about it and then I started to ask myself “Why should I be sensitive about it? I might as well use it and make fun of myself.” That’s kind of my ice breaker with people.
Embracing [my shortness] was something that I learned over time, and it was a challenge. I believe that change comes really slowly. It’s not something that happens just like that. The only reason people can perceive change is because they haven’t seen that thing in a while and something made them realize that change had happened.
I was already laughing about myself before I had even realized it.
What was your high school experience like?
I was home schooled up to 8th grade and went to a private high school in Massachusetts, about an hour north of Boston.
Looking back on it, my high school experience definitely gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of things, more culturally than intellectually. Since it was a boarding school, there were a lot of international students from across the world. My group of friends was made up of a girl from Florida, two girls from Chicago, a girl from San Francisco, and a girl from Shanghai.
What were you involved in during high school?
I ran cross country and I still run a lot. I was in the orchestra. I played viola and piano. I also sang in the choir. I did a lot of musical initiatives in high school. I was also in a musical so theater was a really big part of my life. I helped start a music technology program. I was also a designer for random stuff like school spirit t-shirts and bags. I had been trying to get the school to allow me to paint murals for a long time–that didn’t work out but I’m glad I tried. *laughs*
One thing that I’m really proud of doing in high school was I researched solar power and the possibility of it on my campus. I had already been interested in environmental science during my senior year and I wanted to pursue that a little deeper so I decided to form my own [research] with my environmental science teacher.
[During my research,] I told my teacher “Mr. Black, you know I’m doing this because our school doesn’t really have a good history of having alternative energy, but I don’t know how far my research will go because they’ve already said ‘no’ so many times.”
He said “Well, you’ll start a seed, I promise. You’ll start a seed of thought and that’ll start everything.”
I visited my high school [a few weeks ago] and spoke to my teacher and he told me, “I wanted to let you know that three seniors this year took on your project and they’ve been working on the information. They’re going to present their ideas to one of the boards of the school and I already have students lined up for the next year to take over your work.”
That’s really cool!
You’re very involved in art, but you chose to study environmental engineering. How did that happen?
I literally have no idea. I thought I wanted to do biomedical engineering at the end of senior year. That was because I grew up in a medicine-based family.
It was actually one of the bigger reasons I decided to take my year off. I [asked myself] “Is that something I really want to do?” I volunteered at a hospital the past summers and I did not enjoy my time there. Then, I talked to my brother who suggested I take a year off to figure myself out. He had been suggesting it since March of my senior year. The first time he suggested it to me, I was like “Are you joking me? That’s really funny.” I made fun of him, but look where that got me.
It made sense. I was burnt out from high school anyway. I could take a year off and learn a lot about myself first before delving into college stuff, where they assume you [already] know what you’re gonna be. *laughs*
I actually had a college lined up [after high school] and didn’t decide to do my gap year until mid-summer. I was really scared because I didn’t think they would accept my request for deferral. Thankfully they did.
The first thing I did in the beginning of September was work on an organic farm in North Carolina for a month. It was cool because I was working. On. The. Farm. I would go out with my boots and I’d be plowing away at the dirt.
How did you find that organic farm to work on?
Through organization called Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF). It’s an international organization where farmers can sign up to be hosts and people sign up [to work] on a farm in exchange for food and shelter.
After that, I interned for an NGO called Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). They do different initiatives in Latin America and work with indigenous farmers on sustainable agricultural methods.
I was based in Punta Gorda which is the biggest town in Southern Belize–biggest means like 5,000 people. It was different because I was going into a totally different culture where things were not as efficient as they are in the U.S. I was there for about two months.
One of the things we interns worked toward was the organic fair–it was a big event for the farmers in Southern Belize. There was a lot of office work involved, but we also had the opportunity to go out to the villages to meet farmers and see their farms. Their farms were more like…the jungle. It was crazy.
During that time, I decided, or realized–whatever term you want to use–that I wanted to do environmental engineering. I was like “This is really, really cool. I think I want to do this.” It wasn’t really a moment of revelation–like an epiphany–that people always say. I just decided, “I’m gonna do this.”
I went back home in mid-November and reapplied to colleges until December.
January through March, I volunteered for the local conservation district. They had a technical and an education sector. Although I did have the opportunity to sit in a couple meetings with the tech group, I mostly worked with the education group.
After that, I went to Honduras with the UC Davis Water Brigade, I worked with a community to help complete their new water system. I got my sweat on pickaxing and shoveling out a ditch for water pipes. On the last day, we gave an education spiel to kids of the community about what we did and what they can do to help keep water clean and usable. Of all my trips this year, this was my favorite because of all the amazingly friendly people–both Hondurans and students–I met.
Do you recommend that all high school graduates take a year off?
Definitely. One of the things about my high school is that, since we are an “elite” prep school, a lot of students work really hard and expect to get into the best colleges. It’s a crazy competitive school. High school, in my opinion, has become a competition for college.
In high school, I feel like everything comes at you like bam!bam!bam! One [thing] right after the other. You’re so distracted by everything that you have to do. “Oh my gosh! I have to study for my SATs and my APs. And I have to get straight As or else my parents blah, blah, blah.”
With all of those preparations and the stress that we put upon ourselves, we never actually give ourselves time to explore [ourselves] and to figure out the way our minds work. You can’t really do that without a lot of time off. That’s the major reason why I think people should take a year off. You literally have an entire year to do whatever you want.
But there’s a thing about that.
When you make a decision [at that age], it could be your parents making the decisions, but it’s ultimately you who makes the decision. When you let your parents’ influence make the decision [for you], you don’t really have a right to complain later because you let them do that.
When you take a year off, you can do whatever you want, but there lies the responsibility of taking care of everything that happens. If you screw up later, the blame’s only on you, but if you end up doing amazing things, good for you.
My parents and a lot of my friends were skeptical when I was planning my gap year. My dad would say “After this year you might not want to pursue an education anymore and that’s really important nowadays. You’re just gonna want to travel the world and you’re going to find some boy overseas and just leave us.” *laughs*
A friend said “Aren’t you just running away from college? Aren’t you just being scared?” Now that I think about it, it was the scarier thing to take the year off because it was my responsibility to make sure I didn’t become a hobo by the end of the year.
I had to be motivated to do the things that I wanted to do.
There are lots of amazing things that everyone wants to do, but these ideas don’t come to fruition because they didn’t have the motivation or the energy to actually start doing it.
Are your parents glad you took a year off?
I’m pretty sure my mom’s been thinking it’s the best thing ever. I think she realizes the importance of this year off for me. My dad has always been the harder one to convince, but I think he’s beginning to understand and he better because my little sister now wants to take a gap year. *laughs*
How do you think high school students can convince their parents to be okay with taking a year off?
One of the issues with taking a year off, at least for me, was the money aspect because I’d be traveling. It was particularly tough [for me] because we were not in the greatest financial situation when I decided to do this. So I told my parents “I’ll do this and I’ll pay off every single one of my trips and I’ll find a way to do it. I promise.” *laughs*
If you want to [take a year off], you can do it, you just have to find the way and the motivation to do it and take responsibility.
You just have to tell your parents “I know what I’m getting myself into and, whatever happens, this will remain my decision. Whatever result, whatever I become, either a hobo or an amazing, young entrepreneur, that will be all my responsibility. That will all be on me.”
What’s art’s position in your life now that you’re pursuing engineering?
It’s still a giant part of my life, but I know it’s not going to be the thing that I dedicate the most time to. It’s something that keeps me going.
I feel the profession that people choose isn’t because it’s a thing that they want to consistently do. It’s really based on the circumstances that they find themselves in and choosing a certain path between the things that they love to do.
Latest posts by David Ly Khim (see all)
- [INTERVIEW] Jesse Oduro’s Journey to the 2016 Olympics - August 12, 2014
- On The Rise: Naomi Primero – How to Figure Out What to Do with Your Life - June 23, 2014
- Best Thing To Do When You’re Overwhelmed with Work - June 2, 2014