Alumni Spotlights

Kevin Zhou
Posted 08/23/2017 09:56PM

The Path Less Taken

For most ISB alumni, there is a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" gap between high school graduation and the first day of university. However, there are benefits to taking time to explore new paths (and new passions) before college. Kevin Zhou ('16) shares his experience of taking a gap year in South America.

man standing posing

For the bulk of my gap year, I've spent my time in the wide-open spaces of Patagonia in South America. For the past seven months, I haven't spent more than a week in the same place. At the time of writing, I have traveled overland from the southernmost point of the South American continent to the Atacama Desert.

During that time, I've become comfortable in a variety of outdoor skills that range from cooking to climbing. I've been stunned by the beauty of the natural world, dazzled by the vibrancy of the few cities I've visited, and continue to be amazed by the kindness that local people have shown me.

Now, as my trip nears its end, I am thinking of what I will be bringing home. Over the coming weeks, months, and years, I will probably forget the people I've met in the hostels and the hikes I've done.

I cannot bring home the peaks I've climbed. Attempts to recount my time in the mountains invariably bring about a sort of confused indifference among friends and family. It almost seems that the experiences and connections to the places where I've walked, paddled. and climbed have no place in my daily life.

However, the lessons I take away from this adventure are far more important. Living outside has a way of getting one back in touch of the basics. In the mountains, I am thorough, organized, and prepared in ways that I was rarely ever pushed to be in the "real world."

I cook my own food and consciously select the place where I sleep every night. I put care into tending to my wounds and repairing my gear. I've learned to count every contour line on the map and at any given moment have my rain gear accessible.

In the mountains, the consequences for failing at basic tasks are far more immediate; the impact of leaving things half done is immediate felt. In a way, it is good that the wind and the cold were my "teachers"; the fallout for not being prepared in everyday life can be far less obvious and far more impactful.

Learning to climb has taught me how to place protection on rock and set up a rappel, but more importantly how to face down my fear and perform. I've learned to push forward and preserve even when every fiber of my being tells me that I can't go higher. In the future, the challenges I face won't be as immediate or rewarding as a mountain or a pitch of rock, but the summit belongs to those who push for it.

Most importantly, I learned how to enjoy things for what they are independent of what my expectations originally were. I learned that although adventure is excitement, elation, and exhilaration, it is also fear, frustration, and occasionally boredom.

Eventually, I realized that it was the lows that made the highs and the emotional challenge was in some cases greater than the physical one. In the mountains, I found strength that I didn't know I had and weakness in myself where I least expected. In the end, some of what I did was exactly as I dreamed it.

However, far more was unpredictable – and I would not have had it any other way.

man hiking in mountains

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