Give me a break!

Give me a break!

Give me a break!

My journey of deferring my admission to MIT… and how I rediscovered my sense of self

October 14, 2022 | Chinmay K.


“Congratulations! We are pleased to offer you admission to the Graduate Program of the Department of Biology at MIT,” was probably one of the most awesome starts to an email ever. Yet I felt a tinge of sourness as I relished in the excitement of being accepted to MIT, given that it was April 2020 and this horrible new thing called COVID-19 was kind of stealing my moment. As an international undergraduate student isolated in San Diego, my mind was split between starting a new adventure in my life or pausing to return home and spend time with my family in India. There seemed to be plenty of challenges regardless of which uncertain path I decided to follow. Conflicting advice came from every kind fellow who empathized with my situation, which didn’t really help in the decision making process. The choice had to come from within, so I listened closely to what my heart was telling me. 

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift… that’s why they call it present.” – Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda

Going with my gut, I decided to defer my MIT admission. My family is more important to me than anything in the world, and I knew that in the present moment of uncertainty, I desired a break to be with them. I chose to take an optimistic gamble about the ambiguities of tomorrow and hope that things such as flights, lockdowns, visa perils, and travel restrictions would resolve with time. And who knows, this might have been my last opportunity for an extended period of time to reconnect with my family and friends. I eagerly desired to be back in the special city of Pune, which I had called home for 18 years. As my undergrad years at UC San Diego rolled by, I felt a slow sense of detachment from home, and I could not wait to immerse myself back in the sights, sounds, smells, and don’t even get me started on the food.

First stop: Omaha!

I had to snap myself out of my dream of devouring pani puris (my favorite street food in Pune) and fathom the challenges of going back to India. Like Frodo Baggins frantically leaving the Shire, I had to rapidly move out of San Diego and search for temporary shelter since flights to India were banned. I was graciously invited by my uncle Ranjeeth to hunker down with his family in Omaha, so I made my way to the Midwest. There, I got to spend a month with my uncle’s family and my 4-year-old cousin Neeti whom I had never met before. Neeti’s energetic presence, and the conversations, food and fun I got to share with my family in Omaha meant the world to me. I thoroughly enjoyed my summer reading fiction and going on runs amidst endless pastures of greenery. This serendipitous turn of events reminded me of life’s inherent chaos and spontaneity, as well as the importance of soaking in each moment with a sense of humor and gratitude, especially as a stranger in a new country.

Chinmay sits with his cousin at her graduation party. She is wearing a paper graduation cap and a bouquet of flowers sit on the table behind them.

Celebrating my virtual undergraduate commencement with Neeti, who doesn’t seem too jazzed about me stealing the spotlight.

The Return of the King

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I returned to Pune in July of 2020 to reunite with my parents and my younger brother. In the honeymoon period that followed, I felt like I was on top of the world: constantly being showered with love and my favorite treats, revisiting my old haunts, reminiscing about treasured memories and forging new ones with childhood friends. As weeks turned into months, I realized that in our fast paced lives as we chase our ambitions, we overlook the little things worth valuing. I am 100% guilty of this. But whenever chances like this come along, it is worth seizing them and just going on that stroll on the hill with a long-lost friend, or that drive with your aunt, or visiting an old school teacher. Regardless of whether the dots will ever connect, I savored and drew meaning from the little moments I got to share with the people around me.

Chinmay and five friends group together, laughing, on a boulder.

Shenanigans on an island on Pavana lake to celebrate my friend Anisha’s (bottom right) birthday

I came back home to India with no grand agenda or purpose. Here’s some things I did that made the break year a memorable one:

  1. Reconnecting with my younger brother Rohan in a meaningful way, and helping him carve out his interests as he navigated plans for college. We spent our days playing tennis, watching movies, planning trips, and working towards a vision for how our lives could intertwine in the future. Big brother mentorship at its finest, I’ll say.
  2. Road trips with family and friends! I took multiple trips along the western coast of India driving to small beach towns, staying at quaint homestays, and eating fresh local food. With friends, I also got to explore the more metropolitan cities of Mumbai and Bangalore and immerse myself in unique local cultural experiences. Through these travels, I rediscovered my love for India and its people. The hustle and bustle on the streets, chaos, and comedy never gets old and made me want to maintain a strong connection to India throughout my life.
  3. Exploring research happening in India. I wanted a firsthand experience of the scope and opportunities to pursue scientific careers in India, and got a chance to work in a research lab at the Indian Institute of Science and Research in Pune. This awesome experience opened my eyes to the rapid development of basic sciences and established facilities to pursue cutting edge research happening in India, and left me excited to see the potential for big advancements in the coming years.

Was it worth it?

Collectively, every little experience added up and made my year off of school one of the best years of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. To anyone out there reading this and feeling inklings of taking a break or needing some time for yourself – DO IT! Not having concrete plans during a gap year can actually be a good thing; just taking care of your health and well-being and engaging in some self-reflection can be incredibly valuable in the long term. In fact, during my time in India, I kept reflecting on my life thus far, and on my life beyond. I asked myself and people around me questions like: What are my priorities? What do I want out of my life?One important thing I learned is to be agnostic of whether life has any grand meaning or purpose––most likely it does not. Rather, find a project that deeply occupies you in the moment, akin to the feeling of meditation, and enriches your life with experiences, learnings, and joy. During my break, that project was investing in my closest relationships and rediscovering my sense of self. Now, as a fully rejuvenated and re-energized MIT student, I carry back these values and hope to use graduate school to fully immerse myself in a project through which I can find a sense of meaning in this phase of my life. So come back and ask me in 5 years what I’ll be doing for my next gap year 😉

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