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An open letter about my gap year

Abigail Africa, Student Fellow, Figma

Abigail Africa is part of Figma’s inaugural Student Fellowship, a program that seeks to amplify student perspectives at Figma and bring Figma to more classrooms. Knowing how much has changed over these past few months, Abigail—like so many students—has been grappling with what going “back to school” this fall really means, deciding whether or not to complete her degree at USC.

So, she turned to Figma co-founder and CEO Dylan Field, who opened up the conversation to other thoughtful leaders. You can watch their conversations and read on for some of the highlights.

To college students everywhere –

It’s early August, and I’m back in my college town. The typical signs of fall are beginning to appear, with small twists: the USC Target has dusted off their Welcome back, students! banner, and shipments of cheap microwaves and white plastic storage bins have taken over most of the store. People mill around them cautiously. Professors have again begun emailing students about the coming semester, but in place of the usual decisive messages about materials and policies have come gentle reminders that everyone should maintain a flexible mindset.

It seems like everyone is trying to stay open-minded, but it’s still hard for me to muster this much flexibility. I’ve spent the past three years constructing a vision of my final year in my major program, where my senior capstone involves pitching, running, and growing a startup. Beyond that, I still have several GE’s to finish and leadership positions to fill on campus. My instinct is to clench my fists and find every opportunity to preserve that vision. I know that many people reading this letter can’t quite square with the idea of a remote year yet, either—especially if that means going without the nights spent huddled around one computer, experimenting side-by-side in our makerspace, or trying on new skills making hardware, recording podcasts, or shooting videos, just to see if we enjoy it.

Naturally, there has been a lot of conversation about our plans for the fall. From what I can tell, at least a third of my program is taking classes from their high school bedrooms. Students without a scholarship are frustrated with the expectation to pay for a degree delivered over Zoom. Some of us are taking classes from the USC area (we’re paying rent, anyway). My international friends have little choice about whether to return, not willing to jeopardize their visas. And I and a few others have been whispering about a gap year.

Whispers of a gap year

When I brought up my gap year a few weeks ago at home, my whole family recoiled. My parents kept recycling similar lines of critical questioning, which always ended at, “Why not just finish?” I sat on the couch, grasping at arguments to make. “You can go back to your job next year,” my dad said. “What makes you think you’ll want to go back to school next fall? You could be taking online classes then, too. A gap year just makes it easier for you to not finish.”

I went to get a drink from the kitchen. My grandmother, who was cutting fruit, grabbed my face with two hands and whispered, “Just finish. You are almost done.”

I didn’t have great answers to their questions, at least none that I explained well that day. The simple, unfiltered, rationale for delaying my senior year is three-prong. First, I'd rather be at school when I can invest my time richly—in community, in my classes, in my extracurriculars. Second, if I have access to a fulfilling job in a pandemic, it makes sense to work for a year to build up my savings, so I don’t have to work part-time or search for a job during such an uncertain period. Third, I could benefit from extended experience at a startup if I wanted to run my own some day. But this wasn't enough. I couldn’t quite address their other pressing concern—that taking time off meant raising my chances of never returning and never getting my degree. In retrospect, this was probably their most fundamental fear.

To me and to many of my friends, gap years and dropouts are aspirational—that someone may be so bold, so unique, so extraordinary that they’re all but excused from finishing their degrees. Instead of coursework, we think, we, too, could start building the next unicorn. To my family, however, no one is excused from education. In their minds, education is not only the ladder, but the sole path to success, and it is to be climbed rung by rung, with unwavering discipline and focus.

All four of my grandparents immigrated in the 70's, leaving behind careers as a lawyer, shipping merchant, banker, and nurse. They each took up multiple minimum-wage jobs, supporting my parents until they could get degrees at American universities. In turn, my parents took great care to invest everything they could into my education. They were conservative spenders. We didn’t take grand vacations. Instead, they paid for my education. I understood this and worked hard at school; it was clear that learning was always the priority. Eventually, I got into USC with a full merit scholarship. My mom still sends me links to graduate programs, a path I lost interest in a few years ago. Time off does not compute.

The conversations I’ve been having with friends about whether or not to return to school have been practical, social, and economic: what’s the real cost of going back this fall? Of taking time off? What will I do without my community? How do you think employers will see a gap year? What is the value of a degree, anyway? While there are hard truths about the price of education, the answers to these questions are different for everyone. The biggest one I’ve been grappling with is cultural: do any of these answers change for me as a woman of color?

My place in Silicon Valley?

There has long been a kind of “dropout mythology” in tech—that Silicon Valley glorifies the (usually) Ivy League and (all-too-often) male founder. While it’s a story I’ve grown used to, it’s not one I’ve seen myself reflected in.

I’m interning this summer at a startup that I care about deeply, and that is taking good care of me. It makes me optimistic that the archetype of the Silicon Valley dropout is gradually opening up, making way for more people like me. It suddenly seems possible that if I never went back to school at all, I could continue to get jobs that I’m meant for, with employers who value me for my merit, and where I’ll excel as long as I work hard. I hold onto this view with a loose grip, hoping this will eventually be the whole truth. But I’ve seen that time and time again, in talking to friends and looking up to heroes, meritocracy is often tangled up in so many concepts—representation, privilege, opportunity—that can weigh heavy on women who look like me.

"Predicting who will succeed is an imperfect art. And parts of it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When venture capitalists say—and they do say—“We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,” and then only invest in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them (they also are the only ones who lose money for them, but who’s keeping track of that?)."

-Ellen Pao, from her book, Reset, on her time at Kleiner Perkins

I’m a Filipino woman. Leaving school is a risk. Not having a degree could be an obstacle. I love school; part of the reason I'm taking time off to work is to preserve my chances of getting to do school in person eventually. But even entertaining the gap year this way is a privilege. I know that most people can't just flip the switch on enrollment, so I’m humbled to be in the position where it’s a realistic (read: financially feasible) option. Without my scholarship and my job, I wouldn't be asking these questions at all. But what about my first generation and Black and Latinx peers? Do they get the luxury of deciding that they don’t need the university label to be considered for jobs if they don’t like the way their senior year is looking?

Seeking wisdom

I took my uncertainty about plans for fall to my mentors. My current boss at Primer, Ryan Delk, gave me a new set of questions to ask, the most straightforward being, “Where are you going to grow more in a year?” This question has echoed around my mind frequently over the last few weeks. I feel strongly that for me, the answer isn't in remote classes. But what if I'm wrong?

I called on my previous boss, Camille Ricketts, Notion’s resident wordsmith and general marketing mastermind. “How do you think about regret? What about risk? Self-confidence?” I asked.

“I wish I had taken far bigger risks earlier in my career,” she told me. “The stakes only get higher as the years go by, and suddenly you find yourself unable to make a radical move or explore something very different. You have too many responsibilities, or your experience has become too specific and focused. Early on is the time to be an energetic and ambitious generalist and get a lot of exposure to many things. Before age 30 is the time to try things that seem scary, or maybe even illogical. Do the things that you love, that inspire you, that you can’t get out of your head, that you find yourself working on or thinking about even when you’re tired or outside of your main work. Looking back now, I had so much optionality and I closed doors for arbitrary reasons. Try a lot of things.”

And in the long run?

“Don’t worry about your long-term earning potential. If you’re good at something you love, the money will truly follow. I’ve seen it happen for so many of my peers. It sounds cliche, but I think it’s very important to keep in mind.”

More voices

From the 10,000 ft view, this becomes more than a conversation about COVID-specific gap years and moves squarely into considerations about the value of education more broadly. Dylan, who left college to start Figma, offered to bring in other perspectives alongside his own. We invited a small handful of people we knew would be thoughtful on the topic to chat with Dylan over Zoom: Laura Deming, John Maeda, Marc Andreessen, Jeff Weiner, Karlie Kloss, and May-Li Khoe. You can watch all of the interviews here.

My mind twirled as I started producing the videos with the Figma team. I let their words sink in.

I watched Laura’s interview first. As she talked to Dylan, it was clear that she knew what she wanted out of her education from the start. Each time she changed paths—from Cynthia Kenyon's lab, to MIT, to the Thiel Fellowship—she was making a decision to learn in a new, rich way. As I played her interview in my room at USC, I felt that it was valid to pursue the exact education I want right now, even if it comes in the form of working at a startup. May-Li’s words echoed more of the same: “Everything that I have worked on has been another part of my education.”

At the end of the day, everyone we interviewed agreed that companies shouldn't require college degrees. Degrees are not a factor in Marc's decisions about who to fund. Jeff talked through how, and why, companies (including LinkedIn) have evolved their thinking on this. For Laura, Ivy League degrees are an anti-signal. It's safe to say that the value of the degree is changing, but maybe not quickly enough for me to abandon mine outright.

In his interview, Jeff echoed a lot of what Camille had to say—find the sweet spot between what you're good at and what you love. I'm good at what I do for work, and I love being at school. Maybe it's not such a wild idea to take a year off to work so I can save that fourth year of learning for a better time. This might not be exactly what Jeff meant, but it feels right.

I take comfort in the fact that John dealt with similarly conflicting advice from his idol, Paul Rand, who told him to use money from work to fund passions. And that, according to Marc, I picked my educational path right; a practical degree from a top school that unlocked me a world of (well-paid) professional opportunities.

I'm afraid of sounding like someone who peaked in college, but I'm not ready to tie off the things I've been building with my friends at USC, namely USC's undergraduate entrepreneurial community and a physical space that reflects the diversity of that community.

I listened to Karlie's interview last. She spoke about the voice in her head reminding her that even when she had everything going in her career, without having had the college experience, she felt like something was missing. The inverse seems true for me, and I think that's okay. “Listen to yourself,” she said. “You have the answer.”

I wanted to take time off. Go back when I could really go back.

One last question

Unfortunately, this still left the most crucial question: What do I say to my parents?

But, honestly, I didn’t feel like trying to answer it. The ideas I hold about personal growth or education, even when bolstered by these thoughtful and successful people, don’t factor into the investment my family has already made in my education.

I was resolved to go back to school to avoid another stressful debate, but then I played back the raw recording of John’s interview, and I had to put down my Trader Joe's Apple Blossoms and replay something he said halfway through. “Calculate the ROI.”

And while it’s nearly impossible to quantify the ways their lives had to change to make mine possible, there was some math I knew I could do. So, I did what Jeff (and Marc, and John) recommended—I literally wrote out the numbers: the amount I’d make in my year off, what that could cover, incorporating my student loans, a car, rent for next year, and savings. I sent it to my mom and waited.

There’s a long silence. And then:

Mom: If you defer...Please promise me you will finish. YOU MUST GET YOUR DEGREE.

Me: I promise you I will graduate.

Mom: Such a shame...you need it as a minority woman...of diminutive stature.

She has a point. I am pretty short.

My plans for next year

Today, I’m officially withdrawing from all of my courses for the year of 2020-2021. I’m planning on spending the year working. I know my reflections are personal, but this letter is meant for anyone who’s also asking themselves similar questions. Each question is highly individual, and not everyone has a job, or an idea, or a safety net for a gap year. Wherever you are, you’re not alone in this conundrum.

If you want to join the conversation about taking time off, exploring different options, or making the most out of this year, check out Figma’s student Slack group, Virtual Campus. We have a channel called #back-2-school where students are doing just that.

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