Not all students come to Bowdoin immediately after being admitted. Some take time between high school and college—often referred to as a gap year—to advance their education or gain experiences outside of traditional schooling. This is the first in a series of columns that will profile these students and their experiences between high school and arriving at Bowdoin. 

Half French and half Chinese-American, Alessandra Laurent moved to Taiwan after living in Los Angeles during middle school. Having lived and studied in both the United States and Taiwan, Laurent decided to spend her gap year experiencing life in France and connecting to that part of her family’s heritage.

“The idea was to live in that context for a year and understand that part of my identity,” Laurent said.

Laurent chose to study in a pre-college prep program with other secondary school graduates studying to pass exams allowing them entrance into France’s top universities. While she was fluent in French prior to studying in Paris, Laurent found the tasks of writing analytical papers and reading literature in French difficult.

“The whole educational philosophy was really different and foreign to me” said Laurent. “In writing essays, the whole format of the way you construct an argument is different—the way they think about arguing anything is different.”

After assimilating to the French educational system, Laurent has found the transition back to American academics challenging. 

“I just had to write my first paper [at Bowdoin] recently and I was like, ‘wait, how do I go about this?’” said Laurent. “I’ve gotten used to defining every single term and analyzing every single notion and organizing it more in the French way.”

Elena Mersereau ’18 also took a gap year, but unlike Laurent, she was not entirely sure of where she would go or what she would do. Originally from Brunswick, Maine, Mersereau decided she needed to see more of the world before starting college.

“I probably wouldn’t have ended up at Bowdoin if I hadn’t taken a gap year. I think it was really necessary for me to get out of Brunswick before I came back for four years,” she said.
Mersereau began her gap year in New York City, working as a fashion design intern in the Garment District and later on the Upper East Side.

“I’ve always been interested in art and fashion and that whole world,” said Mersereau, “It sounds very glamorous to be a fashion design intern.” 

After a few months, however, Mersereau realized her work in the industry wasn’t as fulfilling as she had hoped.

“At the end of the day, I realized I didn’t feel very good about what I was doing,” she said. “I need to [have] a career that I feel good about and that I can see is reaching people in positive ways.”

So Mersereau changed her course. Leaving the bright lights of the New York fashion world, she spent four months traveling through New Zealand working as an organic farmer.

Mersereau first learned about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) at the Bowdoin 2017 Admitted Students Weekend. She met a current student who told her about WWOOF. Although she can’t remember his name, she does remember that he wore Vibram FiveFingers Shoes.

Mersereau has never spoken to this student since, but she would like him to know that he changed her life. 

After backpacking through New Zealand working on dairy farms and picking hazelnuts, Mersereau has become interested in organic living. She hopes to continue this pursuit in the Bowdoin Organic Garden.

While Mersereau was nervous starting her first year at Bowdoin—worried she wouldn't remember how to do school work—she thinks that her experiences have aided her transition into college life.

 “I feel like I have things to offer to people and I have a story to tell, more so than I would have if I had come right out of high school,” she said.

Laurent also believes her gap year helped to prepare her for living at Bowdoin, a small residential community.

 “It gave me a year to learn how to be independent before I came to college,” she said.
However, Laurent says that her gap year experience has given her a different perspective from those of her peers in the Class of 2018. 

Mersereau has noticed that her experience during her gap year has set her apart from her fellow classmates. 

“It’s been harder to find people who I connect with because people straight out of high school have a different perspective and a different expectation for college than I do,” she said.
Overall though, both students were happy with their experiences, and glad that they made the decision to take a gap year. 

“I feel a lot more confident now,” said Mersereau, “More ready for the college experience.”