Ben McAnally, a 2020 JDP admit, reflects on searching for a deferral experience, finding the courage to stray from the conventional path, and landing a job through AmeriCorps for his first year.
At the time of my Junior Deferral Program (JDP) application, I was not a particularly spontaneous person. I was uncomfortable with uncertainty, which, if I am honest with myself, was a significant factor in my interest in the program. After I recovered from my shock at having been admitted, however, I began to shift my focus from the mid-term certainty that an early admission provides to the short-term period of bounded uncertainty that the deferral offers. I am now convinced this is the primary value of the program, at least for someone like me.
I, like many of those applying to this program, have walked a well-worn path for most of my life. The goals of one pursuit flowed instrumentally into the next: a high school test was important for a grade, for a GPA, for a college admission, for a degree, for a career, and so on. This ability to fit an individual act into a narrative whole has its benefits, of course: a sense of identity, an easily accessible meaning for the monotony of the grind, and a response to relatives at family reunions to the question “so, what’s next?”
Unfortunately for me, this path also produced a kind of risk-aversion, a blind willingness to jump through selective hoops, and a hyper-sensitivity to external validation. These habits, in the words of Michelle Obama, can stop you “from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly” (Becoming, pg. 91). The JDP provided me with a unique opportunity to swerve, to stray from the path in a way I could accept, but even then, I almost didn’t take it.
In Washington, D.C. this past summer, I was listening to a keynote address by the New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, an acceptance from my dream law firm for a two-year fellowship in my back pocket. He spoke of two kinds of virtues: the resume virtues (marketplace skills) and the eulogy virtues (how we will be remembered by those we love). He encouraged a shift from the former to the latter, especially for soon-to-be college graduates planning to jump immediately into their careers. He argued that a direct, unswerving career path is no longer expected or even desired in the workforce, and a few years taken to expand one’s perspective rather than a list of accolades is more than worth the time. In short, he told me to stray from the path. Of course, he wasn’t the first person I heard say something like this, but he was the last person I needed to: I didn’t take the law firm job.
For me, getting it through my head that there was nothing I “needed” to be doing for the two deferral years was the first step in finding a meaningful use for them. Harvard’s expectations for the deferral period are minimal: do something productive with your time (work, education, or service). You’ll be headed to law school after two (or three, or four) years, and whatever you do in the meantime will likely be only a footnote on your resume by the time you graduate. So, you can’t really go wrong.
Still though, that didn’t help me much in narrowing down what I actually would do during my deferral. Next, I began to ask people I admired and respected, often in legal careers, two questions: 1) what (if anything) they did between college and law school, and 2) what they wish they had done.
Responses to the first question often fell along the expected path (law firm, consulting, or no gap at all), but responses to the second rarely did. I more often heard things like working as a rock-climbing instructor, family caretaker, or sign language interpreter. Many of these were pursuits they felt called to do but thought they couldn’t justify because of the delay to their careers. With the benefit of hindsight, they almost invariably told me they could, and probably should have, pursued these non-conventional opportunities.
Finally, I talked about what to do with my deferral period with as broad a group of people as I could, from past classmates to new acquaintances, which eventually resulted in seemingly serendipitous coincidences. I found myself on a two-month road trip around the country, all but one night of which I was able to stay with friends or family. I made time for long calls with old friends on my drives, one of which inspired me to join AmeriCorps. I currently serve at a K-2 elementary school in southern Colorado, working with the same age group for whom I am creating a collaborative storytelling platform to foster early narrative development.
In my service position, I open Capri Suns instead of emails, search for missing mittens instead of cause of action filings, and am called on for empathy, a listening ear, and switching tasks at a moment’s notice instead of long-term planning, argumentative reasoning, and an intimate familiarity with the grammatical predilections of William Strunk Jr. I’ve also slowed down more generally, making dinners for my friends and house mates, taking my time with the philosophy and novels I only skimmed in college, and running along the Rio Grande without a to-do list constantly pulling me back.
This coming summer, I will either be on the crew of a salmon fishing boat in Alaska or working construction in the Nevada desert to build Black Rock City, the temporary, annual home of Burning Man. I don’t know how many of these swerves will end up on my resume, but I hope the ways I have slowed down, become more comfortable with spontaneity and uncertainty, and learned to listen a bit better just might hold a place in my eulogy.
(If you’re thinking about your deferral and considering some swerves, I’d love to brainstorm with you! You can reach me at email@example.com)