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South Dakota to Southeast Asia and in between

A student takes his friend’s advice (“Don’t sleep on the gap year!”) and finds direction.

Brandon Liu '17
March 30, 2018
Brandon Liu and his dad get ready to watch the eclipse

Brandon and his dad get ready to watch the Great American Eclipse in the mountains of Wyoming.

About a week after graduating from Exeter, my best friends Kofi Ansong ‘17, Bliss Perry ‘17, and I flew to Eastern Europe and traveled through Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was Bliss’ brainchild: a grad trip off the beaten path and into the beautiful, and tragic, Balkans. In the joy of our last high school summer, there was no better time for us to get together and explore before we all parted ways, and it seemed a fitting way to launch my gap year.

Reflecting on these last eight months, I can say without hesitation that this gap year has been worth it. The experiences alone merit the time away from school. In particular, I really appreciate all that I’ve learned about myself and the world.

Take me home, country roads

After our trip through the former Yugoslavia, I came home to Columbus, Ohio and worked as a valet attendant for four months. Valeting was a summer job I’d always dreamed of, mostly for my love of cars. I learned to drive stick shift, parked my share of sports cars and beaters, and began to save money and build up credit.

In August, my dad and I decided to fulfill an item on his bucket list, and a summer fantasy of mine: to road-trip across America. After requesting time off from work, we packed our luggage, two lawn chairs and a tent into the 1997 Honda Accord (a standard), and we set off from Ohio, due west.

To my mother’s dismay, neither of us had a formal plan. On the road, we saw as many national and state parks as we could, replaced car parts as we broke down, and camped under the country sky when there were no hotel or motel rooms, or even parking lots, left. From the mountains of Wyoming, we experienced totality during the Great American Eclipse on August 21. That alone was worth the drive.

Brandon (l) with classmates Atticus and Christine in Grand Teton National Park

By complete coincidence, we ran into my Exeter adviser and Knight House dorm head, Mrs. Chapman, and her family, on vacation in Custer, South Dakota! Two days later, in Grand Teton National Park, I somehow found myself within earshot of Christine Hu and Atticus Stonestrom, two more ‘17 classmates. Passing through Casper, Wyoming, I met up with Mr. Blackwell, my astronomy teacher and WPEA radio adviser, and I later stayed with my close friend Joel Lotzkar ’17 in his home city of Vancouver. Joel was actually the first person I met at Exeter, when he toured me around campus in the spring of 2014.

Brandon (l) and Joel in Vietnam

Relaxing at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach, Joel and I spontaneously had the idea of planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Joel’s on a gap year, too; he wasn’t able to make our trip to Europe in June, but he would be in Singapore with his family for Christmas. Months later, I stumbled across a transpacific flight, New York City to Singapore, in the right time frame and for an unseasonable price of around $450 roundtrip. Young, flexible and out of school, we decided it was our best chance for doing something like this. So in the month of December, Joel and I found ourselves backpacking across Cambodia and Vietnam.

Introspection and opportunity

On a personal level, this gap year has given me the time, space, and often solitude to reflect on myself in a way I was either too busy, or just never thought to during high school. Parting with my closest friends has made me appreciate our support for one another much more. Coming home to my parents for a prolonged period reminded me of how much they really mean to me. Backpacking through the Balkans and Southeast Asia showed me the excitement I derive from learning about people, history and the world firsthand. And spending thousands of miles on the road with my dad taught me to not sweat the little things — and that sometimes the people are more important than the plan.

As of March, I’ve now wrapped up an internship in New York City at the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and I’m preparing to head home to Ohio again. This has been the most meaningful professional opportunity I’ve had so far, and it’s mostly thanks to the kindness and recommendation of a prominent Exeter alum, John Negroponte ’56. A lifelong statesman, Mr. Negroponte has served as the U.S. deputy secretary of state, the first director of national intelligence, and ambassador to Iraq, the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, and the United Nations.

I wrote to Ambassador Negroponte after seeing his features in the documentary on Richard Holbrooke (also “The Vietnam War” on PBS), and learning from my dad that he is an alum of both Exeter and Yale, where my brother Victor is now a senior. To my shock, he immediately wrote back. And now, as the Simon & Garfunkel song goes about the boy in New York, “Here I am...”

Where I had many interests but no sincere direction by graduation, this year I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to a career in international relations and journalism. In my senior spring, I realized that a more concrete academic direction is something I wish I had found while at Exeter. I took a hodgepodge of classes and clubs, and I enjoyed almost all of them — so to have now found a field I am constantly excited by is a real blessing of this gap year.

In my time off, I have also been lucky to meet Dr. Chester E. Finn, Jr., whose family is behind the scholarship that sponsors an Ohio student — including me, and now my younger brother, Jack  —  to attend Phillips Exeter. Without this opportunity, I would have missed out on a wealth of experiences and friendships, so I am grateful to them.

Bliss, Brandon and Kofi (l to r) in Belgrade, Serbia

College bound, with direction

With my new intent on international affairs, I decided to reapply to Yale in November, whose undergraduate Global Affairs program is excellent. I had been waitlisted my senior year in the regular round of admissions. On decision day this time around, Joel and I were on the road in Hue, Vietnam, and I found out I had been admitted! The next day we learned that Joel — who had reapplied to Harvey Mudd after also being waitlisted last year — had gotten in as well.

This break from school has allowed me to do a good deal of things. And in turn, a good deal of things have come back to me. I think Kofi, whom I will join at Yale this fall, put it best: “Don’t sleep on the gap year.”