Katherine Du is a 17-year-old who is on a gap year before starting Stanford University this fall. She grew up in London and Connecticut, and attended the private Greenwich Academy. She was recently named one of seven writing candidates for the 2017 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the arts and was a national gold medalist in the Scholastic Art & Writing awards, with her work published in “The Best Teen Writing of 2016,” an annual anthology by Scholastic Inc. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post and USA Today.
In this unusual post, Du writes about an unexpected topic she has faced during her gap year: mortality. It’s not a subject young people often consider, but she explains why it became a theme of her gap-year experience.
By Katherine Du
After I was admitted to Stanford University last spring, I decided to take a year off from school to work part time in some fields I might potentially pursue as a career, and to travel abroad to experience some of the world’s sociocultural kaleidoscope. Since I had skipped the fifth and 12th grades, I wasn’t in a hurry to start college.
Now I’m halfway through my gap year, and I’ve confronted something I hadn’t expected to contemplate for a long time: mortality.
A gap year can be advantageous to many incoming college freshmen. Without the pressure to study and make the most of school, students can explore interests with no strings attached, fostering creativity and independence. The free reins of a gap year also tone up the muscles of self-discipline and self-reflection, which allowed me to contemplate mortality as much as I have.
As I was about to begin my gap year, my grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her lungs swelled, she suffered from chronic constipation and, like a newborn, she could only eat oatmeal ground to mush. On one ride from her house, my father and I tried to deal with the news, joking about spitballs while spilling tears. At one point, he told me she was considering assisted suicide, and I was at once terrified and enraged by what seemed to me as the cruelty, even apathy, of the gods.
A short time later, I served as a volunteer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where I attended an organ donation presentation by Kenneth Moritsugu, former surgeon general of the United States. After his wife and daughter died in accidents several years apart, he donated their organs to save tens of dying strangers. Despite his devastation, he provided the tremendous gift of life.
That led me to think of one of the 2016 Connecticut state Senate candidates, a former investment banker. In 2015, this man’s wife succumbed to depression and took her own life. Her death triggered his exit from Wall Street and entry into the political sphere, where he hoped to effect meaningful social and economic change. Although he lost the election, I was moved by his attempt to do good despite his own tragedy.
A recent trip to Thailand brought the subject of death back up again. I arrived in Bangkok during the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday commemoration, a sea of free food and mourning clothes to celebrate and grieve the monarch who had reigned for 70 years. After speaking with numerous locals, I learned that the nation adored its king because he was a pioneer in educating Thailand’s most impoverished provinces. He taught his people how to grow jasmine rice and create artificial rain during droughts. In addition, he founded artisan schools to carve a path out of subsistence and commercial farming for peasant children.
Pondering mortality has also opened my eyes to the necessity of living meaningfully. During my gap year, I interned at the New York State Office of the Attorney General, where I met attorneys who have dedicated their careers to helping others. One assistant attorney general I met used her Ivy League education not to reap gold, but to pursue her passion for fighting consumer frauds and representing the downtrodden and grossly exploited. She could have easily made her salary many times over in the private sector, but she chose to fight the good fight. People like her inspire me to honor my privilege of higher education by imparting good to this world.
Miraculously, my grandmother was recently declared cancer-free. My joy was mixed with the realization that flesh is mortal. We are human because we feel, seek, lose and feel again. The cycle is beautiful because it is endlessly doomed. Today, my grandmother and I are drunk on life. We will live boldly, learn ceaselessly and love fearlessly in the years to come; the time we have is a gift, not a given.