Taking A Different Road: Clara Shapiro Reflects On Her Gap Year

Clara Shapiro, a Stuyvesant '22 alum and current Comparative Literature major at Harvard, reflects on her unique gap year experience, combining work in hospitality, Italian language studies, and international travel, emphasizing personal growth and a diverse approach to learning that extends beyond the traditional classroom setting.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Clara Shapiro

Name: Clara Shapiro 

Age: 19 

Date of Birth: 2004 

Graduation Year: 2022

College: Harvard University 

Major: Comparative Literature

Advice: “There is a life beyond Stuyvesant and it will be a life of your choosing… never despair.” —Clara Shapiro

Creative community icon Clara Shapiro (‘22) left her mark at Stuyvesant as a Features editor for The Spectator, an Editor-in-Chief for The Caliper, and a beloved cast member of the Stuyvesant Theater Community. Unlike most Stuyvesant alums, Shapiro took a gap year before starting college at Harvard University where she is now continuing her passion for literature and love for learning.

Shapiro’s time at Stuyvesant was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning. The return to in-person learning was particularly difficult not only academically but also socially. “I felt very emotional a lot of the time because I had gotten out of practice with saying hello to people, inquiring how they were - you know, the standard repertoire of human conversation,” Shapiro recalled. Still, she looks back at her high school experience fondly. “I missed the people of Stuyvesant, and I think that you don’t realize until you leave. They are a unique breed of very intelligent [and] kind people,” Shapiro reminisced. 

But like many of us, Shapiro still recalls the stressful and exhausting trademarks of the Stuyvesant experience. “I don’t miss the aching backaches. The aching backpack. The aching pain in my heart as I [contemplated] my yet another failed math test,” Shapiro lamented. “Sometimes I wonder if Stuyvesant likes to knock people out with a lot of homework so that they don’t sleep so that then they have amnesia, so they can’t remember just how much of a struggle it was. I think that’s like what I did. It’s like giving birth—you kind of forget the pain afterward.” 

 While most students matriculate straight to college as a freshman after graduating high school, Shapiro took a different path when she decided to take a gap year before going to college. She can’t exactly recall why she took a gap year, but it was mainly because she didn’t feel ready to go to college at that time. During her gap year, Shapiro spent time with her grandparents in western Massachusetts and worked two jobs as a food runner and waiter at the Four Brother’s Pizza Inn and the Red Lion. Though challenging, this experience has taught Shapiro many valuable lessons. “I dropped a burger on a man, [which was] a great misfortune,” Shapiro recalled. “What I realized was, because I hadn’t worked in high school or any time before other than scattered lemonade stands, it is very hard to make a killing, much less make a living.”

Shapiro’s gap year then took a turn from working in hospitality when she traveled to Italy and studied Italian at the University for Foreigners of Perugia for three months. “I had been studying Italian since the pandemic because I enjoyed opera. And then suddenly I decided to go on Duolingo [and] you know, things took off from there,” Shapiro said. The most rewarding part of her time in Italy, Shapiro emphasized, was the unforgettable memories and experiences with people she otherwise would have never met. “I made a few acquaintances from Italy and from other parts of the world. And I got to stay with the host family, which was a really special experience, and I’ve stayed in contact with them,” she said.

Now, Shapiro is studying Comparative Literature at Harvard, where she is fusing her interests in Italian, Yiddish, and English literature. At Harvard, she has carried over her creative interests by joining the Harvard International Folk Dance Club, The Harvard Crimson, and even an improv troupe.

Due to the gap year, Shapiro is part of Harvard’s class of 2027 cohort and a year older than most of her peers, which was a shock at first. “I’m already kind of ancient. I’ve always known this about myself. I realized that of course I felt old [...], but now I actually am legitimately older than other people in college,” she said. However, this does not diminish her gap year experience and Shapiro does not have any regrets. “Taking a gap year is not for everybody—for one reason or another—but it can be if you do something that you really are curious about doing,” Shapiro added.

No matter where she is, Shapiro wants to continue quenching her thirst for knowledge rooted in a genuine curiosity for the world. “I’d like to continue with learning things, but not necessarily in the classroom. I like to teach or write about the world and [learn about] different people ultimately,” she stated. Though she may not be quite sure what her future after Harvard would look like exactly, she is certain that it would involve seeking experiences that expand her worldview.


Why did you decide to take a gap year? 

“I actually can’t remember, [but] I think it was just that I felt unready for college. I knew I was an immature bastard [and] I needed some time.” 

Would you recommend taking a gap year for others? 

“Taking a gap year is definitely not for everyone, but if you do something that you are genuinely curious about during that time, then it’s a good chance to grow. It helps you grow in a way that school doesn’t teach you, because in school you run on a schedule, but in a gap year you become your own boss.” 

What is your college experience like so far? Any notable clubs and/ or classes? 

“Pretty fun! I like the freedom of being able to choose what I actually want to study. I’m taking classes in Yiddish, Buddhism, and English—it’s very exciting. I’ve joined The Harvard Crimson [the school newspaper], the Harvard International Folk Dance Club, and I’m also a part of the improv troupe.”  

How did you carry over your high school experience, and what do you think your future beyond college looks like? 

“Despite messing up my sleep schedule, Stuyvesant has enhanced the life that remains, and I miss the people I met there. I’m glad to be free, but I’m glad to have done it. I would like to continue learning things, but not necessarily just in the classroom. You know, there are many ways of learning things. I like to teach or write about the world, [and meet] different people ultimately.”