An epic ‘gap decade’ – Stanford Report

An epic ‘gap decade’ – Stanford Report

An epic ‘gap decade’ – Stanford Report

Growing up in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, Anna Mattinger felt like an aberration. She said she was a “troubled child” who was often restless, belligerent and rebellious.

An epic ‘gap decade’ – Stanford Report

Anna Mattinger took a “gap decade” before enrolling at Stanford this fall. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“At Cupertino, it made me stand out like I was on fire because I was surrounded by a bunch of really good kids,” she said, adding that while she enjoyed learning and did well academically, she didn’t like the structure of a traditional school. “I felt very much in a bubble and I really wanted to get out and see the world.”

After graduating from high school by concurrently enrolling at a community college, she continued to attend classes, but eventually burned out. “I didn’t really know why I was there, what I was doing or what I was trying to prove,” she said. “And then I left.”

At 19, Mattinger signed up for the Back Country Trails program. For five months, she lived and worked off the grid under grueling conditions in the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park where she built hiking trails. She planned to use the time to clear her head before returning to school, but by the end of the program she had decided to change courses.

“After that, I was like, ‘I think I want to move on!’ “, she recalled. “And that turned into 10 years of traveling the world and doing a bunch of different things.”

Mattinger said the whirlwind of experiences around the country and the world gave her greater perspective and purpose and made her better prepared for the formal college experience and rigors of Stanford. “I’m really happy with the way I spent the early part of my adulthood,” she said. “It really took me a gap decade to get to where I am now.”


Mattinger’s travels have taken her to Europe, Africa, South America, Oceania and Asia. In 2017, her interest in martial arts took her to rural northwest China to train under Shaolin monks. His school, located in a cornfield between the Siberian and North Korean borders, accepts about 10 students at a time. During each of the three visits, Mattinger underwent intensive training of 40 hours a week.

Mattinger training with Shaolin monks in China. (Image credit: Courtesy of Anna Mattinger)

“I would go for a few months at a time and by the time I was done, all my joints were falling apart,” she said.

Her love for martial arts also took her to Thailand to learn Muay Thai. In 2018, she joined a gym and by the end of her first week, the head trainer and owner of the gym asked her if she would compete in a paid fight. Mattinger agreed and they stepped up her training.

“I lost that first fight, but I think I learned more from losing than I would from winning,” she said.

Mattinger said one of her most memorable experiences was her four-month solo bike trip from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine, in 2015. She said the experience was one of the best things she’s ever done in her life because of the physical challenge, long periods of solitude and some harrowing moments, like losing and even getting hit by a car.

“Living through those moments really increased my confidence in myself and my sense of competence and stability,” she said.

Throughout her 20s, Mattinger worked various seasonal jobs to pay for her travels, including as a farmer and ski instructor at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain resorts. She has also worked as a freelance writer and model for small artists and designers. But it was her years working at Burning Man—an annual week-long art event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada—where she learned to play with fire.

Burning Man

In 2012, Mattinger landed a gig as a golf mechanic at Burning Man. There she joined the team that made a replica of the Spanish galleon that crashed into the pier. The event was an experience she will never forget, because of the artwork and the unique social dynamic.

Mattinger Canoeing in Bergen, Norway. (Image credit: Courtesy of Anna Mattinger)

“Burning Man provides a strange alternative context,” she said. “Everyone faces the physical reality of being literally ‘out of our element’ in an alkaline lakebed, often in extreme dust and heat. A lot of social pretense and niceties disappear in that environment, and people are often forced to try out different ways of presenting and being.”

In subsequent years, she returned to Burning Man to join teams building large-scale art installations, which allowed her to learn carpentry and pyrotechnics. In 2013, she installed propane “buffers” that shot 30-foot fireballs from the top of the Control Tower, a six-story bamboo structure covered in interactive LED lights.

For the 2014 event, she spent six months helping to build an installation called Hug, a seven-story structure shaped like the torsos of two people embracing. “Inside were mechanical beating hearts and spiral staircases to the heads, from where you could look through the eye sockets,” she said. “It was the highest thing of the year.”

Mattinger’s travels continued, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where she attended regional Burning Man-inspired “burns”.

She noted that her gap decade was a contemplative experience that gave her time to consider various social, economic, environmental and technological challenges.

“All industries, like solving most problems, are becoming more and more involved in computing and engineering. In particular, computer science will have more power and reach when it comes to making it better — or worse — than anything else,” she said, adding that her intellectual curiosities reignited her interest in academics. “I was toying with the idea of ​​eventually going back to school, and then the pandemic hit and my life was cut short so I thought, ‘Well, there’s no better time than now!’

To become a cardinal

In 2020, Mattinger returned to California and enrolled at De Anza College to take classes online – mostly STEM courses. It was also the first time she signed a lease.

“Being local was new, but I was surprised how easily I adapted,” she said. “It helped that I really fell in love with what I was studying. It was really fulfilling.”

She applied to several schools, but said she participated in Research experience of the aeronautics and astronautics community cemented her interest in Stanford. Since enrolling this fall, she has also enjoyed the nostalgia of being at the Farm; she spent most of her childhood here while her father was a student at Stanford. Although she has not declared herself, she intends to study computer science and artificial intelligence.

Mattinger said there’s still a lot she’d like to experience, but she’s glad to be a student again and eager to see what Stanford has to offer. “I’m glad I waited to go back to school because I feel right now,” she said. “I have a purpose and I actually want to be here.”

When asked where she sees herself in ten years, she said that she does not believe in long-term plans.

“If you live right, then in two, five or ten years you will know more, have a greater perspective and be able to make better decisions about what to do next,” she said. “I’m excited to be here right now.”

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