An Epic 'Decade Gap' - Stanford Report

An Epic ‘Decade Gap’ – Stanford Report

Growing up in suburban Silicon Valley, Anna Mattinger felt like an outlier. She said she was a “problem child” who was often restless, belligerent and rebellious.

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

“In Cupertino it made me stick out like a sore thumb because I was surrounded by a group of really good kids,” she said, adding that although she loved to learn and did well in school , she did not like the structure of the traditional school. . “I really felt like I was in a bubble and really wanted to get out and see the world.”

After graduating from high school through concurrent enrollment 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 that’s where I left.”

At 19, Mattinger enrolled in the Back Country Trails program. For five months, she lived and worked off the grid in 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 when the program ended, she decided to change course.

“After that, I was like, ‘I think I want to continue!’ “, she recalls. “And it turned into 10 years of globetrotting and doing a bunch of different things.

Mattinger said a whirlwind of experiences across the country and around the world gave her greater perspective and purpose and better prepared her for a formal college experience and the rigors of Stanford. “I’m really happy with how I experienced the first part of my adulthood,” she said. “I really needed the whole decade away 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 brought her to the countryside of northwest China to train with a Shaolin monk. His school, located in a cornfield between the Siberian and North Korean borders, accommodates about 10 students at a time. During each of the three visits, Mattinger underwent intensive training of 40 hours per week.

Mattinger training under a Shaolin monk in China. (Image credit: Courtesy of Anna Mattinger)

“I would go for a few months at a time and when I was done all my joints would collapse,” she said.

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

“I lost that first fight, but I think I learned more from the loss than from a win,” 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 the one of the best things she’s ever done in her life because of the physical challenge, long periods of loneliness and heartbreaking moments, like getting lost and even getting hit by a car.

“Going through those times really boosted my self-confidence and my sense of competence and stability,” she said.

Throughout her 20s, Mattinger held various seasonal jobs to pay for her travels, including working as a farm laborer 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 – the annual week-long arts event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada – where she learned to play with fire.

burning man

In 2012, Mattinger landed a job as a golf cart mechanic at Burning Man. There she also joined a team that built a life-size replica of a crashed Spanish galleon on a pier. The event was an experience she never forgot, due to the unique artwork and social dynamics.

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

“Burning Man provides a weird alternate context,” she said. “Everyone faces the bodily realities of literally being ‘out of their element’ in an alkaline lake bed, often in extreme dust and heat. A lot of societal assumptions and intricacies disappear in this environment, and people are often forced to try different ways of presenting themselves and being themselves.

She returned to Burning Man in the following years to join construction crews for large art installations, which allowed her to learn carpentry and pyrotechnics. In 2013, she installed propane “poofers” that fired 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 build an installation called Embrace, a seven-story structure shaped like the torso of two people hugging each other. “Inside were mechanical beating hearts and spiral staircases leading up to the heads, from which you could peer through the eye sockets,” she said. “It was the highest thing there that year.”

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

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

“All industries, and the solving of most problems, are increasingly tied to IT and engineering. Computer science, in particular, will have more and more power and reach when it comes to making things better or worse than anything else,” she said, adding that her intellectual curiosities had rekindled his interest in academics. “I had toyed with the idea of ​​possibly going back to school, then the pandemic hit and my life was canceled, so I thought, ‘Well, there’s no better time than now! ‘”

Become cardinal

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

“Being a domestic seemed like a new thing, but I was surprised how easily I adapted,” she said. “It helped me to really be into what I was studying. It was really rewarding.

She applied to several schools, but said her participation in the community research experience in aeronautics and astronautics boosted her interest in Stanford. Since enrolling this fall, she has also enjoyed the nostalgia of being on the farm; she spent much of her childhood here while her father was a graduate student at Stanford. Although she has not declared a major, she intends to study computer science and artificial intelligence.

Mattinger said there’s still a lot more she’d like to find out, but she’s happy to be a student again and can’t wait to see what Stanford has to offer. “I’m glad I waited to go back to school because now I’m fine with it,” she says. “I have a goal and I really want to be here.”

When asked where she sees herself in ten years, she said she doesn’t believe in long-term plans.

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

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