A valedictorian, a decision, and the trip of a lifetime

Norwin’s very own Lily Jarosz graduated just last year as the top student in her class. Now, she’s taking some time off to honor her heritage and explore a different road.


Lily Jarosz

Despite only living in Puerto Rico for a few months, Jarosz (left) has already made several friends.

Most high school students don’t have a lot in common, but one thing that they all share is the pressure of post-secondary options and beyond. As 18 year-olds, they are expected to know what they will be doing for the rest of their life before it even begins. For someone like Lily Jarosz, the stress is even higher. Norwin’s class of 2021 valedictorian is someone who has heard all about college since she entered high school; her academic excellence ensured that. Instead of doing what everyone expected, though, she decided to take a less traditional route. As of now, she is living on her own in Puerto Rico, honoring her heritage and taking the concept of a “gap year” to a whole new level.

Q: What exactly are you doing in Puerto Rico? What does a day look like for you?

A: To be honest, I am simply just living my life in Puerto Rico. This experience is really all about just learning how to live on my own and learning about the rich culture here and just learning new things about myself so I didn’t really want to have this super strong plan in which I was going to do this and this and this. I wanted to embrace spontaneity and that is what I am doing. With that being said though, I remain very busy. A typical day for me includes waking up, typically early to escape the heat (it’s always 90 degrees around here), going to the gym, making myself breakfast and then starting my day. I typically work around 6 hours a day and then at night I might hang out with some friends at bars or just chill back at my house with my roommates. On my days off, I typically like to go exploring. Sometimes we go to the beach, sometimes we spend time in Old San Juan looking at the old colonial architecture and sometimes we venture out. Some of my friends have cars so occasionally we venture outside of San Juan. 


Q: Why did you decide to go to Puerto Rico instead of pursuing a more common immediate post-secondary route, like college, trade school, etc?

El Morro y El Castillo en Viejo San Juan, built in 1521.

A: There were two main reasons why I decided to take a gap year. Number one was because of Covid. Although Covid was definitely subsiding by the time I left, there was no doubt that there were still restrictions and that there could potentially be an upsurge once people returned to college. I did not want to pay a large sum of money to be cut short with online classes. Number two was that I have always wanted to travel, especially come to Puerto Rico. I am Puerto Rican but my family had never been super in touch with the culture or the language or the heritage. I always felt like there was a part of me that was missing because of that and thus decided to come and explore that myself. Additionally, now was also an easy time to be able to take a year off and venture. I don’t really have anything tying me down at the moment (like a job or schooling) so I was able to just put my life on hold for a minute and do what I wanted to do.


Q: When did you decide to make this move?

A: The thought of taking time off was always one that lingered in the back of my mind, but I officially made the decision in April of 2020. I applied to some colleges but couldn’t really see myself there yet and thus, I decided to take a gap year. 


Q: Where are you living in Puerto Rico? What’s the area like?

A: I live in a part of San Juan in Puerto Rico called Santurce. San Juan is the urbanized part of Puerto Rico so I live in a city. I love living in Santurce because it is really deeply authentic Puerto 
Rico. Surrounding Santurce are areas like Condado and Miramar that are extremely touristy, but Santurce is full of locals and natives. This allows me to live a more immersive experience. When it comes to the place that I actually live, I am actually working in a hostel so that I have a place to stay. I work about 16 hours per week in the hostel and in exchange receive a room, a bed, a bathroom, laundry, a kitchen, pretty much everything I need other than food. I do share my room with other people, so privacy is a rare thing to come by, but I love it. Living in a hostel is interesting because you are always meeting people from all around the world that speak different languages and bring their culture to the table. I have only been here for a month and have met people from Romania and Germany and El Salvador and Russia. 


Q: Have you found support from the people around you? What are some of their impressions of your decision?

A: The reaction to my decision to take a gap year has definitely been mixed to say the least. My immediate family, including my mother, my brother, and my father, were very supportive. In addition to that, most of my Puerto Rican relatives were also very supportive. They appreciated that I was going back to reconnect with my heritage. Some of my other family members, however, were more taken aback and less enthusiastic. Some feared that I was never going to return to college or that I was going down some “bad path.” For the most part, though, people have come around. Since I have been living here for a month a lot of people have reached out to me and told me that they admire my decision because it is not as mainstream. 

Casa Santurce, the hostel where Jarosz lives.

Q: Do you have any plans to come back? What are your long term plans for this situation?

A: I am not sure at the moment. I am definitely going to return to college by next fall but I am not sure where yet. At the moment, I am just keeping my options open. I am applying to colleges currently both within the contiguous United States, within Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. I will see what happens when I receive those admissions decisions in the spring and make my decision from there. 


Q: What happens if something goes wrong? Do you feel well-prepared for the challenges life could throw at you, or do you have some worries?

A: Living here for a month, things have already gone wrong. I’ve gotten lost in the city, had to deal with aggressive strangers, and most glaringly cut off a piece of my thumb. With that being said, I feel that I am prepared to deal with the challenges that are thrown at me. I have always been an independent person, so maybe that helps, but I feel like as long as I just take a step back, assess the situation, and then take things one step at a time, I can pretty much solve any problem that comes at me. I also embrace the problems because they always provide a rich learning experience. Additionally, I already have a strong support system down here of friends that are there to assist me along every step of the road. 


Q: Do you still keep in touch with old friends? Given how far away you are from them, do you find yourself missing them?

Yes, I actually just made a post about how much I miss my friends. Luckily we live in the 21st century though, so I also do keep in close contact with most of them. I find myself texting old friends at least once a day and, since I am coming back for Christmas for two weeks, look forward to reuniting with them once again. 

Colonial architecture in Old San Juan.

Q: How does your life now compare to how it was back at Norwin? Do you feel you’re living a better or worse life? Why?

A: My life from Norwin is just different. I wouldn’t call it better or worse but just different. There are pros and cons to both sides. Although I was definitely living a more comfortable life in Norwin with all my needs taken care of and essentially free of worry, I sacrificed some of that comfortability to gain a lot of other things. One of those things includes living a rich cultured life. Because America is so diverse and full of people that practice their own culture, I find that the American people are devoid of a culture as a collective. Puerto Rico isn’t like that. Puerto Rico’s culture is so alive and rich that I can go without some of that comfortability if I get to experience that. The same goes for the other beautiful aspects of Puerto Rico like the beaches and architecture and the people. 


Q: Is Puerto Rico life everything you dreamed it would be? Do you have any regrets?

A: Honestly, life in Puerto Rico is better than I imagined it to be. I enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city and the rich Latin culture that I mentioned before. My only real regret is that I wasn’t more in touch with my culture and my heritage sooner. 

“There are tons of beaches like this all over the island,” said Jarosz.


To hear more about Lily’s time in Puerto Rico, be sure to listen to her episode on The To-Knight Show!