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 “problem child” who was often restless, combative and rebellious.
“In Cupertino, it made me feel like a sore thumb because I was surrounded by a bunch of really good kids,” she said, adding that while she enjoyed learning and doing well academically, she didn’t like the structure of the traditional didn’t like school. “I felt very much in a bubble, and I really wanted to get out and see the world.”
After graduating from high school through concurrent enrollment at a community college, she continued to take 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 age 19, Mattinger signed up for the Back Country Trails program. For five months she lived and worked off-the-grid in harsh conditions in the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park, where she built hiking trails. She intended to use the time to clear her head before returning to school, but towards the end of the program she decided to change course.
“Then I thought, ‘I think I want to continue!’ she recalled. “And that became 10 years of globetrotting and doing a lot of different things.”
Mattinger said a whirlwind of experiences across the country and the world gave her greater perspective and purpose and better prepared her for a formal college experience and the rigors of Stanford. “I’m very happy with the way I spent the early part of my adulthood,” she said. “I really needed the whole 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 brought her to rural northwest China to train under a Shaolin monk. 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 intense training of 40 hours per week.
“I would go for a few months at a time and when I was done, all my joints fell apart,” she said.
Her love of martial arts also brought her to Thailand to learn Muay Thai. In 2018, she joined a gym and towards the end of her first week, the head coach and owner of the gym asked if she wanted to join a paid fight. Mattinger agreed and they ramped up her 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 ride from Key West, Florida, to Bar Harbor, Maine, in 2015. She said the experience was one of the best things she’s ever done with her life because of the physical challenge, long stretches of solitude, and some harrowing moments, such as getting lost and even being hit by a car.
“Putting myself through those moments really made me feel more confident in myself and gave me a sense of competence and stability,” she said.
Throughout her 20s, Mattinger held several seasonal jobs to pay for her travels, including working as a farmhand and ski instructor at resorts in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain. She also worked as a freelance writer and model for minor artists and designers. But it was her years when she worked at Burning Man – the annual week-long art event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada – where she learned to play with fire.
In 2012, Mattinger landed a gig as a golf cart mechanic at Burning Man. There, she also joined a team building a full-scale replica of a Spanish galleon ship that had crashed into a pier. The event was an experience she will never forget, due to the artwork and unique social dynamics.
“Burning Man offers a strange alternative context,” she said. “Everyone is confronted with the physical reality of being literally ‘out of our element’ in alkaline soil, often in extreme dust and heat. Many social pretensions and niceties disappear in that environment, and people are often forced to try different ways of presenting and being themselves.”
In the following years, she returned to Burning Man to join teams that built large art installations, which allowed her to learn carpentry and pyrotechnics. In 2013, she piloted propane “poofers” that fired 30-foot fireballs from the top of The Control Tower, a six-story bamboo structure covered in interactive LED lighting.
For the 2014 event, she spent six months building an installation called Embrace, a seven-story building shaped like the torsos of two hugging people. “Inside were mechanically beating hearts and spiral staircases to the heads, where you could see out of the eye sockets,” she said. “It was the tallest thing there was that year.”
Mattinger’s travels continued, including to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where she attended regional ‘burns’ inspired by Burning Man.
She noted that her gap decade was a contemplative experience that gave her time to reflect on various social, economic, environmental and technological challenges.
“All industries, and solving most problems, are getting more and more entangled in computer science and engineering. Computers in particular will have more and more power and reach when it comes to making things better or worse than anything,” she said, adding that her intellectual curiosity has rekindled 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 canceled, so I thought, ‘Well, there’s no better time than now!'”
become a cardinal
In 2020, Mattinger returned to California and enrolled at De Anza College to take online classes – primarily STEM courses. It was also the first time she ever signed a lease.
“Being homely felt like a novelty, but I was surprised by how easily I adapted,” she said. “It helped that I was really interested in what I was studying. It felt really satisfying.”
She applied to several schools, but said that participating in the Research experience in the aerospace community strengthened her interest in Stanford. Since enrolling this fall, she also enjoys the nostalgia of her presence 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 plans to study computer science and artificial intelligence.
Mattinger said there’s a lot more she’d like to experience, 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 it feels good,” she said. “I have a purpose and I really want to be here.”
When asked where she sees herself in ten years, she says she doesn’t believe in making long-term plans.
“If you live life the right way, you’ll know more in two, five, or 10 years, you’ll have a greater perspective, and you can make better decisions about what to do next,” she said. “Right now I’m just excited to be here.”
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