By Kyle LaBossiere
For the students weighing the pros and cons of a digital college experience, COVID-19 has created the perfect opportunity to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Helena Zhao, a rising senior studying economics at New York University, didn’t expect that she would be taking the 2020-2021 academic year off. She’s an ambitious 4.0 GPA student, an officer in the student council and an executive board member of an entrepreneurship club at the university. She felt like she was on top of the world.
Then COVID-19 happened. Classes went online, people left New York City in droves and there’s no end to the pandemic in the near future. Suddenly Zhao’s plan for the academic year was no longer what she’d hoped it would be and she decided to sit this one out.
One of the main reasons I didn’t want to go back to school this year,” Zhao says, “was because New York City isn’t the city that it was before the pandemic. I went to NYU because it’s one of the best places to network in the world. But millions have left and so many companies are still doing remote work. If I can’t bump elbows with the people that I need to, then there’s no reason for me to be here.”
With the majority of New York City shut down and campuses closed across the nation, Zhao, an aspiring venture capitalist who is heavily involved in the city’s startup community, taking time off from her degree is the last thing she wanted to do.
Zhao is not alone. Twenty-two percent of college students across all four years say they’re not attending school this fall, according to a recent College Reaction and Axios poll. Additionally, a study done by the consulting firm Art and Science Group shows that nearly one in six high school seniors say the coronavirus has changed their education plans, and of those, 35% plan to take a gap year.
COVID-19 has knocked the world for a loop. When news of the pandemic first broke, universities around the country were struggling to enact safety protocols when dorms and campuses were still full of students. Students were eventually sent home and classes were moved online.
College tuition prices are rapidly rising across America; according to the nonprofit College Board, they are barreling past an approximate $35,000 per academic year for a private institution. For many, it’s hard to justify paying full-price tuition in exchange for a digital experience.
It is now more important than ever to deliberate why you’re going to college and what you want to get out of the experience, and for some, waiting until campuses are brimming with life again is worth the wait. Taking some time off could prove to be one of the most beneficial decisions a college student can make; potentially even shortening the amount of time it takes to complete school and gaining a stronger sense of self.
“Gap years are now part of the dialogue due to the discourse of the country,” says Abby Brody, founder of Mind the Gap, a program that helps students make the most of a gap year. “In the United States, less than 1% of students take a gap year. But we’ve hit the pause button and are in a state of reflection as a country. College is about the experience, and it may not be worth the price tag when you’re learning distantly.”
While backpacking the world on a quest to discover who you are might not be a viable option for a 2020/2021 gap year, there are still plenty of available options that one could pursue. Students have cited doing work as pollsters during the election or interning on a political campaign, some have volunteered at COVID-19 testing centers around the country and others have given their time to get involved with the Black Lives Matter movement through nonprofits and community organizations. “We are in a pandemic, a fight for racial justice and an election,” says Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s an extraordinary and troubling moment in history. The opportunity to do meaningfully engaging work is remarkable.”
There are other ways to take a gap year too. As long as a gap year is done with intention and not out of desperation or fear, then it is almost always viewed as a positive experience says Kelly Rawlings, a journalist for SmartCollegeVisit.com. Other productive ways to take time off include landing a remote work job; LinkedIn is teaming with Smart College Visit.
Even though COVID has limited mobility for many, it’s still possible to learn valuable skills from home. Taking time to try your hand at coding, photography and social media marketing could be a good way to discover things that you like— or things that you don’t. This could open up a new pathway that you’ve never thought of before and could point you in the right direction when it comes to picking a college major or knowing which ones to avoid. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average student will change majors three times during the course of their college career. Taking a gap year to find something you might enjoy could shorten the length of time it takes to get your degree by eliminating classes rendered obsolete by changing your major.
The National Outdoor Leadership School’s website states that it is “a pioneer of adventure leadership education in the US, and their Semester in the Rockies is a great opportunity for students looking to pursue adventure and build experience and leadership skills while going through their gap year in the United States. From canoeing rivers and navigating canyons to learning first aid, this program will give you a truly one-of-a-kind outdoor experience.” For other life-changing experiences within America, some students have hiked the Appalachian Trail or moved to Colorado to be a ski bum for a winter. Whatever the reason or route, they all have something in common. A gap year will give future students real-world experiences and accelerate personal growth, something which there are no alternatives for.
Taking some time to step back and analyze the things that make you happy will be the most important decision you can make for your future, but if you don’t take that time to breathe, there’s a good chance that you could find yourself suffocating in a career you don’t even like in the future. College can always be revisited, but you can’t hit rewind on your student loans or time lost studying something you’re not even sure you like. This pandemic has created the perfect opportunity for many to pursue taking time off to grow and learn about themselves.