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First Year Voices #3

The gap year during COVID-19: Part I

Now that we’ve talked to students about getting ready to enter college in the fall, it’s time to highlight an increasingly popular alternative path: taking a gap year. In a two-part series, we are sharing students’ hopes and concerns about deferring college enrollment. In this first post, we also include expert advice on the topic from Jason Sarouhan, a gap year counselor and co-founder of J2 Guides.

A gap year is “A semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one's practical, professional, and personal awareness,” according to the Gap Year Association.

Students share their concerns about gap years

Gap years can be valuable opportunities for personal growth, but they aren’t for everyone. While some students may have chosen to defer their enrollment, others are waiting for their colleges to announce their plans for the 2020-2021 year before they decide.

We asked several 2020 high school graduates if they’ve considered deferring their enrollment. A few decided to take gap years and we will share their stories in the next post. For today, let’s hear from students who expressed some concern about starting college during the pandemic but decided to stay the course.

Some students hardly considered taking a gap year, including Lauren, an incoming University of Pittsburgh freshman. “I didn’t really think about it because I was kind of hoping that they were just going to open, which they are,” Lauren said. “I just thought that I don’t know what I’d really do in a gap year.”

Meanwhile, Gaby, who will start at Lehigh in the fall, “kind of considered it” but decided against it due to the constraints that COVID-19 would impose on her ideal gap year -- one of the most common concerns that the interviewees shared. “If I was to do a gap year, I would want to travel and volunteer in Europe, and that’s just not possible…. Even if it’s not a normal freshman year, I’d rather take classes towards college credit,” she reasoned. “Also, I think everyone’s in the same boat too, so I was just thinking, ‘oh, it won’t be too bad, it’s not just going to be me.’”

Like Gaby, Julia “slightly, not seriously” considered deferring her admission to Emory University. She has a few reasons for sticking to the Class of 2024, some more important than others. “There is how I want to spend my time, don’t want to be behind, and the very minor reason of the unpredictability of the market,” she summarized. Elaborating on her thinking, Julia said, “I know that this may not sound like a good reason, but I don’t like the idea of being behind. I know that everyone’s life goes at their own pace and there’s no such thing as on-time for life, but just my perspective of how I want to spend my time in the future is if I were to take a gap year I don’t know what I would do because we’re in a pandemic.”

Similarly, Brendan wants to stay with his new classmates rather than take a gap year. He considered deferring at first, but chose not to after USC announced its on-campus hybrid model. “There’s something about this incoming freshman class that I really like, and regardless of whether we’re online or not, I really want to be a part of this particular class,” he explained.

"What's your why?" J2Guides on gap years

I talked to Jason, who founded Gap Year Association-accredited J2Guides with his wife, Jane. “Jane and I established J2Guides to try and create an affordable service for students who are looking for that kind of guidance and mentorship,” Jason said. The two of them have experience from all sides of the gap year experience. “Both of us did take gap time as young adults, [and] both of us used to lead gap year programs,” he said. Right now, they “want to be very compassionate and sympathize with all of the students who are in this scenario.”

Jason confirmed a lot of what I’d heard from students about how COVID-19 has changed their thinking.  “There’s no doubt about it that there’s been an increase in the number of individuals who are considering this time, and particularly within the population of students who it was never on their radar to consider a gap year in the first place,” Jason said. “What we’ve seen is that students and their families in particular have been really concerned that college as they had predicted it, as they had daydreamed about it, is not going to happen in the way that they had hoped in the fall.”


“If you are thinking about a gap year then you are someone who is ready to question, to learn, and to grow. If along the way you are looking for compassionate, enthusiastic, experienced and authentic gap year mentors, J2Guides is the right place for you.”

He also shed light on how the gap year industry has been innovating. With COVID-19, “there’s quite a few folks outside of the typical gap year space that are now moving in, calling it a gap year experience, even colleges… so our space is really welcoming to that,” Jason observed. Meanwhile, given concerns about international travel, “many organizations that typically didn’t operate in the United States… have begun creating programming here in the United States,” which has “been very exciting to see” for J2Guides.

Jason emphasized that “there’s a bit of a misconception” about gap years—it’s not all exorbitant prices and “beautiful, glossy photos of people… in some amazing part of the world.” In reality, students can find accessible opportunities closer to home. “Some of it you may be able to draw some kind of a small stipend, other things will be cost-neutral for you, but there’s a lot that one can do locally. Beyond that, there’s a ton that’s happening now virtually,” Jason said. Need ideas? Students can “get involved with three or four or five different experiences” during the year like “doing COVID-19 tracing… [or] volunteering at local food pantries.”

Jason addressed a few other questions about deferring. Some students and families are concerned that they will lose their academic drive during a gap year, but according to Jason, that’s not usually the case. “I think people worry a lot that those [academic] skills are going to decline, and more what happens is just you start using a different facet of the learning and intelligence that you have,” he said.

As we heard from student interviews, others worry about being behind their classmates or upending their plans. Jason responded that graduating from high school “ends a chapter of a very big portion of your life that has been scripted for you” and “the pacing of your adult life no longer becomes entwined or contingent upon the pacing of all those people around you.” Accordingly, J2Guides encourages students to think through their motivations for life plans by asking, “What is your ‘why’?” Jason wants students to know that their “why” “doesn’t have to happen within the bounds of these arbitrary timelines.”

“Our education is never going to look the same as what it looked like before COVID-19,” Jason advised, “so it’s okay for you to structure your life in the way that feels authentic and right for you”—whether that means taking a gap year or not.

Stay tuned for Part II, where we spotlight students who decided to defer their enrollment to college and take a gap year.

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