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Ava’s Gap Year Story

Hello! I’m Ava, Capstone’s new intern. I’ll be taking over for Ellie as she leaves for her college adventures. Like Ellie, I graduated from high school in May, but whereas she chose to start college this fall, I ended up going in a different direction. After a lot of deliberation and hair-pulling before my college’s May 15th enrollment deferral deadline, I decided to take a gap year. Because of COVID-19, and all the ways in which it’s affecting schools across the country, I thought that the prospect of starting college this year was iffy at best, and maybe not worth the stress that I was sure would come with so much disruption.

Now that most colleges and universities have detailed their plans for the upcoming school year, whether they involve only online learning or a hybrid model including in-person instruction, record numbers of students are choosing to take a gap year before enrolling. (Many students with August deferral deadlines are making that decision right now). According to an article in Forbes, 20% of Harvard's freshman class, or 340 students, have deferred their enrollment in order to join the class of 2025. Given that so many students have decided to take a gap year this year, I thought it might be helpful if I explained in detail my own decision to delay my college enrollment.

When I was weighing the pros and cons of waiting a year in between high school and college, there were a few key factors that convinced me to take this step:

Limited Information

For me, choosing to take a gap year was based both on the uncertainty I felt regarding starting college amid a pandemic and my concerns about what the academic year would look like. (I spoke about this when Ellie interviewed me for her “First Year Voices #1” and “First Year Voices #4” blog posts). At the same time, though, I was so excited to go to college and wary about taking a year off when I didn’t have any concrete plans for how I would spend it.

Moving across the country

I had to decide by the third week in May whether or not I was going to defer, and many colleges, my own included, did not release their plans for how they were going to proceed with the 2020-21 school year until later in the summer. However, given what seemed to be the nation’s overall trajectory and the not-very-flat COVID curve, I found it very unlikely that any in-person classes would be feasible, especially since I’m going to college in New York City, one of the earliest epicenters for the virus in this country.

As of June 25, 2020, New York State is requiring students and other travelers from any state with a high volume of cases (California, Florida, and Ohio, in particular) to quarantine in a dorm or hotel room for 14 days upon arrival. To me, the prospect of flying cross-country from one of the most populous states to another, then finding a place to quarantine for two weeks before starting school, seems very stressful because it involves so many moving parts. I wasn’t surprised by New York’s travel advisory, but I think that if I had been aware of it back in May, it would have made my gap-year decision much easier.

Moving across the country

Online learning is nowhere near the worst possible solution, and it was something my peers and I all had to adapt to when schools closed midway through March. And having to figure out how to best take classes on the computer is, of course, hugely preferable to getting sick from COVID-19 exposure. But my experience taking an AP class and a community college course online this spring led me to conclude that I don't learn well remotely. I have a difficult time getting used to classes when I don’t have someone physically “there” to explain concepts or show me how to do certain problems, and I value being able to ask questions in real time.

On a more personal level, I felt as though I’d been looking forward to college for my entire life. The idea of not being able to spend my first year living with a roommate, getting to know new people and taking fascinating courses with them—essentially, not having the slightly romanticized vision of college that I had always dreamed of—was crushing. However, many of my friends from high school who chose not to defer, or whose colleges did not allow them to do so, felt that starting college and earning credits, even if they had to do it from home, outweighed the sense of loss from not having a traditional first-year experience.

I never really considered taking a gap year when I was in high school, although I was always interested to hear about people who did and how they spent their time. Since deciding to defer myself, I feel like everything I’ve seen in both global news and news from my college has confirmed that a gap year was the best choice for me. I am very grateful to be going to a school that is relatively generous when it comes to allowing students to take gap years; I know that there are many students who would have preferred to take time off this year before starting or continuing college, but who are not able to do so.

One major concern I had going into the gap year was the fact that I didn’t have any sort of plan for the next 12 to 15 months. In previous years, students often took gap years in order to travel or volunteer abroad. Very few of these opportunities are possible now, not only because of the pandemic, but also because many gap year programs that involve traveling are available only to students who can afford them. So I’ve spent the summer researching low-cost options for getting involved this year.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways in which students can do something rewarding, productive, and inexpensive, especially this year as so many programs and organizations have started operating primarily online. This year, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work for Capstone. I’m also hoping to volunteer remotely with Reading Partners, the organization where I started interning in February of this year, before the program quickly terminated when all the elementary schools in which it operates closed down. Aside from that, I’m planning to do some creative writing and other less structured activities, while at least hoping to gain some of the flashes of inspiration or shifts in perspective that I’ve heard about people having during their gap years. After all, I’ve read many accounts that cited great increases in maturity and confidence as benefits to taking a gap year, even before the pandemic made it an appealing choice to so many students.

Given the unprecedented challenges and new factors that are already shaping this academic year, I think a gap year is a worthwhile thing for students and their families to consider as they make plans for starting college during COVID-19. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, of course, and every option that colleges have adopted so far for this fall, from online instruction to online and in-person hybrids, has its own benefits. However, I’m looking forward to taking a step back in between high school and college to continue to adapt to these surprising times, gain experience working, and prepare myself for the next part of my life—even if, a year from now, that involves a version of college different from what most people have experienced before.

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