Dec 22nd, 2020, 10:20 PM

Gap Semesters in the Midst of a Pandemic

By Presleigh Lauren Murray
New paths. Image Credit: Unsplash/Maria Teneva
Students are discovering new paths to take in response to the disruption caused by the coronavirus.

COVID-19 came to the forefront of world news in late January 2020, and practically overnight, many university students had to adjust to an entirely new system of learning. With the remote fall 2019 semester coming to a close and the spring 2020 semester on the horizon, they were faced with the decision of whether to continue their formal education or pause it while the pandemic played out.

Statistics show that many students chose the latter, putting their formal education on hold to pursue new endeavors. "Normally, we see close to 40,000 [students taking a gap semester]," stated the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit organization that focuses on gap year advice and keeps a record of the number of students who take a gap semester. "[We've] seen data that says we might expect 400,000 youth taking a gap semester this year." At AUP, the admissions office confirmed that the amount of new students in fall 2020 who requested to defer for a semester has almost doubled compared with fall 2019.

What, then, are the driving factors that are causing more and more students to opt for a gap semester during the COVID-19 pandemic?

"I don't feel like it is worth the money at all to be studying online," says Linus Larsson, a senior at AUP majoring in Psychology. "Remote learning is simply not as engaging. Listening to someone through a computer screen with your microphone muted is a much different environment than being in the same room with other students and professors." 

Larsson's experience is not unique. "I feel that online learning is nothing compared to physical learning," student Isabella Sandoval told Education Week. "With physical learning, I can talk to my teachers one on one and visually see and interact with them. Whereas online, when I have a question, I either have to email or text my teachers, sometimes they don't see my message and/or take forever to respond."  

Other students have responded that the excessive amount of screen time, the lack of a proper working environment, the inability to exchange ideas with other students and the absence of real pen to paper learning have contributed to a poor remote education experience. Perhaps the distance that online classes create between student and teacher, between student and fellow student and between student and physical learning materials has contributed to more students opting to take a gap semester during this uncertain time. 

Online learning. Image Credit: Unsplash/Glenn-Carstens-Peters

Gap semesters often have a stigma of negatively affecting one's future academic success or even making it less likely that a student will return to his or her studies altogether. "Students who choose to take such a path [a gap semester] are often seen as less academically rigorous and less mature," student journalist Kitty Luo stated in The Chronicle. "Additionally, because gap years are often expensive, critics accuse them of being elitist and only possible for students who are financially privileged."  

However, according to the Gap Year Association, researchers found that "taking a gap year had a significant positive impact on students' academic performance in college." Further, they assert, "taking a structured gap year invariably serves to develop the individual into a more focused student with a better sense of purpose and engagement in the world." 

Larsson's experience aligns quite closely with what the Gap Year Associations suggests. "I really enjoyed taking a semester off as it provided me with great insights. For me, taking a break during COVID-19 might have been more beneficial than in 'normal' times." He continued, "I feel as if some people are afraid to take a gap semester as if they are wasting time or wouldn't be able to catch up with the rhythm when they get back. Oh! But on the contrary! I read more books during my break than in school. I learned more about life during this break than in school. So what rhythm are we talking about? I think if a student just keeps showing up because of pressure from whatever source, a break could change all of that! Creativity and motivation are peculiar forces to be found subjectively. So there needs to be a new discourse surrounding the validity of gap semesters." 

Gap semesters can be used productively for an array of different endeavors. There are countless valid and worthwhile reasons to pursue a gap semester: discovering what truly matters to you, considering a new direction to take, forming new friendships, learning crucial life skills, finding your creative side, enhancing your imagination and getting in touch with your deeper self are just a few of many.

It is okay to feel a bit lost, to not know exactly what direction to pursue. Just putting one foot in front of the other is better than going in no direction at all. Step away from the belief that there is only one path to go down. Formal education is not the only form of education, and ultimately it will always be there if and when you are ready to go back to it. Finding your true self and your deeper purpose will lead you to seek opportunities that are more closely aligned to you, rather than other people's beliefs of what you "should" do. If you feel life is throwing ten million things your way and are becoming defeated and tired, know that there is always another road to take, another endeavor to behold. Do not put limits on your one wild and precious life. As Mary Oliver underlines in her poem entitled "The Summer Day," our time here is too short: 

A summer day. Image Credit: Presleigh Lauren Murray

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?