It’s the end of the summer. School supplies are jumping off of shelves and into carts. Target and Walmart have rolled out their Twin XL comforters and matching laundry baskets as college students make their way through the aisles, scooping up their dorm necessities…except everyone is wearing masks and standing six feet apart. Fall 2020 is the semester of the gap year, virtual events and online classes. Have college students decided to go back to school at all?
Some students decided to go back – but their time in the dorms was short.
In late August, UNC-Chapel Hill closed its doors due to clusters of COVID-19 amongst students. NC State also moved undergraduate classes online for the duration of the semester on August 20. With these two large schools heading into a virtual semester for undergraduate classes, some students are wishing they’d made the decision to take some time off.
Other students decided not to return to campus this year.
With the uncertainty of COVID-19 permeating our lives, two North Carolina students decided that returning to college for Fall 2020 wasn’t in their best interest. NCND sat down with these students to figure out their process and the pros and cons of taking time away from their schooling this year.
Having a job at home proved more stable than heading back to school.
Joseph Bonin would have been entering his sophomore year at Appalachian State University in Boone. As his freshman year came to an early close in March due to COVID-19, Bonin returned home to finish his semester online. When his summer job as a camp counselor also was waylaid by the virus, Bonin found employment at the Walnut Street Animal Hospital that came with more opportunities than he felt school could have offered this year.
“Having a decent job at home is a lot more stable and predictable than college would have been this year,” Bonin said. “I think that was a big part of my decision.”
There is a reason that college students head to the dorms and take their classes in-person. The College Times notes that “in-person courses hold the student accountable for remaining active and alert during class time.” While their virtual classes might be the safer option during coronavirus, some students aren’t a fan of learning through the screen. Bonin affirms that virtual classes were not his first choice and that also led to his decision to take a gap year.
Bonin is using his gap semester to spend time nurturing his interests and reevaluating in the spring.
“I don’t really know what I want to do major-wise or career-wise,” Bonin said. “I decided it would be better to take this year off and figure it out.”
He was previously listed as an Actuarial Science major, but it wasn’t what Bonin wanted to do. So he’s taking this time to evaluate the next step. When asked about returning to school for Spring 2021, Bonin is waiting to see what the world is like.
But he’s not alone.
“Almost everyone I know said that they’d at least thought about [taking a gap year],” Bonin said. “I have friends who…if every class goes online, their parents are withdrawing them entirely.”
COVID-19 ended up allowing students to take time for career exploration that they’d never had before.
Olivia Romine would have been entering her junior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Global Studies with a concentration in International Politics, Nation States and Social Movements and a regional concentration in Latin America. Her second major is in Spanish Linguistics. She also is working towards a minor in business.
“Taking a [gap year] was something that was in the back of my mind since last summer,” said Romine. “I never really had a plan as to what exactly I would do, how I would fund it, or really if other people would be okay with it…I never thought I’d act on it.”
Like other college students, Romine was studying in the spring when COVID-19 hit. However, she happened to be studying abroad in Bilbao, Spain. In Mid-March, Romine had to return to the states to finish her semester, but the quality of online education left her wanting more. “In class we had one assignment the entire remaining two months of class,” she said.
That’s when Romine decided that if UNC was online in the fall, she wasn’t going to take online classes. “I didn’t really have a plan yet,” Romine said.
Romine’s original summer plans fell through, but she ended up finding a new passion that led to a gap year plan.
Like Bonin’s options, Romine’s summer plans also took a turn due to COVID-19. She was originally supposed to intern for the State Department at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. That was canceled, and there wasn’t an online option offered. So Romine found a remote internship to fill her time.
She began working at Learn to Win, which is a tech start-up based in Silicon Valley. “I had no intentions of ever working for a start-up,” Romine said. “I didn’t have much interest in business or in tech. It was just something I thought would be fun to pass time…As it turned out, I loved every minute of it.”
Romine worked with strategic projects in a variety of teams across Learn to Win. These projects included developing a relationship with the Special Olympics USA Team, developing a help center for frequently asked questions and writing a blog.
With all of these experiences, Romine started chatting with her manager about how she was reluctant to head back to school in the fall because of the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. “And he said, ‘You know, if you wanted to keep working for Learn to Win in the fall, I think we could make that happen.'”
So she did. Romine withdrew from UNC for the 2020-2021 school year and continued working her internship at Learn to Win.
Returning to School in 2021
Romine plans to return to school for Fall 2021 and continue her studies. “I’ll be able to have two normal years. I won’t graduate in December or have to figure out logistics for two half-years,” Romine said.
She’s also planning on lining up an internship for the spring in sports management or something related to international relations. She’ll still be applying for the same internship with the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs that was originally slated for summer 2020.
Romine is gaining professional experience and clarity with her gap year.
“I absolutely had the notion that you had to go straight through college,” Romine said. “Why wouldn’t I?” Like most students, Romine wasn’t planning on changing up her path and taking a gap year, but COVID-19 presented her with the option.
“I’m also gaining more clarity into what classes I need to take when I go back,” she said. Romine didn’t previously know how she was going to navigate her business minor, or which classes she wanted to take to fulfill the requirements. “Now, working with a business start-up, I’ve learned where my knowledge gaps are, and where my interests are. I’ll be better able to pick those electives that really maximize what I’m learning when I’m there,” Romine said.
What advice do you have for students who are navigating school or a gap year amidst COVID-19?
Bonin says that if students are thinking about taking time off, they should take the plunge. “You generally only have four years of college. It’s one of the most unique times of your life,” he said. “I don’t think you wanna spend it doing online classes, sitting in a room so you don’t catch a virus.”
Romine also has advice for students taking a gap year. “Make sure you don’t give up on learning when you step out of school because then it’s going to be even harder to get back in the groove of going to school,” Romine said. “That could look like a lot of different things. You might be learning with a job or an internship. You might just be reading or learning new skills. Whatever it is, make sure you never stop learning.”