When recent Mercer Island High School grad Lila Shroff boarded her 12-hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, South Korea, she didn’t have concrete plans for her gap year. She wanted to learn some Korean, maybe take a free class or two and possibly get an internship — but first she had to settle into her new home.
Shroff’s decision to go from Seattle to Seoul came together at the last minute; after Stanford University retracted its plans to allow freshmen on campus this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shroff had a few days to decide whether to brave online schooling or explore the unknown world of the gap year.
A week later, she was flying to Seoul.
South Korea has substantially fewer coronavirus cases than the United States and requires all visitors to quarantine at a government facility for at least two weeks upon arrival. That’s where Shroff is right now. Visitors under quarantine get lunch dropped off outside their doors, and, if they test positive for coronavirus, the government will pay for their treatment. Shroff also took precautions during her journey to South Korea, taking her temperature before getting on the plane, donning a face shield on top of an N95 mask, and riding in the back of the plane, 6 feet away from other passengers.
Not all college students can afford to hop a plane for an adventure in a different country in lieu of starting fall classes, but Shroff is not alone in her decision to take a coronavirus-inspired gap year. Coronavirus has taken its toll on the typical college experience: eating in close communal quarters, intimate classroom settings, living in dorms, studying in libraries. Because of this, many colleges, including the University of Washington, Western Washington University, Washington State University and Seattle University have moved most of their coursework online this fall, with limited on-campus housing options available. Many schools have also closed the communal spaces that make college, college.
“There’s just such an extraordinary amount of people taking gap years this year,” Shroff said. “No one really knows what they’re doing. Everyone’s figuring things out, a bit confused and so supportive.”
There’s something about remote classes — or, paying in-person tuition for remote classes — that’s turning students off, several Seattle students told The Seattle Times. Some are opting for remote internships instead of remote schooling, while others are hoping to find in-person jobs or programs in the U.S. or elsewhere.
Organizations that provide gap year opportunities — like community service or long-term hiking trips — are reporting an increase in applications and interest. The Gap Year Association, a resource for students and parents to learn more about gap years, has seen a 120-150% increase in web searches, and, as coronavirus continues, more time is being spent on the site, said Ethan Knight, the organization’s executive director.
A third of all AmeriCorps volunteers are high school graduates, and the civil service program sponsored by the U.S. government has seen a 25-40% uptick in applications over the last year, according to Samantha Jo Warfield, press secretary for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps.
Some Seattle-area programs have also gotten an overwhelming number of applications in the past few months, said Amber Martin-Jahn, executive director of Serve Washington, which oversees AmeriCorps Washington. United Way of King County, a nonprofit focused on breaking the cycle of poverty in the Seattle area that works with AmeriCorps volunteers, has received more applications than they have positions available.
In response to coronavirus, United Way has “pivoted significantly. They are leading efforts across the state to support food insecurity,” said Martin-Jahn.
The rise in interest in AmeriCorps isn’t surprising to Warfield.
“At every time in our nation’s recent history, since AmeriCorps has existed, in times of national crisis, people have stepped up,” said Warfield. “And I would expect nothing different right now.”
Before the coronavirus, students typically planned gap years months in advance, hoping to enhance their life experiences, earn money for school or both, applying to programs such as AmeriCorps or Habitat for Humanity, or opting for language immersion programs or bucket-list hiking trips.
But this coronavirus-induced gap year is different. Taking the year off was never the plan — especially for students in the middle of their college careers.
Faced with paying full-price tuition for online classes and a job market that looks bleak, two rising college seniors are deciding whether to take virtual jobs this autumn and defer the start of their senior years. Both say their decisions were heavily influenced by experiencing virtual learning over spring quarter.
Miranda Johnson, a 21-year-old from South Seattle, has opted for a virtual internship this fall, working for a political consultancy firm. It’s a far cry from her engineering-heavy product design major, but it’s a chance for her to explore a career path outside her major — plus, she wasn’t thrilled by the virtual learning experience in the spring. Her project-based classes didn’t make a lot of sense in the virtual realm: Building engineering projects with other students over Zoom wasn’t conducive to a great learning experience.
“Taking time off from school is something that I’ve kinda had in the back of my head,” said Johnson, a rising senior at Stanford University. “I wanted a chance to step back and get perspective on what I’m doing. I’m going to be doing an internship that’s very much not like anything I’ve done before. So even if I’m not getting the full experience I would in person, it’s still going to be a new perspective for me.”
Kha Nguyen, a rising senior at the University of Washington, is still weighing the pros and cons to taking time off from school.
Nguyen tried online classes for the last two weeks of winter quarter, before taking spring quarter off. Now Nguyen is at risk of not graduating on schedule, which may not be worth him taking another quarter off, he says.
“I’m kind of leaning towards having to just come back for the quarter,” said Nguyen, who worked as a freelance web developer during his quarter off. “And I think the silver lining is I’ve been working over the summer fully online, and it’s turning out to be not as inefficient, or as painful, as I had originally thought.”
While there is the financial incentive to “just graduate” and get a job, there are also financial benefits to holding back for a year. Knight, from the Gap Year Association, has had several conversations with students and their parents over tuition costs, especially if coronavirus has changed their financial status.
There are two big reasons to take a gap year now, says Knight.
“One is to let the society catch up in terms of on-target employment and jobs,” said Knight. “The other is if your family has been hit by financial hardship because of COVID, it might not be a bad idea to allow your 2020 income to be reported for your financial aid needs.”
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a federal form families must fill out to be considered for federal financial aid, uses taxes from the year prior to estimate how much financial aid a student needs. If a family has lost income because of coronavirus, their financial aid paperwork doesn’t reflect that. By taking a gap year, students can wait for their financial aid to reflect their current situation, said Knight.
In every situation, students are just trying to do what’s right for them.
“I think it’s also important to recognize that the gap year conversation a lot of times leaves out the fact that it might not be an entirely accessible option for everybody,” said Shroff. “I don’t think virtual school has to be this whole terrible thing. There’s pros and cons to everything.”
To some, paying full tuition for an online version of schoolwork just doesn’t make sense — especially in hands-on fields. For Ryan Wissmar, a senior design student at WWU, tuition isn’t just about getting the degree. It’s also about having space and resources to do art.
“I think, to create good art, you have to be in a state of play and be relaxed,” said Wissmar, a West Seattle resident. “But online work seems a bit tense.”
Wissmar is using his gap quarter to spend time on his personal clothing brand, Burner Clothing. As a full-time student, that has always been a side project. But now, with seemingly infinite time, he’s giving his passion a fair shot.
“COVID is an interesting time for artists,” said Wissmar, 21. “It’s a profession that you can work on outside of school. And with no real assignments, I can have a creative space.”
Despite the coronavirus curveball life has thrown at them, students are trying to make the most of their time in college, even if that means delaying it and using the downtime to discover their passions. Ultimately, most say, they just want to keep learning — about themselves and their place in the world.
“I’m evaluating what I actually want to be doing in school and I don’t have an answer yet,” said Johnson. “So why should I rush back to it, when I could go back in four months and have a better idea of how I want to finish my time at college?”