Goats, Jobs and Jesus: Students reflect on their experiences in the gap year

When Maya Brill (23C) started her sophomore year at Emory in the fall of 2020, she was disappointed to find that the classes would not be in person. Brill, who was living in San Juan, Puerto Rico with a cousin and two friends at the time, found the online school uninteresting.

“I can’t sit at home all day,” said Brill. “I felt like I wasn’t doing well in school. I felt I wasn’t learning that much or I was enjoying learning. “

So Brill did what many students did in the 2020/2021 school year: she took an interim semester. Brill spent the spring of 2021 taking intensive Spanish classes, finding internships and organizing her free time.

“While I was out of school, I was really stimulating my brain every day,” said Brill. “It turned out to be a lot more valuable to me than what I felt in the fall.”

Brill’s decision reflected a broader trend among Emory students that academic year. Of Emory’s sophomore, juniors and seniors, 4% took one or more semesters off in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from Assistant Vice Provost Justin Shepherd. This rate represents a significant increase compared to the 1.1% of students who completed an interim semester in the 2019-2020 school year and the 1.5% of students who took a semester off in the 2018-2019 school year.

For Emily Ogden (21Ox, 23C) the decision to take an interim semester was difficult and was made at the last minute. After a daunting fall semester, Ogden found that the online classes weren’t working for her.

“The isolation and the anxiety and the depression and everything made me just couldn’t do anything,” said Ogden. “By the time spring 2021 hit I was somehow at a point where isolation had really started to negatively affect my teaching.”

Ogden chose to go through medical withdrawal and not finish her spring semester, which worried her about what people would think in her life.

“Do you know how sometimes your extended family just talks about you?” Asked Ogden. “You feel like some kind of disappointment in the family … like you’re a failure.”

On the one hand, a spiritual awakening

Rani Schwartz (23C). Photo by Soju Hokari

While some students made last-minute decisions, others like Rani Schwartz (23C) took a few months to consider options. As a sophomore student, Schwartz wanted to become a lawyer. But after a legal clerkship in spring 2020, Schwartz realized that the legal world was not entirely unproblematic.

“[Defendants’] Stories weren’t told in a way that made me feel like the Lord was up for it, ”Schwartz said. “It was kind of a perverted version of justice. … For me, justice was not the retribution that is common in court systems today. “

After Schwartz met a stranger who claimed to have a relationship with God, Schwartz began to realize that she was attached to “stupid worldly desires” and began to explore her own relationship with God.

“I wanted to have a certain prestige with my job. I wanted to date a certain type of man and marry a certain type of man, ”Schwartz said. “After I got to know that [stranger]”I realized he had a piece that I didn’t understand, and I really wanted to know what the piece was … so I was persecuting Christ.”

Schwartz decided to take a gap year tutoring math students and volunteer with Project Unity, a nonprofit that provides rental assistance to people in their home state of Texas.

“That [volunteer work] really opened my eyes, ”said Schwartz. “Just to speak to people you know were impoverished and struggled to pay their rent.”

After Schwartz had spent her gap year following God, Schwartz was no longer sure Emory was the right place to return.

“I thought to myself, ‘Honestly, I think I could pursue the Lord better in College Station than in Emory,'” Schwartz said.

However, through conversations with an older mentor, Schwartz realized that she could continue to find meaning with Emory. On campus, Schwartz is now a member of Bread Coffee House, a Christian group in which she has found acceptance. She now plans to graduate from Emory College of Arts and Sciences instead of following the pre-legislative path in Goizueta.

“I’m still stressed about my class,” said Schwartz. “But I know that I am pursuing something that is so much more important than what happens in everyday life.”

Postponement in the first year

First-year students were even more likely to fill gaps in the 2020-2021 academic year than their older classmates, according to data from Admissions Dean John Latting. Approximately 7% of freshmen, 94 total, have postponed their admission to Emory and instead opted to start college in the fall of 2021. This is an increase over previous years, when around 1.5% of incoming freshmen were in gap years.

“[The increase] was pretty dramatic, ”said Latting. “We put students on the waiting list and tried to keep up with this change. We couldn’t figure out where things would end up, how many students would end up applying for a gap year. “

Latting said that Emory approved almost all gap year applications and said that he “absolutely” supports taking a year off when students have a plan.

Eli Robison (25C). Photo by Soju Hokari

One such first year was Eli Robison (25C), who decided at the last minute that there was insufficient learning opportunities for the 2020-2021 school year. Robison embarked on a number of adventures including jobs as a barista, service worker, and tutor; a month of skiing; a job on a goat farm in Utah; and, most significant to him, a 50-day hike through the Appalachians with three friends.

Reflecting on the hike, Robison said he had “seen the highest high and the lowest low”. In the storm “four days in a row, in wet clothes, unable to sleep in the middle of the forest” was a sharp contrast to “the most beautiful view on a mountain peak to see” with a view of a valley.

The Gap Year experience showed that the path his small affluent Connecticut community had chosen for him and his friends wasn’t the only path to growing up, Robinson said. He feels that his experience has helped him gain life experience, maturity, and confidence.

“There’s a whole stigma about going to college, graduating, and then going into professional life,” said Robison. “An unconventional route like a gap year is definitely not a thing where I’m from … If COVID wasn’t a thing, there was no way I would have taken a gap year.”

Lessons learned

Some students said they appreciate that their gap year allowed them to slow down. For Brill, the extra time meant taking a step back and examining the busy world she grew up in.

“When I wasn’t in school, I was a career, traveling, doing something with friends, or getting a job,” said Brill. “I was kind of proud of, ‘I don’t take any free time, I’m always busy and so productive.'”

As she got used to life without the constant attraction of a job or class, Brill found the lack of planned activities beneficial.

“I really learned what was important to me in order to keep my happiness and well-being,” said Brill. Those who completed gap years also consistently stated that they felt older than their fellow human beings, but not just in the ways that might be expected.

“I definitely feel a little bit wiser and more confident because I know what I’m doing because I’ve done it before,” said Ogden. “It makes me feel good, but it’s also strange not having my friends on campus.”

Robison repeated these feelings but said he was not entirely without worries.

“You don’t feel so comfortable when you’re not in yours [grade]”Said Robinson. “I definitely do [feel] comfortable, but in this sense I feel more comfortable with this year’s second year students. “

Many gap-year students, including Brill, said they were concerned about the impact on their graduation date. But the students learned to overcome this fear.

“What do I mind if I graduate a semester later?” Asked Brill. “It’s kind of arbitrary now which year you graduate.”

Throughout the interim semester experience, there was a predominant feeling of gratitude for a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Yeah, I think it was something I probably never would have done in college if it hadn’t happened,” Brill said. “I learned so much about myself and it was really impressive.”

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