“The coronavirus ruined everything.”
Palo Alto High School senior Elijah Steiner is one of many who show their frustration for the numerous life-altering changes created by COVID-19. More specifically, he shares the sentiments of several high school seniors who have been struggling to picture their futures and iron out their post-high school plans in light of the rapidly changing situation. Gap years had been gradually increasing in popularity since well before the viral outbreak, with more students interested in taking them along with a more supportive culture surrounding a break in education. But with no guarantee of an in-person start to freshman year, travel restrictions in place in several countries including South Africa, Peru and Japan, and for many an unsatisfying culmination of high school, the idea of taking a gap year has changed in 2020: they’ve become a possibility for those who never considered them and a foiled plan for others who wished to go abroad.
In this story, Verde explores these aspects of the gap year culture shift and more through the lenses of three Paly seniors, along with the specific impact COVID-19 has had in determining their future plans.
Fall quarter fall through
According to the New York Times, an estimated 60,000 students postpone college every year to pursue a gap year, yet this number seems to be drastically increasing due to the coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey conducted by the Art & Sciences Group shows that nearly one in six students will “likely revise their plans of attending a four-year college in the fall.” The survey also indicates that 35% of current high school seniors who have decided to change their post-high school plans due to COVID-19 report that they are most likely to take a gap year.
Senior Kaitlin Meyer is one of those one-in-six students who is now on the fence about going straight to a four-year university at the start of this upcoming school year. Though she thought about it at the beginning of her college process, Meyer did not seriously consider taking a gap year until more recently, specifically not until the consequences of the coronavirus started to unfold in early March.
“It [a gap year] was a little idea that I never actively pursued because I’m the type of person who needs a lot of structure when I have a lot of free time, and it almost seemed like a hassle to try and find a program that would potentially interest me,” she said. “But now that coronavirus has become a big deal, I’ve started to think about it much more actively. I would say coronavirus played a large part in my potential decision to take a gap year.”
Meyer recently committed to Wake Forest University, a private school located in North Carolina. Though Wake Forest has not officially canceled an in-person fall quarter, Meyer explains that this looming possibility is one of the main reasons she started thinking more about taking next year off.
“I am going to attend a private school and I don’t think it’s fair or right for my parents to be spending so much money for me to be taking online classes at home at my kitchen table,” she said. “I think a lot of what you’re paying for is the experience while you’re at college, and I wouldn’t necessarily have all the same resources taking online courses as I would if I were actually on campus.”
The process of actually choosing a school in the first place amidst the pandemic had also proven to be strenuous for Meyer, who was expecting to have time over spring break to attend admit weekends and visit campuses in person.
“It’s been just tough to know what I’m supposed to do right now because there’s a lot of options — good options — but I don’t know what to choose in this moment.”
— Elijah Steiner, senior
“It [the coronavirus] really turned everything upside down, since I was going to do more college visits before deciding where I was going to go to college,” Meyer said. “So it was stressful and confusing to make that choice, and same goes for deciding about a gap year.”
Planning for the future poses an incredibly challenging feat for students like Meyer, who said that she isn’t certain she will settle on a gap year yet, as she wants to wait and see how the coronavirus situation continues to develop. But after having discussions with her family, the possibility seems more likely to become a reality.
“I have had conversations with my family, and again, it goes back to the financial aspect of it all,” Meyer said. “In regards to what I would do, I really don’t know at this point; it is very, very difficult to make plans because I know they’ll just be turned on their head. Like at this point, there’s so much uncertainty, and it’s just not worth the stress or anxiety to worry about something that’s out of my hands.”
Similar to Meyer, senior Elijah Steiner is interested in the idea of embarking on a gap year. In fact, Steiner has been planning on taking one for nearly three years as part of his Baha’i faith, despite travel complications due to COVID-19.
“In my faith, there is something called a year of service where we take a year and dedicate it to serving the greater community,” Steiner said. “My two options were to serve in the Santa Clara community or serve in Haifa, Israel. Both experiences would have pushed me to grow because I would have to be self sufficient doing meaningful work with great people.”
In light of the coronavirus, the program in Israel that Steiner was planning to attend has postponed participant acceptances and start dates until November 2020, in large part due to the fact that many attendees are international students, causing greater concern of spreading the virus. Because the program requires 12 months of service, Steiner would have to take not just one, but two years off of school to attend, making the decision much more challenging than anticipated.
“I just don’t know if I’m going to do the year of service before college or after college, and I don’t know if I can move the service in Israel to the summer instead … everything is just very up in the air right now, but I’m keeping my options open,” he said.
Luckily, Steiner has many relatives and family friends who have had experience with service learning opportunities and are willing to help him work through this difficult decision.
“I’ve been having consultations with my family a lot, getting a lot of expert advice from friends,” Steiner said. “It’s been just tough to know what I’m supposed to do right now because there’s a lot of options — good options — but I don’t know what to choose in this moment.”
While national statistics seem to show an increase in seniors taking gap years this year, many students remain hesitant to do so due to the virus’ restrictions on travel. According to the Gap Year Association National Alumni Survey, 85% of gap year participants in 2015 were motivated to take the time off of school because they “wanted to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures.” With opportunities abroad still risky and up in the air going into summer and fall, some students formerly interested in these aspects might not think a gap year without travel is worth their time.
Ena Zou is one such senior from Paly, worried that due to travel restrictions and a general uncertainty of returning to life as we knew it, taking a gap year during the pandemic wouldn’t fulfill her aspirations of world exploration. Though previously hoping to take a gap year to get outside the “Palo Alto bubble,” Zou ultimately decided not to because of the limitations caused by the coronavirus.
“I started to change my mind … around the end of March, when school closed,” Zou said. “Everything was escalating so quickly and there was just way too much uncertainty for someone who wants to travel … it didn’t seem right to place so much emphasis on an entire year of my life, especially if I was stuck at home, unsatisfied.”
As she weighed the pros and cons of taking a year off, Zou had many long conversations with her dad regarding the situation. He encouraged her to instead take a year off after receiving her undergraduate degree, helping her settle on starting school in the fall, regardless of whether it will be in person or online.
“Personally for me, I like having a schedule, hence why I don’t appreciate all the uncertainty in the air around being able to travel or not,” she said. “So that’s why I ultimately decided school is the best option. I knew that even if it were to be online, there’d be some structure to my life, rather than just sitting at home [on a gap year], pondering about what I could be doing instead.”
Though her choice has been made, Zou describes the decision as troublesome and hard to process. For most seniors, the abrupt ending of their time at Paly on March 13 was unexpected, to say the least, and upsetting in many ways.
“This is not at all what I imagined senior year being like, especially when it came to things like figuring out my gap year,” Zou said. “I pictured myself choosing between different programs, not choosing between whether or not to take one [a gap year] at all. It’s just disappointing that things I wanted to do, the gap year included, are being taken away … I can say for sure I would almost 100% be taking a gap year and traveling if corona weren’t a thing.”
Editors’ note: Staff writer Rachel Lit is a graduating senior planning on taking a gap year starting in the fall of 2020.