Goats, Jobs and Jesus: Students Reflect on the Experiences of a Gap Year

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

“I don’t do well sitting at home all day,” Brill said. “I felt like I wasn’t thriving at school. I felt like I wasn’t learning that much or that I didn’t like learning.

So Brill did what a lot of students did in the 2020-2021 school year: she took a sabbatical. Brill spent the spring of 2021 taking intensive Spanish courses, finding internships and learning to manage his free time.

“While I wasn’t in school, I was really stimulating my brain every day,” Brill said. “It turned out to be a lot more precious to me than what I felt like I was doing in the fall.”

Brill’s decision reflected a larger trend among Emory students that year. Among Emory’s graduate students, juniors and seniors, 4% took one or more semesters off in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data provided by Assistant Vice-Provost Justin Shepherd. This rate marks a significant increase from the 1.1% of students who took gap semesters in the 2019-2020 school year and the 1.5% of students who took leave semesters in the 2019-2020 school year. during the 2018-2019 school year.

For Emily Ogden (21Ox, 23C), the decision to take a sabbatical was difficult and came at the last minute. After a disheartening fall semester, Ogden discovered that online education wasn’t working for her.

“The isolation, the anxiety, the depression and everything made it so that I couldn’t even do anything,” Ogden said. “When the spring of 2021 arrived, I kind of got to a point where the isolation had really started to negatively affect my classes.”

Ogden chose to go on medical withdrawal and not complete his spring semester, causing him to worry about what the people in his life would think.

“Do you know that sometimes your extended family only talks about you?” Ogden asked. “You feel like you’re kind of a family disappointment… like you’re a failure.”

On the one hand, a spiritual awakening

Rani Schwartz (23C). Photo by Soju Hokari

While some students were making last-minute decisions, others like Rani Schwartz (23C) took a few months to consider options. In his sophomore year at the time, Schwartz wanted to become a lawyer. But after completing a legal internship in the spring of 2020, Schwartz discovered that the legal world is not without its problems.

“[Defendants’] the stories were not told in a way that I felt represented as a plea by the Lord, ”said Schwartz. “It was kind of like a perverted version of justice. … For me, justice was not the punitive thing that is common in legal systems now.

After meeting a stranger who claimed to have a relationship with God, Schwartz began to realize that she had become attached to “silly worldly desires” and began to explore her own relationship with God.

“I wanted to have a certain prestige associated with my work. I wanted to date a certain type of guy and marry a certain type of guy, ”Schwartz said. “After learning that [stranger], I realized he had a room that I didn’t understand and I really wanted to know what that room was… so I pursued Christ.

Schwartz decided to take a year off, tutor math students, and volunteer with Project Unity, a non-profit organization that provides rental assistance to residents of his home state, Texas.

“This [volunteer work] really opened my eyes, ”said Schwartz. “Just talking with people who you know were impoverished and struggling to pay their rent. “

After spending his sabbatical year chasing God, Schwartz was no longer sure Emory was the right place to return.

“I was like, ‘Honestly, I think I could pursue the Lord at College Station better than at Emory,” “said Schwartz.

While chatting with an older mentor, however, Schwartz realized that she could continue to find meaning in Emory. On campus, Schwartz is now a member of Bread Coffee House, a Christian group she was accepted into. She now plans to graduate from Emory College of Arts and Sciences rather than taking the pre-legal route in Goizueta.

“I’m always stressed out about my classes,” Schwartz said. “But I know I’m chasing something that’s so much more important than anything that happens on a daily basis.”

First year deferrals

Freshmen took gap years at an even higher rate than their older peers during the 2020-2021 academic year, data provided by Admissions Dean John Latting showed. About 7% of early years, 94 in total, postponed admission to Emory, choosing instead to start college in the fall of 2021. This is an increase from previous years, when about 1 , 5% of the first incoming years took sabbaticals.

“[The increase] was pretty dramatic, ”Latting said. “We were putting students on the waiting list trying to keep up with this change. We weren’t able to determine where things were going to end up, how many students would end up asking for a gap year.

Latting said Emory approved almost all gap year requests, saying he “absolutely” supported taking a gap year if the students had a plan.

Eli Robison (25C). Photo by Soju Hokari

One of those early years was Eli Robison (25C), who decided at the last minute that the learning opportunities for the 2020-2021 school year were not enough. Robison embarked on a series 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 importantly, a 50-day hike through the Appalachians with three friends.

Reflecting on the hike, Robison said he “got to experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows.” Being in the middle of a storm “for four days in a row, in wet clothes, not being able to sleep in the middle of the woods” was a stark contrast to “seeing the best view on top of a mountain” while overlooking a valley .

The gap year experience showed that the path chosen for him and his friends by his small affluent community in Connecticut was not the only possible way to grow up to adulthood, Robinson said. He believes his experience has helped him gain life experience, maturity and self-confidence.

“There is a whole stigma attached to going to college, graduating and then entering the workforce,” said Robison. “A non-traditional route like a gap year is definitely not something I’m from… If COVID wasn’t a thing, I never would have taken a gap year.”

Lessons learned

Some students said they liked how their gap year allowed them to slow down. For Brill, the extra time meant stepping back and examining the busy world she had grown up in.

“If I wasn’t in school, I was running track, I was traveling, I was doing something with friends or I was going to work,” Brill said. “I kind of bragged about ‘I don’t take time off, I’m always busy and I’m so productive.'”

As she adjusted to life without the constant pull of a job or class, Brill said she found the lack of scheduled activities beneficial.

“I really learned what was important to me to maintain my happiness and well-being,” Brill said. Those who took sabbaticals also consistently reported feeling older than those around them, but not just in the way one would expect.

“I definitely feel a little wiser and a lot more confident knowing what I’m doing because it’s something I’ve done before,” Ogden said. “I feel good about it, but it’s also weird not having my friends on campus.”

Robison echoed those sentiments, but said he wasn’t completely carefree.

“You don’t feel as comfortable when you are not in your [grade]Robinson said. “I certainly [feel] comfortable, but I feel more comfortable with the sophomores of this year in that sense.

Many students who have taken sabbaticals, including Brill, have said they are concerned about the effect it will have on their graduation date. But, the students have learned to look beyond this fear.

“What do I care if I graduate a semester later?” Brill asked. “It’s a bit arbitrary now, in which year you graduate. “

Throughout the experiences of the sabbatical, the dominant feeling was one of gratitude for a unique opportunity.

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

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