Last week I hosted a webinar for students and parents who are rethinking their fall 2020 plans in light of the current situation. I have hosted many webinars over the past few months, and was particularly surprised and impressed by the questions people asked as they submitted the registration for this webinar:
“I know I want to take a gap—but where to go and what to do is overwhelming.”
“What is the best option for success both socially & academically?”
“Should I take a gap year instead of paying out-of-state tuition?”
“I’m unsure how colleges will handle the virus and what that means for my experience.”
“My son is looking for options that will keep him learning & growing, but also provide him a sense of purpose.”
And of course, “Will programs actually be able to run?”
These thoughtful questions are the same questions that our team hears every day as we work with both students who are already enrolled in our gap programs for next year, as well as students who are just now considering the idea of a gap. This year has highlighted the fact that decisions about the gap and college process, which can be daunting even during “normal” times, can feel even more difficult to navigate now.
I want to break down the questions we hear into three main themes that are helpful to think about as families consider and discuss options for next year.
1. Travel restrictions
Many of the questions we’re hearing right now are about the issue of international travel itself. As of today when I am writing this (July 21, 2020), we see only 9 countries currently open to US citizens without restrictions; the number rises to 28 with certain testing or quarantine restrictions. The EU is closed to US passport holders. The US State Department still has a Level 4 Advisory (“Do Not Travel”) in place.
It is certainly hard even for the most seasoned of travelers to look at the current situation and not feel wary of making future plans. While we unfortunately don’t have a crystal ball, there is a lot of evidence to show that outside of the US, and particularly in Europe, conditions are “getting back to ‘normal.” When I talk to my colleagues in Zurich, for example, I am happy (and a bit envious!) to see them back in their offices and chatting about their most recent experiences dining out or going on a weekend trip.
In order for us to travel again, we here in the US must be active participants in making sure the spread of infection in the US goes down enough to make travel safe for us and for our destinations. Staying in, wearing masks, and encouraging others to do the same is the best thing we can do to ensure an expedient and healthy re-opening of travel.
2. Gap vs. College
Of course even looking at the positive developments in Europe, it is difficult to imagine what the future looks like. This is a particularly acute problem when trying to compare two options: college and a gap. College is a huge commitment and a substantial financial investment. Many students and parents are rightly questioning if the holistic nature of a college experience—a combination of academic and social aspects—can really be conveyed effectively through an online platform. For those who are returning to campus, there are questions about what that experience will look like and how safely it can be implemented. Yet making the leap from dissatisfaction with college options to choosing a gap experience is a daunting one.
In the best of times, a gap is proven to foster a student’s growth, self-exploration, and development of key life skills. During these unprecedented times, a gap may look different than ever before, but there are just as many, if not even more, benefits to taking the leap. Students who take a year to develop their passions, go through processes of self-discovery, and seize opportunities to learn experientially (not just behind a screen) will be able to enter or return college in 2021 feeling even more ready to maximize their on-campus experience from day one.
3. Making a decision
This third theme is perhaps the most difficult – and the most important. Even in the early days of the pandemic, the uncertainty caused by the current situation was causing “decision fatigue.” How do we make a decision about something as important as our future plans when we can barely decide what to cook for dinner?
There’s no right answer when making such a big decision, but I would suggest a few guiding questions to think over.
What are the most important things for me to experience next year—personally, academically, and socially?
What decision maximizes the chance of my being able to have these personal, academic, and/or social experiences next year in a safe and healthy manner?
What contingency plans and precautions does my choice have in place to ensure that I can make some version of these things happen for me next year—even if it doesn’t look exactly the way I am imagining it?
At the end of the day, each individual must do their own calculations to make this decision. For us here at EF Gap, we're trying to make it as easy as possible for students to feel confident in their decisions (you can read about our precautions and contingency plans here). No matter the decision you ultimately make, know that you’re not alone in asking lots of big questions, exploring unexpected options, and crafting an intentional plan for next year.