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Penn is considering four scenarios for the fall semester, none of which include completely in-person instruction.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Incoming first years recently celebrated their Penn acceptances and began to imagine the next four years of their lives. But as the Penn community anticipates an abnormal fall semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the Class of 2024 are revisioning what the start of their college careers might look like. 

After Penn announced four potential scenarios for the upcoming semester in late May — ranging from a shortened in-person experience to an entirely virtual semester — some incoming first years are considering gap years, while others are mentally preparing to begin their college careers behind screens. 

“It’s mostly just confusion,” said incoming College first-year Ibrahim El Morsy. “I’m excited to go to college but I don’t know what that means yet, because going to college may mean staying at home and going to an online class.”  

El Morsy hails from South Philadelphia, Pa., where he attends the Julia R. Masterman School, which he says is known for sending a sizable portion of its graduating class to Penn. He also identifies as a first-generation, low-income student. 

Taking a gap year has become an appealing alternative for students like El Morsy, who are concerned about the uncertain nature of the fall semester.  

"You're not getting what you paid for, what you wanted from Penn if you attend it virtually," El Morsy said. 

If he takes a gap year, El Morsy hopes to travel to Egypt and countries in Europe once global travel restrictions are lifted. He also may work to save money and spend more time with family before attending Penn in 2021.

Incoming College first-year Serrane Reaz, an international student from Bangladesh, said she is seriously considering taking a gap year to preserve the authenticity of the college experience. She also does not know if travel to the United States will be possible for her by the time the semester begins.  

"There's also the concern of whether I will be able to travel to the [United States] simply because cases in Bangladesh are still rising steadily so I don't know if international travel will be allowed," she said. 

Other members of the Class of 2024, however, are planning to forge ahead with their college experiences, regardless of what next semester may look like. 

"I have a feeling it's [going to] strengthen our bond as a class if it happens that our first semester, or first year, is online because it makes us more keen to connect [and] create friendships," said incoming College first-year Salam Karadsheh, who is from Amman, Jordan.

Like Karadsheh, incoming Nursing first-year Deborah Olatunji, who is from Delaware, decided against taking a gap year because of the travel and work opportunity limitations resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

"I did consider it and then I talked myself out of it because I realized that if we're still at home and we're not allowed to travel then there's not much you can do with a gap year," she said. 

Until University administrators announce a decision about fall semester operations, which is promised  by the end of June, incoming first years remain in limbo. 

"Everyone’s just living in a state of confusion, waiting for an official announcement," El Morsy said.  

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