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Credit: Alana Kelly

For many students, taking a gap year during the pandemic isn’t by choice, but likely due to strained finances, health concerns, family situations, or travel issues. However, if you are merely concerned that the fall semester won’t bring the college experience you expected or hoped for, then your reason for a gap year is insufficient. Don’t take a gap year out of fear or discomfort with the chaotic state of the world. It’s our new normal and will continue to be in the foreseeable future

Unfortunately, many young adults don’t receive a college education in the United States. As Penn undergrads, we should feel grateful to receive any kind of education at all, and we shouldn’t overlook our privilege. With all the uncertainty around job prospects and internship offers, a structured education — even if virtual — is the most stable endeavor to undertake right now. Education is a safe haven in the middle of unprecedented times, no matter the learning style. That is, academics can help you remain focused and occupied, with a sense of purpose, and weekly classes hold us accountable to our goals and our productivity.

Online education is a skill that is important now more than ever. Some Penn professors commend virtual learning for allowing students to use novel skills which they may not have encountered otherwise in traditional classes and could be advantageous for future jobs and internships. There is no doubt that virtual learning is adapting to fit the ever-changing needs and advances of our technological world, where telehealth services and video conferencing are becoming more prominent. As someone who lacks formal experience with technology, I learned more about the field during these past few months than in my entire life before. 

In a BBC article, Edward Maloney, English professor and executive director of The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, says, “More colleges will involve students in designing their education — a shift from their traditional role as consumers. A potential example of this is involving undergraduates in a professor’s research endeavor, allowing them to build stronger mentor-mentee relationships.” Personally, I have found this to accurately reflect my spring semester at Penn; all my professors adapted their course structures according to our feedback and even personal preferences.

A gap year during current realities will undeniably differ from previous years. Typical gap year opportunities, most notably overseas travel and internships abroad, are significantly limited this year due to curtailed programs, suspended operations, and travel restrictions. Not to mention, this year is one of the worst times to go job-searching given the current state of the economy. Meanwhile, due to extra leisure time, virtual learning allows you the flexibility to pursue feasible goals and interests while simultaneously continuing your studies. 

For incoming first years, although virtual learning isn’t preferred, it will still be a college experience nonetheless — it will just be different from what you had been expecting. If anything, it will be a smoother transition to college life, because there’s less pressure in regards to social life and academic rigor. For every student that entered Penn before the pandemic, their first year in college was characterized by unexpected events too, just in different ways. Most of, if not all the time, your college experience won’t be what you expected or hoped for, but it’s precisely the circumstances you cannot control that make up all the highs and lows of your time at Penn. 

Let’s embrace the uncertainty that this pandemic brings. Let’s not put our lives on pause, waiting for a vaccine to appear or for coronavirus to somehow disappear. Rather, let’s adapt to our unprecedented reality. Remember that an online education does not mean no education at all, and social distancing does not mean no socializing at all. Penn is still allowing students to return to campus, having yet to limit the amount of students who can return like most other colleges. At the very least, living on or around campus will still allow you to experience some aspects of the Penn experience. 

We shouldn’t take a gap year for the wrong reasons. Simply put, it’s not something you should decide to do merely out of spite for virtual learning. People are understandably less excited for the upcoming semester and frustrated over the full tuition charge — I am too — but a gap year shouldn’t equate to an unstructured yearlong escape from this new reality. Rather than running away and putting our lives on hold, we must adapt.

BRIDGET YU is a rising College junior from Los Angeles, CA studying Psychology. She plans to attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Her email address is bridgtyu@sas.upenn.edu.

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