$26,583 to take online classes for a semester was simply not worth it for some students. As the fall 2020 semester comes to a close, students who decided to take a leave of absence reflect on a time of improving mental health and exploring other interests — with some even realizing that finishing college might no longer be in the cards for them.
For College senior Simran Chand, the latter half of the spring semester and all of the summer was spent in her room taking online classes and studying for the 7.5-hour long MCAT exam, which she took at the end of August.
"During quarantine, I don’t feel like I actually got the chance to take a break, because I was studying for the MCAT so much,” Chand said. “My time to chill, do nothing, work on myself, has been during this semester.”
Chand, who lives in an off-campus residence in Philadelphia with friends, said she did not realize how badly she needed a break from classes until she took time off from Penn. She spent the semester working on her Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies thesis paper, volunteering at Houston Hall's COVID-19 testing site, where she helped check-in students and verify their PennCard, and working remotely in a lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
“It feels really good to be able to be on campus and help out those who are on campus with the testing,” Chand said. “I’m taking this time off, but I’m still giving back to the community and involved with everything that is going on with the pandemic.”
Next semester, Chand plans to “bite the bullet” and return to online classes in order to graduate in December 2021.
College sophomore Emma Wennberg, who worked full-time as the finance director for former Democratic Pennsylvania House candidate Paul Friel, was already considering taking the semester off before COVID-19 hit to work on a campaign during the 2020 election season. But when Penn closed on-campus housing and moved completely online just weeks before the start of the semester, Wennberg said the decision to take a leave of absence was easy.
Although Friel did not win his race, Wennberg said her experience working on his campaign was meaningful and reaffirmed her interest in a career in politics.
“With everything going on and the urgency of the election, it felt really good to just throw myself into that work, and really feel like I was doing something each and every day,” she said.
Although she initially only planned to take one semester off, Wennberg has decided not to return to Penn until fall 2021. Come this spring, she hopes to find work related to policy or advocacy in Philadelphia.
“Penn’s professional culture seems to really discourage an experience that doesn’t start right after high school and go through four [straight] years and then graduating in four years, so it definitely was a little bit scary to take the leap, but I’m really happy with the decision,” Wennberg said.
Similarly, after taking this semester off, College senior Kara Cloud said she has no plans to return to Penn in the spring and may even decide to forgo her degree entirely.
Cloud has spent the past few months working as a COVID-19 screener at a hospital in Center City but was laid off last week, forcing her to file for unemployment. Cloud said she has been supporting herself financially since she was 17, and has not gotten financial aid from Penn during her leave of absence.
During her time away from Penn’s rigorous academic environment, Cloud has been honing her creative skills through music, art, and writing to cope with the pandemic.
“We all feel so isolated [and] socially distanced, so I’m writing and exploring what the isolation looks like," Cloud said.
She has been connecting with strangers she meets across Philadelphia to hear their stories and capture their individual experiences with the pandemic and social isolation through writing and creating portraits. Once the COVID-19 vaccine is available to the public, Cloud hopes to travel internationally to expand her project to include people in Latin America and the Caribbean Islands.
“Seeing how the [United States] has handled the COVID-19 cases and how this country is clearly not providing for its people, it’s really motivating me to want to leave, work elsewhere, and learn,” Cloud said.
She added that after seeing the world change so rapidly in the last few months, she believes she has already learned so much in her first three years of college and does not see the need to finish her degree.
“I’m not sold on the need for college, and I’m learning a lot more outside of college,” she said.
College and Wharton sophomore Kelly Shen agreed that time away from Penn allowed her to rethink her priorities and better understand what she wants in life.
“Being on a gap semester has given me a lot of time to think about what is important to me and also to think about my career and what might interest me, what I might be happy doing full time,” Shen said.
After Penn announced its plans for a completely remote fall semester, she extended her summer internship with Run the World, a startup that offers tools for creating live, engaging, virtual events designed to build community.
“Taking a gap semester is definitely not something I would have even considered had COVID-19 not happened,” Shen said.
Shen, who was working entirely remotely, spent the semester living in Boston with her cousin. Once her internship ended in November, she spent time traveling across the East Coast, visiting Virginia, New York, and New Hampshire.
Next semester, she said she will return to Philadelphia to live off campus and take classes at Penn with plans to graduate in December 2023.
“Knowing that I wasn’t going to be back in school until January made me think really hard about what I want to do after Penn, what I want to do in the coming summers, and what brings me the greatest joy and growth in a workplace,” Shen said.
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