As COVID-19 continues to disrupt academic life, some students have opted to take the spring semester off instead of enrolling in virtual classes.
Some students who had previously taken a gap semester in the fall opted to turn their time off into a full gap year to pursue extracurricular hobbies and internships. Others who remained enrolled at Penn last fall chose to take this semester off after becoming disillusioned with online learning.
Last semester, a much higher number of students than usual took time off. Former Dean of Admissions Eric Furda previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that there was a 300% increase in incoming students taking a gap year as of last fall. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Sniegowski also told the DP that the number of students taking a gap year or a gap semester last fall in the College was “perhaps tenfold higher” than usual.
It is unclear whether more students are taking this semester off than in the fall. Associate Director of Public and Media Relations at the School of Nursing Ed Federico said that the Nursing School saw no “noticeable change” in gap semester requests from last semester to this semester in an email to the DP.
The College, the Wharton School, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how many students are taking this semester off.
After initially considering only taking the fall semester off, Wharton junior Nico Melton chose to extend his gap semester into a full gap year to continue to work on multiple projects he started working on in the fall.
Melton said he is developing a mobile app called Melli to provide “environmental, social, and health label product information to consumers,” which he hopes to soon launch to the Penn community. He is also working with Fitalyst — a startup company providing a wellness platform for students — by helping with software development.
Along with these two projects, Melton is doing economic research with Wharton Operations Information and Decisions professor Serguei Netessine to analyze the impact Amazon's warehousing facilities and distribution centers have on local communities.
Melton, who now plans on graduating in December 2022 instead of May 2022, explained that he didn’t want to take a gap year because of the difficulties surrounding virtual classes, but rather because he saw this as a rare opportunity of which he should take advantage.
“It's kind of like a good blend of a good opportunity — like taking what COVID-19 threw at us, and just kind of making the best opportunity of that,” he said.
Unlike Melton, College sophomore Morgan Singer extended her fall semester off into a gap year because she did not want to take virtual classes.
Singer, who was initially part of the Class of 2022 but is now part of the Class of 2023, worked with Back to Blue PA, an organization working to elect Democrats in Pennsylvania, as a field ambassador last fall and is now working on translating Chinese scripts to English for a Chinese company called Mango Studios.
“My major is East Asian languages and civilizations with a concentration in Chinese, and my minor is cinema studies, so actually [last semester's job] was very different for me and not something I would have ever thought I would have gotten into,” Singer explained.
While she remains an “advocate for taking time off during these weird times,” Singer said she will be continuing her classes in fall 2021, even if courses are not yet completely in person.
College sophomore Liana Kaye-Lew also decided to extend her gap semester to a gap year because she did not enjoy taking virtual classes when Penn moved courses online in March 2020.
Kaye-Lew said she felt that a “lot was lost” in the transition to virtual classes last spring, such as the opportunity to make in-person connections with both her professors and her peers, and that it was not living up to her expectations of Penn.
“Penn was my top-choice college when I was applying to schools, and one of the reasons why it was my top choice was not just for the lectures," she said. "It was definitely just about the community there as well."
Kaye-Lew spent last semester tutoring with School on Wheels, a tutoring service in the Los Angeles area that meets with students who are experiencing homelessness, while also working as a private tutor. She said she is currently still finalizing her plans for this semester but hopes to move to New York to do a remote internship.
Some students who are taking the spring 2021 semester off completed the fall 2020 semester, but found the experience of virtual classes isolating and frustrating, prompting them to take a gap semester.
College sophomore Sally Thomas decided early in the fall semester that she wanted to take a gap semester this spring, saying she felt “disconnected from classmates and professors” and preferred to get a “hands-on learning experience rather than being online again.”
This semester, Thomas plans to go on a trip to New Mexico with a program called Where There Be Dragons. Starting March 1, the program will last 71 days and will “look critically at [United States] immigration policy, nationalism, and social justice, meeting with organizations at the frontline of immigrant-advocacy work,” according to its website.
Thomas, who is involved with Penn for Refugee Empowerment, said she is interested in better understanding immigration issues and the history of the Mexican-American border.
College sophomore Frankie Galli similarly decided she wanted to take a gap semester this spring early into the fall semester. She said she felt anxious about the pandemic, and virtual classes were further adding to her feelings of anxiety.
Galli will spend this spring doing a semester at sea through Seamester, a program that allows college students and high school graduates to go on a 20- to 90-day voyage while taking classes.
Galli will be taking a 90-day voyage through the Caribbean while taking three classes that are accredited through the University of South Florida — "Introduction to Marine Biology," "Introduction to Oceanography," and "Nautical Science."
While none of these classes will be accepted by Penn towards her degree, Galli plans to still graduate on time in May 2023 by taking classes in the summer.
“I felt that all I was doing [in the fall] was homework and all I could think about was schoolwork, and there's so much more to life, college life, and to Penn than just the basics of each class,” she said.