One student started working for NASA. Another found a job as a field organizer for Sara Gideon’s Senate campaign in Maine. Others climbed an 11,000-foot peak in California’s Death Valley and harvested vegetables on a farm on the coast of Connecticut.
Facing a radically different semester in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Duke students chose to take a gap semester last fall. The fall semester saw a nearly sixfold increase in the number of students who decided to take leave and almost a fivefold increase in deferrals—compared to 2019.
This was a pattern that played out in colleges across the country as record numbers of students decided to take gap semesters.
For many students, this was an opportunity to explore new paths, nourish their mental health and reflect on their identities.
“I think there are many ways to have a productive semester that’s full of growing and learning that don’t involve taking classes,” said junior Julia Lang. “I learned so much about myself. I realized I can construct my path however I want it to be, and that makes my Duke experience a lot more meaningful.”
Instead of taking classes this semester, Lang searched for internship opportunities and other programs to participate in. Eventually, she found one: a 16-week-long robotics internship with NASA.
In her free time, Lang returned to old hobbies. She started reading, journaling, doing yoga, painting, meditating and cooking elaborate meals. She also taught herself animation and knitting and has fostered three kittens.
“I realized the importance of doing random things just for fun—not because it’ll impress people or look good on a resume,” Lang said. I’ve decorated my room with poorly made art prints, paintings, and stickers, all made by me just because it’s fun.”
Junior Dora Pekec also took advantage of her gap year to put her academic interests into practice. Working as a field organizer for the Sara Gideon Senate campaign in Maine, she managed volunteers, knocked on doors, canvassed and met with local Democratic groups.
“She was running against Republican four-time incumbent Susan Collins, and it was honestly a very important race because it was one of the close races needed to flip the Senate,” Pekec said.
“For me it was super eye-opening to apply a lot of the stuff I have learned in my public policy classes to the real world,” Pekec continued. “It really opened my eyes to what is most important for people and how people make decisions before they go to the ballot box. I don’t think I had ever really considered or talked about that in my classes.”
Other students who stepped away from Duke for the semester embarked on entirely novel experiences. Junior Claire Hutchinson found herself on a farm on the coast of Connecticut. She was there as part of a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, where participants join a host family and work on the farm in exchange for food and housing.
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“It's a great way to meet new people, learn about farming, meet like-minded people,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson and the other program members took care of chickens and sheep. During the summer, they tended to vegetable and flower gardens and picked fruit. When the weather became cold, she foraged for greenery to make holiday wreaths to sell at a New Haven farmer’s market.
On the Connecticut farm, Hutchinson found a sense of belonging.
“It’s been a very community-oriented experience, and because I’m in this small town I’ve gotten to know people in the community through our farmstand,” she said. “Living in a family’s home and eating dinner every night and working together everyday has been the most defining aspect of this experience.”
A gap semester allowed junior Maia Matheny to embark on a cross-country road trip she had always dreamed of taking.
“I thought it would be super fun to go backpacking for a semester, but I didn’t have the know-how to do that and I wouldn't go by myself,” Matheny said.
Luckily, she found a travel buddy in her friend Amanda Padden, a junior who also took a gap semester. Together, they drove to many of the country’s iconic natural landscapes—the Badlands of South Dakota, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. They camped in “random places” along the way, Matheny said.
Matheny said the defining part of her roadtrip happened when they reached California’s Death Valley.
“We summited the tallest peak of the park, which was above 11,000 feet, and also went to the lowest part of the park, which is below sea level. It was mind-boggling—it was just so foreign to me,” Matheny said. “One thing I realized very early on was how ingrained thinking about your next step always is, especially in school because you have to plan out your week, get all of your work done, get everything turned in and think about your next move. I still felt myself trying to plan ahead when I didn't have to and shouldn’t have to because it kind of detracted from the thing I was doing in the moment.”
The students I talked to differed in their reasons for ultimately taking the gap semester. Mental health was the “number one factor” for Hutchinson.
“I was considering taking a year off or a semester off even before COVID because sophomore slump hit me pretty hard, and I felt very burnt out,” she said.
For Lang, the virtual format of the semester convinced her to take a leave of absence.
“I didn’t want to pay for online classes since I learn much better in person, and I also value having an in person college experience where I can hang out with friends freely,” she said.
Others were frustrated with not knowing what the fall semester would look like.
“It was really Duke’s lack of transparency over the summer telling upperclassmen how the semester was going to look that pushed me to take time off,” Pekec said.
Matheny felt the same way.
“I reached a point where I was like ‘I don't want to be in this environment this whole semester with bated breath to see what happens,’” she said.