COVID-19’s Impact on Gap Years

COVID-19 is changing every facet of our lives as we know it, especially in education. As college students have moved back home to take their classes online, so have many gappers. Gap year programs with students abroad, and even those traveling domestically, have discontinued programs and sent students home. Students who are back home must initially be in quarantine, while they adjust to reverse culture shock and the new normal (for now) of self-isolation. The uncertainty can be daunting and distressing, so Katherine Stievater recently held a virtual talk about the impacts of COVID-19 on Gap Years. Here’s what you need to know:

What’s happening right now?
Katherine: I have many students who were all around the world and away from home in the U.S. Now they’re all home – it’s a big adjustment. Many of these Gap Year programs do a great job of helping students adjust to reverse culture shock through outtakes and re-entry sessions, but that couldn’t happen this Spring as these companies didn’t have a chance to do that.

Have programs reimbursed their students’ families?
Katherine: All domestic travel and travel outside the U.S. has been discontinued. Most of these companies are not big, so there’s not a lot of extra cash. Some companies have refunded partial amounts, but it is happening on a case-by-case basis. The good news is that some of the students who were receiving college credits on their programs can continue to earn those credits with online classes!

What are you doing to help your Gap Year students transition?
Katherine: I’ve spent tons of time on web chats with my students. Everything happened so quickly and some of these students didn’t even know the extent of the impact of the virus in the U.S. because they didn’t have internet access while traveling abroad. They’re going from groups of, at most, 14 students to all of a sudden isolated in their rooms at home. I’ve helped these students cope with the transition and validate their experiences and feelings, as a lot of other people around them may not want to hear as much about it with everything going on. We do these web chats on Zoom every week now. For our next chat, I asked the students to cook something, and show this to the other Gappers – they loved this idea!

What about students who weren’t abroad, but were working?
Katherine: Some of my students aren’t interested in traveling during their Gap Year, which is totally fine. Gap Years are about learning valuable skills, like how to show up to a job on time, or work closely with other people, and solve problems with people with strong opposing views. Restaurants, retail, coffee shops and other sources of Gap Year jobs are now closed. Some onsite internships have moved remotely, or completely discontinued. I am helping all of my students, regardless of location this Spring, find ways to stay engaged outside their original Gap Year plan.

Number taking a gap year 2019-20

Okay, the million-dollar question… What does this mean for the Fall?
Katherine: We are trying to be cautiously optimistic about Fall 2020. We are going to be adaptable, creative, and nimble. More high school seniors are considering taking Gap Years in light of the COVID environment (2-3% in 2019 vs 6-7% in 2020). Colleges I have spoken with (e.g., Tufts, Boston College, Duke, Dickinson, Occidental) seem to be keeping the same deferral policies, so it is important for students to keep track of those deadlines.

In terms of Gap Year programs, most are still planning Fall departures. They’re building flexibility in their policies and adjusting the length and variation of the trips. For example, many semester-long programs may cut down from 15 or 10 week programs to 8 or 4 weeks. Programs are also looking into going into fewer countries to keep students safe. We may see that gappers choose to stay closer to home in the fall. I’m expecting many jobs suitable for gappers such as restaurants and retail to be back by the Fall. Traditional internships are a question as companies recover, however I expect “online internship” opportunities to open up. I have an intern who I work with remotely, so it is definitely an option!

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