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A Guide to Gap Year and Semester OpportunitiesCambria Pilger
I love my college campus.
I love my dorm, which is full of commotion, laughter and well-worn couches positioned in patches of sunlight. I love the academic quad — a ring of stately buildings encompassing a lawn of towering trees, on which students relax in adirondack chairs. I especially love our lake which is steps away from my back door and equally inviting in all seasons.
When I visited Wellesley as a prospective student, I remember telling my mom that I never wanted to go back. It was mid-March during a year when the East Coast had dug its fingernails into winter. On the train out of Boston, I was impressed by the pervasive grayness that the Massachusetts landscape took on in the absence of city lights.
The town surrounding the college was suffocatingly wealthy and suburban — I spotted not one, but two luxury boutiques entirely for infants. On a campus tour, the sidewalks were slick with ice and the bare tree branches rattled forebodingly. The old stone buildings seemed more dingy than elegant in the bitter wind chill.
To my surprise, I braved a return. Even more surprising was that all of my complaints about the location were forgotten when I arrived for move-in the following August. Everything was vibrantly green and the campus seemed alive. I was too busy making my new life to be bothered by the heat or the humidity.
I started to fall in love with the buildings, the natural space, even the charming smallness of the neighboring towns. By the time the last of the kaleidoscopic fall leaves had faded, I was so excited by my life that there seemed to be a glow on even the worst winter days.
While saying goodbye to campus during my last week there this March, I was constantly reminded of the immense privilege it is to live and study in such a beautiful place. Months later, when I learned that I would not be invited back in the fall (in order to make adequate space for the freshman and sophomore classes to social distance), I was heartbroken.
Students were only given 10 days from the announcement of campus restrictions to make a decision about whether we would take a leave of absence or take classes remotely. As a rising junior, I could also express interest in the college’s tentative offer of housing in a nearby hotel, with strict distancing protocols and restrictions on movement.
I wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to take a leave of absence in order to prolong the time I could spend on campus in the future. Was the cost of my education even worth it if I didn’t have access to the physical spaces that had previously made it possible? This issue was especially concerning because my college chose not to lower tuition, although half of the student body would be learning online. I faced both the uncertainty of this semester’s financial aid, and of costs for future semesters, pending the unknown financial consequences of the pandemic.
My friends and classmates grappled with these worries, too, on top of which we all had our own specific circumstances to consider. Although my classmates may be able to return for the spring semester, I hope to study abroad then, meaning I won’t go back to campus for more than a year. Currently, I'm lucky enough to be living in my family home with my parents. However, my father’s cancer treatment means that he is at a high risk during this pandemic and it’s been difficult for me to leave the house even to get a summer job. At the same time, I'm grateful to be able to spend so much time with him, and to be close to my family right now.
I spent days immobilized in the face of so many intersecting concerns and decisions, thinking about which parts of my previous life were most important to me, because I couldn’t have them all. One of my main considerations was location. Could I succeed at online classes from home? What was it that made campus so important to me, after all?
To answer these questions, I had to look inward, but I also found myself reaching out to my friends and relying heavily on their perspectives.
Through this I realized something.
Ultimately, I love my dorm not because it reminds me of the set of a fantasy novel, but because every day I get to come home to my roommates. Although I love the trees in the academic quad, my most treasured moments are running into my friends in the middle of a hard day. Even my favorite sunset walks around the lake wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without the conversation that accompanies them.
My academic life has also been directly impacted by the support of my friends; being able to get together for late-night study sessions has given me the motivation to get through countless difficult projects. I am fortified and stretched by being around people who share my values and interests, but who also allow me to learn from their varied lived experiences.
This, I realized, was the difference between my first March meeting with the campus and my last March goodbye: the space had been infused with the value of the relationships I had built there.
What was most important to me wasn’t the place, but the people in it. I couldn’t bear to take time off if it meant that when I returned to campus I would have less time with the people that make it so special.
So we set about finding a space we could share for the upcoming fall semester. We searched Zillow’s short-term rentals, apartments.com and even long-term Airbnb. At first, location wasn’t a factor. We’re scattered across the U.S., literally from coast to coast, so travel was an inevitability. This might be our one opportunity to live and learn anywhere in the country — we were free to do whatever we wanted.
But the issue of my father’s illness was still pressing. Although I knew I wanted to return to work outside my home, and to generally limit the number of people my dad had to come into contact with, I also wanted to be close by, just in case. My friends understood that my circumstances were unique, and with their approval I started to look for rentals in my hometown.
I was about to give up hope when my mom discovered that our family friends were looking for a renter. Since they were hoping to have their space back in time for Christmas, we were the perfect candidates, and they were gracious enough to cut us a deal. Because of this, I’ll be able to have the academic and personal support of my friends in our very own home, as well as the chance to visit my family — from six feet away — during a time of need.
I'm so grateful to everyone who's made this choice available to me. My privilege is not lost on me; having the financial resources and social connections that my family does is a reality that most do not have access to.
I'm sharing this story not to revel in the realization of my dream living situation, but to encourage families and students everywhere to see a non-traditional semester as an opportunity to take stock of what's truly important.
I’m learning to let go of what I thought my “college experience” would be and to lean into the things that I value the most in my life, regardless of my identity as a student. My relationships with my friends and family and my love of learning are always available to me. Because of the disruption to my life as I know it, I have a unique opportunity to realign my priorities with my actions.
For me, location is important for many reasons, but its ultimate value is derived from the people with which it is shared, and I am so grateful that I am able to choose who that will be.
Our holiday shopping list is full of awesome ideas that are on trend with what students desire this gift-giving season.