In July, when the University announced its decision to bring students back to campus for a drastically modified hybrid in-person and virtual experience, students were faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to return. For some, the decision to re-
turn to campus was an easy one. After a long summer at home on the heels of a partially remote spring semester, many were eager to get back to living and learning with their friends on campus. However, for others, the decision was less straightforward. According to the Office of the Registrar, 288 students were granted a leave of absence this semester. Students cited factors such as finances, concerns about online instruction, and availability of alternative opportunities as explanations for why they decided to take a leave of absence or defer their acceptance, a possibility only available to students entering their first year of college.
Chase Howard ’24, who was granted a deferral for the start of his freshman year, stressed that due to financial reasons the decision to defer was out of his hands.
“I was relying on a financial contribution from my parents in order to be able to attend Wesleyan,” Howard, who is currently working as the field director for Ricky Junquera’s campaign for Florida State House Representative, said. “But basically my parents unilaterally decided to make the choice to say ‘we are not going to pay for you to attend Wesleyan if you’re attending
in person.’ And they just made that very clear…. I don’t really have much choice on this.”
Many students were also concerned about the academic quality of hybrid instruction, and whether or not it would be worth the University’s hefty price tag: this year’s tuition is $29,543 plus an $8,417 Residential Comprehensive Fee (RCF) for underclassmen or $9,313 RCF for upperclassmen.
“It didn’t seem like going back to the States was going to be a feasible option,” Junu Lee ’23, an international student from South Korea, said. “I was considering going online and what would that mean…for me financially in terms of taking out loans and stuff. Is it worth it?…. And then I decided it’s not.”
Lee added that, for him, the decision not to return was also based on his need to prepare for entrance into the military, a requirement for all male South Korean citizens who pass the physical exam.
Many students felt concerned that online instruction wasn’t the education that they had signed up for and that remote classes, even if conducted on campus, wouldn’t be as fulfilling.
“I think I was not really vibing with the spring,” Evan Sullivan ’23 (formerly ’22), who is taking the full year off to work and fulfill prerequisites for physician assistant school, said. “I literally woke up at eleven every day. I would watch my lectures, but I wasn’t really absorbing it….I don’t want to say I zoned out because I was present for all of my work, but I just feel like I
wasn’t as interested in the material. And I wasn’t as invested in learning it.”
Sullivan, who is also eager to start paying off some of his student loans early, was quick to add that, although the choice was right for him, he certainly did not think the same held true for everyone.
For Lee and Sullivan, this leave of absence was an opportunity to fulfill extracurricular requirements or explore other interests, which they had all initially planned on doing post-graduation. Dotan Appelbaum ’22 (formerly ’21) had a similar experience
as the COVID-19 pandemic provided a good opportunity to enroll in a nine-month-long comprehensive furniture craftsmanship program at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but in the past, it’s been a postgrad thought, like maybe I’ll spend a year here after I graduate,” Appelbaum explained. “But then back in April, I was thinking about a thesis….I can’t do a thesis remotely. And then even if we are on campus, does it make sense to be there this year, if I am able to take a year off? So, I applied to this place and made the decision in June or July.”
The desire to pursue more experiential learning forms was a prevalent rationale among others who decided to take time off or get a deferral. Abi Pipkin ’22, Nora Markey ’22, and Belle Brown ’22 are taking time off to work at an organic farm in California with a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Pipkin, along with friend and fellow ‘WWOOFER’ Markey, spent the summer working on a farm in Tennessee and emphasized how educational and formative that experience had been for her.
“I found myself learning so, so much from that experience,” Pipkin explained. “Just being in a different place, learning in alternative ways, and exploring places felt really educational to me.”
Daniel Feldman ’25, who is working at Hilltop NYC Bicycles and interning at the MIT IntelligentTransportation Systems Lab, shared similar thoughts. A gap year—an opportunity for more personal exploration and learning outside of the structure of traditional education—had always been in the back of his mind, but after hearing the University’s plans for the fall semester, Feldman decided that it was the right choice for the situation.
“It sounded like with little effort, I can make it more [learning] and maybe a little more fun than going to college under the current circumstances,” Feldman said. “It just seemed like it could offer more exploration and more opportunities that were not necessarily what I would have gotten if I had taken the conventional route.”
The ability to independently pursue creative projects was also an attractive feature of taking time off of school for many. For Lisa Stein ’21, the break from classes has allowed her to pursue personal music projects.
“I like creating my own adventures,” Stein said. “So having this time, I had a few things I knew I wanted to do. I just released this new music video that I’ve been working on non-stop for the past month. So that feels like the first big thing that I’ve finished since not being at school. And it’s totally something that I could not do if I were at school.”
Ishan Modi ’22, an international student from Singapore currently interning with the advertising agency Grey Group, also expressed a desire to work on creative projects.
“I had a lot of ideas that I was just ruminating on and I just wanted to work on them,” Modi said. “So without having to do classes and stuff, I just want to really focus on my creative work. I have some films and scripts and ideas that I wanted to just really hash out and think about and do my own research for those things and do my own stuff.”
Modi also noted that he does not feel any particular rush to graduate.
“I knew that I didn’t want to do online classes because I felt that, you know, you only have four years of college and I didn’t want to waste them,” Modi remarked. “I figured that, you know, all this COVID stuff could be a good thing in the sense that it gives me time to, you know, hit the brakes and reflect on college and not just, you know, rush into things….Because before you know it, college is over, then you’re like, shoot. Well, that’s that and my four years are gone.”
Modi’s decision was also made with more practical concerns in mind. As an American citizen, rather than a citizen of Singapore, where his family lives, Modi’s biggest fear was getting shut out of Singapore if the University were to shut down again mid-semester.
Other international students felt similarly. Eden Ho ’24, who is from Singapore, ended up extending her
gap year another semester because she didn’t want to risk coming to the U.S.
“Our embassies weren’t even open yet,” Ho said. “Even if we wanted to go, we couldn’t get a visa. I did not want to risk catching COVID, especially because we have like a 24-hour flight to Connecticut. So it was just way too risky…. [E]ven if the embassies opened, I don’t think I would want to be able to risk going there.”
Although some expressed that they were socializing with coworkers or others around them, a struggle to stay connected and social away from campus was a prevailing theme among students on leave. An emphasis on digital connection also seemed a common thread, but several students explained that despite digital communication, it was hard to stay connected and grounded socially.
“I’m so isolated!” Appelbaum exclaimed. “Oh my God. I mean, I’m still joining the social events on Zoom for Throw, even though I never played Frisbee, but, other than that, I mean, I’m not socially grounded this year.”
In spite of his physical isolation, Appelbaum expressed gratitude for clubs and student groups on campus that are making an effort to be especially inclusive of remote or currently unenrolled students.
Many people expressed excitement about the opportunity to use this time away from school for deeper self-reflection. Feldman, a recent high school graduate, reflected that the college process, rather than being a time for finding oneself, actually had the opposite effect for him.
“You just lose so much of [yourself ],” Feldman said. “I see this as an opportunity to re-examine that, you know, re-examine what I thought I am and what I thought I’d like or dislike. So far, I’m finding out more about the things that I dislike and things that I like.”
Sullivan expressed similar sentiments.
“The thing I’m most excited for is just gaining experience and life,” Sullivan said. “Just sort of gaining those skills and also gaining accountability…. I think that I’m going to go back to school and be a more grown-up person, you know?”
Many were quick to point out that what they missed most about the University was their friends. Despite a sense of excitement and optimism about the decision to take time off of school, some worried about the social consequences of returning to a college in which their friends had already graduated, or else were in different class years.
“Now it’s mostly a social thing,” Appelbaum said. “Academically, I’m going to be fine now with a more secure senior year and stuff. That’s all good. But I miss people, and I am sad that a lot of my friends are going to graduate and I will then come back next year and they won’t be there. And it kind of sucks, but it’s all right.”
To Stein, it was a weird feeling to see people thriving on campus and not being there, especially with the ongoing uncertainty regarding when she will return to school.
“I feel like I’m living in this bubble of space and time that I didn’t know existed between junior and senior year,” Stein said. “It just feels like a little bubble. In a way, it almost feels like I’ve graduated already.”
Brown expressed sadness that, as a transfer student, she was already getting less time to be on campus and meet people at Wesleyan.
“I’m literally going to be a second semester junior and have spent less than two full semesters on campus,” Brown said. “So it’s kind of sad that there are so many cool people at Wesleyan that I won’t get a chance to become closer friends with, just like as a function of less time on campus or seniors who are graduating.”
Additionally, Ho said that her main anxieties come from returning to college after so much time off.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to write properly or hold a pen,” Ho said. “I just haven’t been in school for so long and for some reason I thought the urge to study would come back to me after a while, you know, when you take time off and you’re like ‘hmm I kinda wish I had something to study.’ That urge hasn’t hit me for eighteen months.”
In spite of anxieties regarding the consequences of taking time off, most students had come to terms with their new realities. Many shared an appreciation for the time spent away from the University’s comfortable campus and a renewed sense of gratitude.
“I realized for the first time sitting here on my butt in Singapore, college gives you so many opportunities to do all kinds of things and we take it so much for granted, at least I did,” Modi reflected. “You realize, damn, there are a lot of things I’ve taken for granted. And I want to make the most of that when I get back to campus.”
Appelbaum echoed Modi’s thoughts, acknowledging that despite the situation not being ideal or intended, the experiences gained
from his year away would allow him to bring even more to his University education in the future.
“I don’t want to say that this was a blessing in disguise because everything is absolutely awful right now,” Appelbaum said. “But taking a year off is not something I ever would have considered before….But this is very much gonna act like an aid in my education; and having this training in woodworking and furniture making is going to be something that I can draw upon in studio art and in that part of my education. And that’s not something I would have had, had I not done this.”
Mengmeng Gibbs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at email@example.com.