Returning students reflect on the advantages of their COVID gap year
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Returning students reflect on the advantages of their COVID gap year

When students registered for classes and signed up for study abroad trips at the end of 2019, they weren’t anticipating a global pandemic to alter their way of life for over a year.

As COVID-19 shut down schools across the country, students transitioned into online learning with just a weekend’s notice, and residential students at Belmont were told to move off-campus or go back home for the remainder of the spring semester. After mass confusion and the realization of a new normal, students began to re-evaluate how they wanted to move forward in their education.

Some concluded the best option for them was to take a gap semester or a gap year — and there are plenty of reasons why.

For some, online classes simply couldn’t replace the value of an in-person education.

Theater major Lucy Buchanan decided a semester off from school was the best path for her, given the importance of human interaction in theater.

“Once everything got shut down, I wasn’t really sure what classes were going to look like or what performance opportunities would be available since all of this is contingent on being in the same room with others, team building, personal contact, etcetera,” Buchanan said.

Online school is an experiment that everyone first navigated with a lot of uncertainty, and students like Buchanan did not want to be guinea pigs at the expense of their education.

In the first few months of the pandemic, Buchanan’s virtual learning experience was enough to make it clear that her theater courses were not suited for an online classroom.

For other students living outside of Tennessee, like international business and economics major Valerie Demarzo, keeping up with class from outside the Central time zone made for a strenuous, unsustainable morning routine.

“There’s a three-hour time difference between where I live and Nashville, so I was waking up around 5 a.m. for my 8 a.m. classes, which made virtual learning very challenging. I was kind of teaching myself for most classes,” Demarzo said. 

In the end, many students like Buchanan and Demarzo decided that the best thing they could do was take time away from campus and virtual learning. But at the same time, it was important not to let that time go to waste.

Music therapy major Vanessa Harris took a gap semester in the fall and stressed the importance of keeping busy with productive activities instead of sitting down watching Netflix all day. 

Among activities like working out, reading, working at NoBaked Cookie Dough and sharpening her guitar skills, one of the highlights of Harris’ gap semester was volunteering at Music Therapy of the Rockies, a music therapy retreat for military veterans.

Demarzo and Buchanan also worked during their time away from school.

Buchanan held down three jobs and took voice lessons to keep her skills fresh, and she said her gap semester gave her a look at what post-grad life would be like.

She missed the social interaction with her friends and classmates, but the time away from campus was much-needed, she said.

Demarzo saw her gap period as a bittersweet experience; she agreed that there was some social strain, but she enjoyed her full-time job as well as spending time at home.

Through everything, these students kept their motivation to return to school, and they saw their respective gap year, or semester, as a chance to build their resumes, achieve personal goals and prepare for upcoming semesters with — hopefully — less uncertainty.

However, granting Belmont some grace, they said another approach in the school’s response would still not have changed their mind in pursuing taking time off.

They, and many other students who spent the semester away, plan to return to Belmont in the fall. 

Overall, students like Buchanan, Demarzo and Harris are content with their decision to take time off, saying they gained more experience during their break than they would have from participating in virtual learning.

Regardless of students’ reasoning, these are examples of how helpful a gap year can be, given the unique obstacles COVID-19 has brought for college life.

This article was written by Gus Sneh. Photo by Sarah Maninger.

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