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5 Tips for a Great Gap Semester During COVID-19

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Like many students her age, my 20-year-old daughter has decided to take a gap semester this fall.  In the interest of safety during COVID-19, only first and second year, international and transfer students will return to her college campus later this month. Juniors and seniors must wait until spring and figure out life in the meantime. This may or may not include online classes. The strange year of 2020 continues.

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To her credit, our daughter recognized early on that virtual learning is not for her.  She was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age and, like many of her peers, struggled last spring with the loss of connection and accountability associated with online classes. Trading highly-prized intimate classroom discussions with classmates and professors for impersonal computer screens just didn’t fit the bill.  And when we ultimately began talking about this, she exhibited maturity, introspection and financial awareness: “I just don’t think I’m getting enough out of the online experience to justify the cost.” She clearly knows herself, as do many students her age.  Now, what to do next?

Instead of preparing for a return to dorm life, complete with trips to Target and overpacked IKEA bags awaiting move-in day, our daughter now spends her days researching jobs, internships and “experiential learning opportunities” about which she can get excited. We have urged her to develop a plan for the fall that is both purposeful and productive and to take full advantage of this time to breathe during an otherwise stressful period in life. Seize the day. Smell the roses. And don’t stay in bed until noon.

Because this is easier said than done, especially during a pandemic, here are five tips for helping students capitalize on the prospect of a gap semester in the time of COVID-19:

1. Relax but prepare. Pour yourself a glass of water. Make a list of goals. Google places and programs that will help you achieve your goals, then identify the pros and cons of each. This will help you determine your plan and priorities. Remember to rest when you’re weary. You will figure this out. And you will eventually thrive.

2. Optimize the short-term but consider the long term. What do you want to be doing after graduation? Use this semester to help become more capable, competent and attractive to future employers or graduate schools. You may get paid for doing this, or you can look to supplement unpaid exploration with a part-time job. Either way, you should first identify your passions and interests and build from there.  A gap semester offers the chance to drive decisions based on what you love. It really is a gift.

3. Consult others but listen to yourself. Brainstorm with people to jump-start your thinking. What are your friends planning for this fall? What does your family think you should do? Since travel is limited, look closer to home or think creatively about where to spend your time. (Our daughter considered moving in with Grandma!) Think broadly about how to balance work, recreation, learning opportunities and physical activity. Consult your people but listen to your gut. The more intentional you are in creating your plan, the more successful you’ll likely be.

4. Balance safety with freedom. Following the recommendations of public safety professionals is one of the most important things you will do in the coming months. There are many ways to spread your wings, make your mark and master your universe while still social distancing and avoiding the transmission of the virus. Examine opportunities with an eye for this, since compliance is essential if we want this pandemic to pass.

5. Dream big. These next few months can be amazing.  Life isn’t linear, so take this detour with confidence.  And remember that, despite any current limitations, the best is yet to come!


Getty image by Popartic.

Originally published: September 3, 2020
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