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The Can’t-Win Calculus for College Freshmen under Covid-19
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The View From Campus

The Can’t-Win Calculus for College Freshmen under Covid-19

First-year students face a choice among in-person risks, remote learning and taking a gap year.

Madeline Jutsen (Courtesy)
Madeline Jutsen (Courtesy)

When I first started researching colleges as a high school junior, I had a very specific type of school in mind. My ideal college would have only a couple thousand students so I would always see people I knew when I walked across campus. It would be a rural or suburban college because I love being in nature and wanted to join an outdoor activity club.

I’m also a Write On For Israel graduate who wanted a school with a strong Jewish community, so I looked forward to going to Hillel events and joining an Israel advocacy group. My friends were also excited to play in the band at sports games, participate in fun traditions like midnight breakfast during finals week, and have roommates for the first time.

However, everything changed in March 2020 when high schools and colleges all over the country shut down. My friends and I had spent four long years pushing ourselves to excel in high school so we could get into our dream colleges. But once we actually got to choose a school to enroll in, we wouldn’t be able to get most of the experiences we had been looking forward to.

Prospective college students — Jewish and non-Jewish — faced a tough question: Now that we would have to risk getting Covid-19 and miss out on social connections on campus, was it still worth it to go to college?

My peers and I approached our college decisions differently. Many of my classmates did not see the virus as a reason to delay attending college in the fall of 2020, or change their minds about where they wanted to go. They wanted to start their education right away, even if their freshman year would be very different from what they had expected.

My friend Michael is currently a freshman living on campus at the Rochester Institute of Technology. When I asked him how the Covid-19 pandemic affected his college choice, he said, “It didn’t affect my decision much, but the fact that RIT was closer to home than other schools helped.” Michael is from Long Island, and many of his college acceptances were from out-of-state schools. He told me that going to a more local university during the pandemic “was definitely a plus, but I probably would have gone to RIT either way.”

He, along with most of my friends who have started college, is worried about getting sick, especially with the outbreaks happening on many campuses, and is disappointed that most of his classes and all of the student organizations he wanted to join are online. Still, a college education outweighs the risks for these students.

Others, including me, thought it was best to defer for a year in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to be so worried about safety, and that we would be able to get the full college experience in 2021.

Taking a Gap Year

My friend Mateen decided to take a gap year because of the pandemic. He doesn’t have specific plans yet, but he told me he would like to study Arabic, learn more about world cultures and get his motorcycle license. If international travel is safe by the end of his gap year, he wants to go to Europe. When I asked him why he chose to take a gap year, he told me, “I think it’s paramount for us to stay home during the pandemic. I like to be extra cautious. A gap year is the best option since it’s hard to travel to and from university.”

Mateen and I agreed that we aren’t missing out on much by prioritizing our safety over starting college right away. Those of us who have decided to take gap years might struggle with loneliness and feeling left out, but current college students don’t have it any better.

The coronavirus has only added to the typical challenges of being a freshman, including homesickness and difficulty making new friends. Many campuses now have very strict regulations on visitors, making it more difficult for freshmen to connect with their family and friends from home. With club meetings moved online and sports games and parties canceled, opportunities to meet new people on campus are significantly limited.

The lack of in-person connections due to the pandemic was the main reason why I chose to take a gap year before attending Muhlenberg College, my top school. When I toured the campus last year, I just knew I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. I loved Muhlenberg’s small discussion-based classes, the special events and trips offered by the honors program, and its rich Jewish life.

I preferred to delay my college education for a year rather than miss out on campus experiences.

I preferred to delay my college education for a year rather than miss out on these experiences. Also, the safety risk of living on campus was too great for me to be comfortable going there — a concern proved all too real by recent events.

Only a few weeks into their first semester, several colleges, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Towson University, and East Carolina University, have moved all classes online due to Covid-19 outbreaks. If I’d started college now, I would be risking bringing the virus home to my family. I live with my parents and my brother, who all have asthma, and I have a grandmother who is in her mid-70s and comes to our house frequently.

I also realized that I didn’t feel ready to move to another state at the age of 18, and that I wanted to take a year off school to explore what type of career I might be interested in. The pandemic has given me an opportunity to slow down and focus on what I’m passionate about now that I don’t have the stress of trying to get A’s in multiple advanced classes. Even though I’m going to college a year later than most students, I might be more likely to graduate on time if I know what I want to major in from the beginning.

So instead of dealing with college during a pandemic, I am about to start a childcare job where I will help students who are learning remotely with their online classes, and I will continue volunteering to help coach a local track team for children with special needs. These experiences will help me decide if I still want to be an education major when I go to Muhlenberg next year.

Weighing the Risks

Honestly, without the pandemic, I probably would have missed this opportunity to think through my future. It was easier for me to decide to take a gap year without facing other students’ judgement. Since everyone was questioning their college decisions due to all of the uncertainty in the world, I felt less pressure to follow the typical path of going to the most prestigious university possible straight after graduation.

It was a relief from the cutthroat academic competition of high school. And a welcome escape from the questions about where I had been accepted, and unsolicited advice from my classmates and teachers on what college I should choose.

Ultimately, whatever a graduate in 2020 decides to do after high school comes with a lot of uncertainty. For those of us taking gap years, we don’t have to worry as much about getting the coronavirus, but many of us need to create our own plans without knowing if we’ll even be able to fulfill them.

Because of the pandemic, I won’t get to join a gap-year program and travel internationally with new friends. But I believe that my choice to stay home for a year and work a low-risk job is the best decision I could have made given the circumstances. I get the best of both worlds: Gaining important life experience while staying as safe as possible from the virus.

Those of us who are taking gap years are also unsure of whether college will be back to normal next year. I’m hoping to get the freshman experience I’ve always wanted when I go to Muhlenberg in 2021, but if the pandemic is still as big of a concern as it is now, I plan to stay home and learn remotely. Paying thousands of dollars to live on campus wouldn’t be worth it if I had to risk my own safety just to spend a lot of my time in front of a computer in my dorm room.

During this pandemic, students and their families shouldn’t feel like living on a college campus right after high school graduation is their only option. Deciding what to do after high school is already stressful enough. Taking a gap year doesn’t mean you’re getting left behind, and it doesn’t mean you have to join a program.

With proper planning, you can have a meaningful experience staying home, getting a job, and exploring your interests without the pressure of grades. Similarly, if you prefer to start college right away but are concerned with safety and the cost of your education, taking all of your classes online at home might be the best choice. In these uncertain times, everyone can benefit from being more flexible with their college plans.

Madeline Jutsen is a 2020 graduate of Write On For Israel, and will be a freshman at Muhlenberg college in the fall of 2021.

Debates over Israel, mental health challenges, anti-Semitism, creating a strong Jewish life — young Jews experience a lot in college. The View From Campus is a column for them to tell The Jewish Week, and you, all about it. Want to write for us? Send a draft or pitch to Lev Gringauz at lev@jewishweek.org.

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