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Turning a COVID year into a gap year: 6 students share their stories

Katherine Chui / Thresher

By Ariana Moshiri     9/28/21 9:59pm

There is no linear path to take in life and in college — no one-size-fits-all plan to success. Sometimes, the unexpected happens (say, a global pandemic). Or you simply decide to step back and re-evaluate what would be best for you, regardless of what others say you should be doing. 

Taking a gap year is a choice that students make for a multitude of reasons. The Thresher talked to six students who took last year off from school to learn more about the unique experiences they’re bringing back with them. 

Samir Walji, freshman

Samir Walji, a freshman at Lovett College, said he had always planned on taking a gap year, regardless of the pandemic. According to Walji, a gap year between high school and college was the only opportunity to explore his freedom from school and career demands without being financially responsible for it.  

“I was lucky enough that my parents were able to fund me travelling and going on trips,” Walji said. “I felt like taking a year off to grow as a person, especially since I had a lot of goals for myself, would be very beneficial for me and let me [be able to] perform better in college and also just have a good time.”

While COVID didn’t influence his decision to take a gap year, Walji said that it did change his plans about what he would do. His altered plan included 6 weeks in Costa Rica, where he surfed, kayaked, camped, worked at an animal rescue center and helped with construction and farming in the local community through the Pacific Discovery program. His time in Costa Rica was followed by a road trip with his best friends from Dallas to New York. 

“When else am I going to be able to live like that and not be stressing out about school or work?” Walji said. “People always talk about how you’re going to fall behind [if you take a gap year], but there’s nothing you’re falling behind from; there’s not one track that you have to stick to.” 

Walji said that his gap year reinvigorated him for a new chapter in his life: college. According to him, this experience left only positive effects on his mental health, social life and approach to work. 

“I feel like throughout the gap year I became a lot more comfortable and confident with the person I am,” Walji said. “I’ve grown up more and matured a lot, and [this] personal development makes me happy to be starting college as [who] I am now rather than [who I was] right after I got out of high school.”

Justin Lebeau, freshman

Justin Lebeau, a freshman at Sid Richardson College, said that he preferred to wait a year to enter Rice as he hoped for a better start to college — one where he wouldn’t have to sacrifice much of the experience due to the pandemic. Lebeau said he spent two months working as a supervisor on the census for his county and then six months volunteering, teaching English as a foreign language and enjoying his opportunity to travel, mainly in Costa Rica (as well as in Colombia and Guatemala). 

“It was a really good experience to grow and meet new people before coming to college … I think I definitely have changed and it’s for the better,” Lebeau said. “Obviously a lot of people come right out of high school never having lived on their own and it’s a big adjustment to have to do that for the first time … but it was not as crazy, not as big of a shift [for me].”

Matan Lieber-Kotz, junior

Matan Lieber-Kotz, a junior at Lovett, said that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, there was no way he could have ever imagined himself taking a gap year in the middle of college. 

“I felt like [online classes] weren’t worth paying tuition,” Lieber-Kotz said. “It wasn’t worth it to go to Houston just to sit in my room.”

Lieber-Kotz spent his fall finishing work for his remote summer internship, taking an online class from Rice and teaching in person at a Hebrew school for kids back home in D.C. But he said that it was his job at a co-op in the Colorado Department of Energy in the spring that made his whole year worthwhile since it provided a lot of experience in a field that he would certainly consider entering. 

“It was just really great to live independently and get productive and valuable stuff done,” Lieber-Kotz said. “I made some friends [in Colorado] and I really matured a lot when I was there on my own, doing the stuff you take for granted when you’re living on campus or with family … It made it easier for me to come back to Rice.” 

Lieber-Kotz said that his experiences at Rice now feel different from those of other juniors because he feels recharged after his time off. 

“I came back and it’s like I have a better attention span; I have way more appreciation for in-person classes than I ever did,” Lieber-Kotz said. “I’m doing a lot more of a workload than I was doing as a sophomore but I don’t feel overwhelmed or burnt out.” 

Amanda Suarez, senior

Amanda Suarez, a senior at Martel College, also decided to take an unanticipated year off after classes went online due to COVID. According to Suarez, she had negative experiences with remote learning midway through the spring of 2020 and she felt that she was justified in taking a break to reverse the effects of burnout after working very hard for the previous three years. 

“I didn’t have a program or anything previously planned because it was a spontaneous decision in July [2020] once they sent out that email [announcing some classes would be online],” Suarez said. “I just spent a lot of time focusing on my mental health. I also ended up doing a lot of things I never had time for, like learning digital art, doing a lot of running — I did a 10k — and doing some research for a few weeks.” 

Throughout her gap year, Suarez also spent a lot of time working remotely with the Rice Marching Owl Band, or as she called it, her “social and mental health lifeline,” playing at dual-delivery MOB rehearsals and advocating for other remote members. 

“What was really nice about the break, though, was that I really didn’t realize how burnt out I was until I had it. So just being able to come back and go to classes now refreshed has been really beneficial,” Suarez said. “It’s a lot easier for me to focus now because I basically rebuilt my mental health from the ground up. And it’s caused me to know my limits, when I need to rest, and when I need to push myself.” 

Michael Ou, junior

Michael Ou, a junior from Jones College, said he embarked on a gap year with the notion that things were not going to return to normal in the fall. Ou said that as an international student, he would be uniquely affected by this reality, and he was concerned about factors like time zone differences, student visas and internship opportunities available to him abroad. Once in-person activities shut down and all his suitemates left in spring 2020, he returned home to China, where he said he could live a relatively normal life — compared to his friends attending online classes at Rice — as COVID case numbers and restrictions were minimal there.

Ou spent his time traveling to Tibet, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. He also did an internship for a few months and worked on personal projects relevant to his future career as a computer science major. He said that the most important part of his gap year, however, was getting to spend time with his family. 

“As an international student, you don’t really have that much time to spend with your family,” Ou said. “Basically you get just over one month total every year spent with your family, which was really tough for me.”

According to Ou, taking a gap year was vital for his overall health. He said that through meditation and time with his family, he was able to alleviate a lot of physical symptoms he experienced while at Rice — feelings that he attributed to anxiety as a product of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

“I was having a lot of anxiety when COVID first started, even more in April, because I was all alone [in the US] and there were no friends for me to talk to,” Ou said. “My anxiety was really hindering me a lot during my sophomore year and I think that without a gap year, there would have been no good way to help with that.”

Annabelle Crowe, senior

Annabelle Crowe, a senior at Sid Richardson College, also said the pandemic made her decide to take a gap year following her year abroad. According to Crowe, it was a very difficult decision for her, but she didn’t want the last of her just three years at Rice to fail to live up to what they could have been under more normal circumstances. 

“I just wanted to get a better Rice experience than I think [last] year [would have given] me,” Crowe said. 

Crowe said that her gap year allowed her to be able to do many things that she would not have had time to do otherwise, such as focusing on her mental health and building a strong foundation for her senior thesis. 

“I did a lot of resting [and] self reflection, and I had more time to work through my goals… [but] it took months because I think Rice has such a culture of accomplishment and working really hard towards concrete goals that I was scared to admit that I really don’t know what I want to do after college,” Crowe said. “I got to a place where I [thought] ‘It’s not worth it to worry and stress about the future all the time if it’s making my life miserable now.’ I think I wouldn’t have been able to have the time to get to that place had I not taken a year off.”

Crowe said she finds value in breaking the stigma around gap years. She said that we could all benefit from re-evaluating and exploring our options, instead of sticking only to what we feel like we should be doing.

“I’m very happy with [my decision to take a gap year]. I didn’t know it was possible to enjoy Rice this much because I had the opportunity to rest and recharge,” Crowe said. “I think everyone should more seriously consider doing it if they think it would help them. Because it’s very not normalized and something we didn’t talk about before [the pandemic]. I know a lot of people now wish they more seriously considered it.”

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