Mind the Gap: Reimagining a Year Away

by Emma Ginsberg | 9/16/20 2:20am

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by Viola Gatti Roaf / The Dartmouth

When you hear the words “gap year,” what do you imagine? If you’re like me, someone who went straight to college after graduating from high school, you might imagine gap year students something like those larger-than-life folk heroes of yore — they disappear into the mountains and emerge months later having self-actualized; they weather unknown roads; in general, they swashbuckle. No matter what somebody tells me they did on their gap year, I always assume they fought a shark at least once during the year.

If you’re one of the fabled few who actually took a gap year, you may have a more accurate idea of what they look like, whether you traveled abroad or worked a job in your hometown. But what is a gap year student to do when the world around them, still in the depths of a pandemic, is off-limits? With globetrotting restricted and work opportunities limited for the foreseeable future, gap-yearing Dartmouth students are discovering new ways to swashbuckle from home.

For students taking the 2020-2021 school year off, planning for the coming months has been a touch-and-go process. For incoming freshmen in particular, many of whom decided to take gap years in hopes of starting college after the pandemic, deferring enrollment came before finalizing alternative plans.

“When I heard my first year of college was never going to be what it was promised to be, that was really sad,” Daniel Xu ’25 said. When the College allowed ’24s to defer enrollment, Xu thought, “I’m gonna do it and figure out what I’m going to do with the gap year after.”

Initially, the task of filling a year in quarantine was daunting for Xu. A driven student in high school, Xu prefered to stay busy. 

“When quarantine struck and we were all sent home, I had to find something to do,” Xu said. “I was painting walls and changing light switches. Once the inside of my house was done, I moved on to gardening. I was going insane.”

After a few months of bouncing off the walls, Xu settled into his gap year by focusing on photography, a favorite hobby which recently became a professional undertaking. 

“I started out doing senior portrait shoots here and there, and then it took off,” Xu said. “I’m booked out for an entire couple months ahead. I’ve been taking senior portraits every night.”

In the winter, Xu expects his photography bookings to slow down. He hasn’t finalized his plans for the season, but time spent focusing on his passion has tempered his early-quarantine need to be productive, allowing him to enjoy unplanned time.  

“I’ve had time to be a human for once. I can do things for the sake of doing things, not because I feel like I have to,” Xu said.

Cara Marantz ’25, an admitted student from Chicago, had a similarly vague vision for her gap year when she declared it. After submitting a request for deferral in early June, Marantz nearly got cold feet. 

“I had zero idea what I would possibly do,” Marantz said.

Since declaring her gap year, Marantz has secured a volunteer job for the Joe Biden presidential campaign, coordinating communication between the campaign and public figures who support it. Marantz is also looking forward to nannying during the fall term. 

Like many gap year students awaiting public health projections, Marantz’s plans for the winter and spring are still uncertain. However, Marantz’s initial fear of unplanned time has eased. 

“I appreciate having the year not so planned out, especially because I’ve spent the past 12 years of my life having a strict plan.”

“I appreciate having the year not so planned out, especially because I’ve spent the past 12 years of my life having a strict plan,” Marantz said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to do whatever comes my way. I want to do things that I enjoy, and not have to stress about tests or homework.”

Marantz looks forward to matriculating at Dartmouth in 2021, hopeful that deferring enrollment will allow her to start college on her own terms. 

“I applied to Dartmouth because I wanted the traditions and everything, so I think [taking a gap year] is a good choice for me,” Marantz said. “I’m meeting new people and doing new things. I’m excited to go into college with a lot more experience and knowledge.”

Incoming students aren’t the only ones using gap years to avoid what many see as a diminished Dartmouth experience. Alex Wells ’23, formerly a member of the Class of 2022, is one of the many rising juniors who chose to take a year off from school. For Wells, a break from student life is a chance to define his academic intentions and explore new parts of the Dartmouth community.

Wells started thinking about gap years in the fall of 2019, having heard stories from his friends who took time off before matriculating. Wells was interested in the way his friends’ gap year experiences had shaped their academic interests and wondered if having an adventure of his own would help him determine what he hoped to gain from his time at Dartmouth. Shortly after the announcement that spring term would be remote, Wells decided to take a chance and started the process of declaring a gap year.

“I really enjoyed thinking through what I want my Dartmouth experience to be like from here on out,” Wells said. “For the first part of it, I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening!’ This whole gap year will be a moment to breathe and say, ‘Let’s get ready to do school again, and let’s do school intentionally.’”

“I feel like most people take gap years before or after college to get a feel for what the real world is like, but my plan is just to get more time associated with Dartmouth.”

For the fall term, Wells is working remotely with the Dickey Center for International Understanding and TA-ing his favorite class, ENGS 12, “Design Thinking.” He hopes to be a ski instructor on campus in the winter and to work at Moosilauke Ravine Lodge when it reopens.

“I feel like most people take gap years before or after college to get a feel for what the real world is like, but my plan is just to get more time associated with Dartmouth,” Wells said. 

He is hopeful that when classes resume next fall, a year spent immersing himself in his favorite parts of college life will have reinvigorated his zest for academics.

Gap years are for discovering the world around you from a new perspective, and perhaps forming an understanding of your place in it. Even though 2020-2021 gap years will contain significantly less globetrotting and shark-fighting than the typical gap year, Dartmouth students are finding ways to fill their time with meaningful reflection and self discovery. Whatever stories our gap-yearing friends have to tell us in 2021, they will surely be as thrilling and worthwhile as any adventure tale.