During the fall of 2018, 61 Emory students took a leave of absence. In fall 2019, there were 70. That number jumped to 136 this semester, according to the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Although students must provide justification for taking leaves of absence, Emory does not collect data on those who chose to do so for COVID-19 related reasons. However, the virus is presumably the culprit behind the substantial increase, and a similar trend in gap year statistics – the typical 30 first-year deferrals nearly tripled for the Class of 2024 – appears to corroborate that assumption. Many of those taking a leave of absence cited entirely online classes away from the Atlanta campus as their deciding factor.

“It’s not that I did badly the second semester of freshman year in my online classes, but it just was not a good experience,” Anoushka Parameswar (24C), a New York native, said. “I did not learn as much, and I wasn’t engaged as much.”

Tiffany Low (24C), who lives in Seattle, expressed a similar distaste for remote learning. After taking a couple of online community college classes over the summer, she realized she might struggle with a full course load at Emory and decided to step back until in-person instruction resumed. Similarly, Ducal Hoang (21C), who resides in Georgia, knew he lacked the motivation to stay engaged in a virtual environment. 

“I found myself not being fully invested in my classes,” Hoang recalled. “I would wake up right before my Zoom meeting, take the class, and right after I would log off and go back to bed. I didn’t have the best habits.”

Disconnection has been a recurring theme of the pandemic, which has compounded upon students who took a gap semester. 

“It’s the little things, like sitting down for lunch with your friends after class or walking to a class or working out with people,” Low said. “I miss talking to professors. I realized that as much as you hate school and finals, you really come to miss learning and having people to discuss ideas with.”

Parameswar began to form stronger relationships at the beginning of the spring semester, but having to abruptly leave campus in March undid much of her progress. She admitted that she sometimes feels “left out” as the pandemic’s restrictions have made it difficult for her to stay in touch with friends. 

For Kendall Kalmans (23C), the decision to take time off and stay home in Houston meant missing out on the social experiences of college that she enjoys most. 

“The hardest part has been the lack of busyness, socially and academically,” Kalmans said. “I’ve not been able to plan for anything or look forward to things.”

For these students, stepping back from their academic careers has allowed them to pursue interests that take a backseat during the school year and refresh their mental health. 

Hoang is progressing toward his medical assistant certification so he can begin working and accumulate hours for his pre-health track. He also launched a clothing business earlier this year called Penguyen. Although he’s had to scale back his visions for the brand due to pandemic complications, he stays busy creating designs, filling orders, printing clothes and running its social media accounts.

“If I put in my full effort now, maybe it’ll be self-sustainable,” Hoang explained. “I definitely want to devote my time fully to running my business, and by the time fall of 2021 comes I’ll be able to take classes and not worry so much about the business.”

Kalmans followed a similar path, turning a baking hobby into her Houston-based business Hoot and Challah. While she would like to expand her business, her ultimate goal is to return to Emory full time. 

After finishing a political campaign internship in November, Parameswar has been utilizing Coursera, a website containing free asynchronous lectures from over 200 universities, to take a few online classes. She explained that exploring courses outside her comfort zone is easier in Coursera’s more informal and flexible setting. 

“Sometimes at college, I wouldn’t take a course because I didn’t know if it was something I would major in,” Parameswar said. “Should I waste my time and money by taking that course? [With Coursera] I can try different things, and it’s okay if it doesn’t work out.”

Although Low is juggling an internship and a part-time job at her family’s real estate company, she has taken this time to focus on her mental health and rediscover her academic passions.

“It’s really easy to get stuck in a routine: grind and chug and grind and chug,” Low reflected. “I really wanted some time to step back and appreciate the things I was learning. Having this time where I’m not as busy and just slowed down, I’ve been able to explore more things. I’m very grateful for this time.”

Like Low, Hoang felt his mental health has improved over the past few months without his usual academic rigor and pressure.

“It’s a much-needed break,” Hoang said. “I’ve been a little overwhelmed with classes, so having this little break gives me time to step back, enjoy life a little and work out other parts of my career. … My overall happiness was really down in the dumps, but having this time put me in a better headspace.”

Hoang, Low and Parameswar plan to extend their leaves of absence to the rest of the year, while Kalmans has yet to finalize her spring semester plans. None of them have any regrets about straying from their paths to graduation, as they have found value in the experience of taking time off. 

Eventually, these students may have to reconcile their dislike of online school with their desire for an Emory experience. Parameswar admitted that she “can’t take a year off forever,” but coming to terms with education during the pandemic is a tough pill to swallow.

“If I wanted to be an online college student, I would’ve chosen an online university,” Kalmans said with a laugh.