When Maya Brill (23C) started her second year at Emory in fall 2020, she was disappointed to find that classes would not be in person. Brill, living with a cousin and two friends in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the time, found online school to be uninteresting.

“I don’t do well sitting at home all day,” Brill said. “I felt like I wasn’t thriving in school. I felt like I wasn’t learning that much or enjoying learning.”

So Brill did what many students did during the 2020-2021 school year: She took a gap semester. Brill spent spring 2021 completing intensive Spanish lessons, finding internships and learning to manage her free time.

“While I wasn’t doing school, I was really stimulating my brain every single day,” Brill said. “It turned out to be much more valuable to me than what I felt like I was doing in the fall.”

Brill’s decision reflected a broader trend among Emory students that academic year. Of Emory’s undergraduate sophomores, juniors and seniors, 4% took one or more semesters off during the 2020-2021 school year, according to data provided by Assistant Vice Provost Justin Shepherd. That rate marks a significant increase from the 1.1% of students who took gap semesters in the 2019-2020 school year and the 1.5% of students who took semesters off in the 2018-2019 school year.

For Emily Ogden (21Ox, 23C), the decision to take a gap semester was difficult and happened at the last-minute. After a disheartening fall semester, Ogden found that online instruction was not working for her.

“The isolation and the anxiety and depression and everything made it so that I just couldn’t even do anything,” Ogden said. “When spring 2021 rolled around, I had kind of gotten to a point where the isolation had really started negatively affecting my classes.”

Ogden opted to take a medical withdrawal and not finish her spring semester, which made her worry about what the people in her life would think.

“You know how sometimes your extended family just talks about you?” Ogden asked. “You feel like you’re kind of the family disappointment … like you’re a failure.”

For one, a spiritual awakening

Rani Schwartz (23C). Photo by Soju Hokari 

While some students made last-minute decisions, others such as Rani Schwartz (23C) took a few months to consider options. A sophomore at the time, Schwartz was interested in becoming a lawyer. But after completing a legal internship in spring 2020, Schwartz found the legal world wasn’t without its problems.

“[Defendants’] stories weren’t getting told in a way that I felt represented advocacy by the Lord,” Schwartz said. “It was kind of like a perverted version of justice. … Justice to me wasn’t the retributive thing that’s common in court systems now.”

After meeting a stranger who claimed to have a relationship with God, Schwartz started to realize that she had become attached to “silly worldly desires” and began to explore her own relationship with God.

“I wanted to have a certain amount of prestige associated with my job. I wanted to date a certain type of guy and marry a certain type of guy,” Schwartz said. “After getting to know that [stranger], I realized that he had a piece that I didn’t understand and I really wanted to know what that piece was … so I pursued Christ.”

Schwartz decided to take a gap year, tutoring students in math and volunteering with Project Unity, a nonprofit providing rental assistance to people in her home state of Texas.

“That [volunteer work] really opened my eyes,” Schwartz said. “Just getting to speak with people who you know were impoverished and who were struggling to make their rent.”

After spending her gap year pursuing God, Schwartz was no longer sure whether Emory was the right place to come back to.

“I was like, ‘Honestly, I think I could pursue the Lord at College Station better than at Emory,’” Schwartz said. 

Through talking with an older mentor, however, Schwartz realized that she could continue to find meaning at Emory. On campus, Schwartz is now a member of Bread Coffee House, a Christian group she has found acceptance in. She now plans to graduate from Emory College of Arts and Sciences rather than following the pre-law track at Goizueta.

“I’m still stressed about my classes,” Schwartz said. “But I know that I’m pursuing something that’s so much more important than whatever is happening in the day-to-day.”

First-year deferrals

First-year students took gap years at an even higher rate than their older peers during the 2020-2021 academic year, data provided by Dean of Admission John Latting showed. About 7% of first-years, 94 total, deferred their admission to Emory, choosing instead to start college in fall 2021. This is an increase from previous years, when around 1.5% of incoming first-years took gap years.

“[The increase] was pretty dramatic,” Latting said. “We were admitting students from the waitlist trying to keep up with that change. We weren’t able to figure out where things were going to land, how many students ultimately would request a gap year.”

Latting said that Emory approved nearly all requests for a gap year, saying he “absolutely” supports taking a year off if students have a plan.

Eli Robison (25C). Photo by Soju Hokari

One such first year was Eli Robison (25C), who decided at the last minute that learning opportunities for the 2020-2021 school year were not sufficient. Robison embarked on a series of adventures, including jobs as a barista, service worker and tutor; a month of skiing; a job on a goat farm in Utah; and, most meaningful to him, a 50-day hike through the Appalachians with three friends.

Reflecting on the hike, Robison said he “got to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.” Being amid a storm “for four days in a row, in wet clothes, not being able to sleep in the middle of the woods” was a sharp contrast to “seeing the most beautiful view on the top of a mountain” while overlooking a valley.

The gap year experience showed that the path chosen for him and his friends by his small affluent community in Connecticut was not the only possible way to grow into adulthood, Robinson said. He feels that his experience helped him garner life experience, maturity and building self-confidence.

“There’s a whole stigma to go to college, get your degree and then go into the workforce,” Robison said. “An untraditional route like a gap year is definitely not a thing where I come from … If COVID was not a thing, no way would I have taken a gap year.”

Lessons learned

Some students said they valued how their gap year allowed them to slow down. For Brill, the extra time meant taking a step back and examining the busy world she grew up in.

“If I wasn’t in school I was running track, I was traveling, doing something with friends or going to a job,” Brill said. “I kind of prided myself on ‘I don’t take free time, I’m always busy and I’m so productive.’”

As she adjusted to life without the constant pull of a job or class, Brill said she found the lack of scheduled activities beneficial.

“I really learned what was important to me for sustaining my happiness and well-being,” Brill said. Those who took gap years also consistently stated they felt older than those around them, but not only in the ways one might expect.

“I definitely feel a little bit wiser and a lot more confident, knowing what I’m doing because it’s something that I’ve done before,” Ogden said. “I feel good about that but it’s also strange not having my friends on campus.”

Robison echoed these sentiments, but said he isn’t completely without worries.

“You don’t feel as comfortable when you’re not in your [grade],” Robinson said. “I definitely [feel] comfortable but I feel more comfortable with this year’s sophomores in that sense.”

Many students who took gap semesters, including Brill, said they worried about the effect it would have on their graduation date. But, students have learned to look past this fear.

“What does it matter to me if I graduate one semester later?” Brill asked. “It’s kind of arbitrary now, what year you’re graduating.”

Throughout the gap semester experiences, the prevailing feeling was one of gratitude for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Yeah I think it was something that I probably never would have done in the middle of college if this hadn’t happened,” Brill said. “I learned so much about myself and it was really, really impactful.”