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The Carletonian

Is it worth it? A sharp increase of students taking time away from campus and embracing changes in higher education during pandemic

“I came to Carleton in 2018. And as I was expecting to finish everything in June, I found at least five of my friends would have to delay their graduation plan because they took a leave during the pandemic,” said R, a senior international student at Carleton College.

What happened to R’s friends is not just common within the Carleton community. It epitomizes  a broader trend that’s developed as the public health crisis rages on. More than one million fewer students are enrolled in colleges now than before the pandemic began in the United States. According to the data released in January 2022 by the National Student Clearinghouse, U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of nearly 500,000 undergraduate students in the fall of 2021, continuing a historic decline that began in the previous fall.

At Carleton, more and more new and returning students are choosing to take a gap term or year amid the pandemic. The reasons vary among individuals: academic challenges, hesitancy with remote learning, mental and physical health issues and the sheer exhaustion of keeping up with rigorous academics in a different time zone–especially for international students living thousands of miles away from Minnesota. The recent statistics shared by Carleton’s Office of International Student Life (ISL) have shown how international students in particular have been deeply affected ever since the early months of the worsening pandemic. 

The number of international students taking a leave away from Carleton peaked right at the beginning of 2020-2021 school year | Data from Carleton ISL

When everything suddenly turns online

Remote learning was something new for both faculty and students. As Carleton’s former President Steve Poskanzer described, it was “challenging but necessary.” But not everyone embraced this “necessary” switch with passion. Many students began to feel uneasy, puzzled and sometimes helpless. 

Remote learning during the pandemic has reshaped what classrooms look like on college and university campus | Photo credit Wendy Lamos

“One of my major concerns was whether I could keep up with the coursework when all of the professors and TAs were only available on Zoom,” said Y, who started his nine months away from Carleton after experiencing the first remote learning term in the spring of 2020. He was not quite satisfied with his progress and chose to adjust by taking some time off. 

While the college’s administration has put considerable efforts on bringing back most in-person classes, the fluctuation in the number of COVID-19 cases on campus continues to make that difficult. The lack of interactions, technological difficulties and a fading sense of community can easily distract students from fully engaging with their classes.

Home and School: Thousands of Miles Apart

When the shelter-in-place order was issued by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz on March 25, 2020, tens of thousands of students returned home. Although Carleton’s campus was reopened to at least 85% of the student body in the fall of 2020, there were a significant number of students that simply could not make it back and thus chose a gap term or year. International students faced this predicament more frequently than any other groups. 

W, who now belongs to the Class of 2023, said after returning to Carleton at the end of 2021: “When I was alone in California a year ago, there was no one there to help or console me. I knew it was only the best option to go back to my home country, where I could at least see my family around.” The 13-hour difference between time zones was overwhelming to W, especially when his course was synchronous. He decided to spend his year in a more relaxing manner after learning that another class he registered for had to be in-person. 

W, once from Class of 2022, went back to his hometown and took a gap year as a way to readjust and rethink his life | Photo credit W

In 2021, international students hailing from 61 different countries made up over 10% of Carleton’s student body. As most of them went home for breaks, the pandemic disrupted travel at a global scale, separating these students across different continents. Despite the options of hybrid and online instruction, most international students were just too exhausted to balance their schedule–with some, for example, trying to get up at 2:30 a.m. on a weekly basis to join class discussions.  

Return and Changes

Prior to the Fall Term of 2021-22 academic year, Carleton announced its plan that “students will be able to return to a traditional living, learning, and working environment on campus.” Freshmen and some sophomores arrived here as their first time physically on campus, while juniors and seniors had already spent half of their college life coping with the lasting pandemic. For many who took their time away and returned, things were somewhat different when reimmersing themselves in the classrooms. The experience of living and working as an adult outside the campus during this unique time has added some weight to their life. 

After J returned home and applied for a gap year, she started an internship position at a local analytic company. She initially thought of it as a short-term training just to fill the void when everyone else was at school. Soon it became so interesting and worth exploring that she continued the work for the entire year. Back on campus, she changed her major from Chemistry to Statistics, being more determined than ever to pursue more in-depth knowledge in the field. 

The 2021 Undergraduate Research and Internship Symposium at Weitz | Photo credit Yicheng Shen

To some extent, remote instruction and work have made student research, internship and fellowship projects more accessible and convenient. Many Carleton students had the opportunity to engage in a deep and valuable reexamination of their academic and life interests. For some individuals, the pandemic and the changes that went with it prompted a significant change in themselves. 

Pave the Road Forward

The world is stepping into the third year of the pandemic. While it is still largely unclear about when and how the COVID-19 pandemic will come to its end, colleges and universities across the country, including Carleton College, have actively begun bringing students back to in-person classes. With active testing and vaccination efforts, the Carleton administration has tried to avoid excessive disruption to the normal campus life. It is still too soon to say whether Carleton’s actions willeffectively halt the declining enrollment of full-time students on campus in the coming terms. The registrar’s office declined to share more specific data as to how many students in total have taken a gap period since the pandemic. 

Air is cold outside, but safer to breathe in | Photo credit Yicheng Shen

At the beginning of 2022, the surge of new COVID-19 variants, despite them being highly transmissible, has caused fewer disturbances and restrictions than the first pandemic year. All of the interviewees expressed their willingness to stay on campus for the rest of the academic year while staying attentive to the situation. 

“I think I am now much more flexible and adaptable. We all have to be, these days,” Y said. Returning to in-person classes is new and can be daunting, but he is looking forward to the new courses this term, “I decided to take that 1a Japanese 102 class. Breathing in some cold air in the morning reminds me that things are getting back to normal now. I am on campus, and I love the atmosphere here.”  

One thing is clear: for better or worse, the negative effects of the pandemic on students are gradually dissipating, and those who took time away from the campus have embraced a unique journey as part of their college experience.  

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