What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"

What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Cindy Gao has spent her gap year taking time to be in solitude and picking up hobbies like embroidery and journaling.Cindy Gao
  • As Ivy League students considered their options in the pandemic, some decided that online classes, virtual clubs, canceled college traditions, and a lack of social interaction weren't worth their tuition and time.
  • They opted to take a gap year instead. From internships to cross-country road trips, they're spending their time off in vastly different ways.
  • For the most part, however, they believe they made the right decision. "I have no regrets," one student told Insider. "I'm looking to come back stronger next year and come back well-rested and more mentally well-rested."
  • If you're a teacher or student who regrets going to school this fall or you want to share your story on what it's like to go back to school right now, email mhumphries@insider.com.

A year ago, Cindy Gao's days were filled with activity. She was constantly in motion between fencing practice, Harvard University classes, friendships, and studying.

But this fall has been filled with solitude, silence, and self-reflection.

In June, the rising senior decided to take a gap year, and with that decision, she welcomed the idea of stillness.
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"In a lot of the communities that I'm in, we feel like we've been running on this hamster wheel," the 21-year-old told Insider. "It's nice to be able to just take a break and think through why we're running."

Gao isn't alone. A College Reaction and Axios poll found that nearly 22% of students said they weren't attending school this fall. And the University of Pennsylvania has seen a 300% increase in gap year students this semester, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

For those fortunate enough to take a gap year, the decision appears to be paying off. Gao said her decision came from a desire to self-reflect, and other students are using the time to travel domestically, focus on career development, build new skills, and save money.
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What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Makena Likewise said he's focusing on personal growth during his gap year.Makena Likewise

There's a desire for the traditional college experience — not one full of Zoom classes and virtual socializing

The Ivy League students who spoke to Insider said they hadn't seriously considered a gap year before the pandemic. But the bleak outlook of the fall semester convinced them to take time off.

Makena Likewise, an incoming freshman at Dartmouth College, had looked forward to stepping into lecture halls with dozens of students, finding in-person research opportunities, and participating in Dartmouth's historic traditions. Over the summer, he realized that wasn't going to be the reality. "It pretty much sounded like to me, 'You're going to be sequestered in these little caves with limited social interaction,'" the 18-year-old told Insider. "I don't think it sounds appealing to anyone, and it definitely didn't sound appealing to me." He deferred his enrollment to fall 2021.
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Cailin Lansang came to the same conclusion. She ended her senior year of high school with online classes, an experience the incoming Columbia University freshman summed up as "so bad."

"I did not want to spend my freshman year at a new school, a new college, just doing the same old thing," she said.

Initially, Lansang didn't know deferment was an option. But she talked to her high school guidance counselor, who predicted that having a "normal" semester was unlikely in New York City, which was once the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
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"All the hope of having a normal first semester, or first year, was out the window at that point," she said.

'My bang for my buck is much higher when things are going as usual'

According to College Tuition Comparison, the average cost to attend an Ivy League college last year was $56,425.

The astronomical cost doesn't square with the virtual classes Denise Lee, an incoming freshman at Dartmouth College, would receive in return.
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"It didn't seem like the best college experience I wanted, and tuition was insane with a vast majority of classes being online and the vast majority of all student activities being online," Lee, 18, told Insider.

Pruthvi Banginwar, a rising junior at Cornell University, agreed. He's receiving financial aid to go to Cornell University but said the cost still isn't worth it.

"With what costs I do pay, it doesn't feel justified that I would pay the same amount for this experience versus what I would normally get," the 20-year-old told Insider. "My bang for my buck is much higher when things are going as usual."
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Banginwar decided to take the fall semester off. He's spending the time earning money through an internship and said he still plans to graduate on time.

What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Cindy Gao said a highlight of her gap year has been drinking tea and having long conversations with her mother.Cindy Gao

The time off is an opportunity to pause and reflect

Cindy Gao said her only goal for this year is to learn to do nothing. "When I say do nothing, it's under this context of what society right now deems to be worth your time and productive," she told Insider. Gao has spent the last few months drinking tea with her mother, learning embroidery, writing poetry, journaling, and meditating.
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Initially, Gao wanted to take a gap year because of sports — she's on Harvard University's fencing team but hasn't been able to play a full season due to injuries and the pandemic.

"It just really didn't sit well with me if I continued school and just didn't even try to save my final season," she said.

But once her request to take time off was approved, Gao started thinking about what she wanted to accomplish this year. The answer, she concluded, was "nothing."
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What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Cailin Lansang is spending her gap year building skills in web development and music theory.Cailin Lansang

Similarly, Cailin Lansang is looking at this year as an opportunity to take a step back from the stress of school.

"It's hard to function and accomplish anything during a pandemic," Lansang said. "If I had to deal with school on top of the pandemic situation, it would have been really bad for me mentally. At least I have that extra space to breathe."

Pruthvi Banginwar, meanwhile, is balancing personal and professional growth.
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He had a summer internship in aerospace engineering, and the company ultimately offered to extend the position through fall. "I think that I've also grown a lot in a way that's very different than I would have in college," he told Insider.

Likewise said he spent his gap year finding a middle ground between hobbies and career development. He's taking an online organic chemistry class and helping his father with his neuropsychology practice. He's also spending more time outdoors with his family and girlfriend.

What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Makena Likewise is exploring career options and new hobbies during before he starts his freshman year at Dartmouth.Makena Likewise

Some students are still finding ways to safely travel

Gap years are often associated with exploring new cultures, discovering new countries, and traveling alone for the first time. This year, that international vision wasn't possible.
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Denise Lee recognized that if she wanted to travel, it would have to happen domestically. She turned to what she felt was the safest option: a road trip.

On October 1, she and seven other Dartmouth College students piled into two minivans and set out on a six-week journey across the Pacific Northwest. Before they left, the entire group tested negative for the coronavirus. Lee said they limited outside interactions, and since the majority of the trip is during national parks' off-season, camping was isolated.
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What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Denise Lee has kept a visual journal of all the stops along her road trip.Denise Lee

Ultimately, Lee believes she made the right decision and said she's thankful she's had the opportunity to explore the continental US this semester.

She said her high school friends who went ahead with college are struggling with burnout, lack of friendships, and online classes.

"I have no regrets," she said. "I'm looking to come back stronger next year and come back well-rested and more mentally well-rested."
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What life is like for Ivy League students spending their pandemic gap years interning, camping, and doing "nothing"
Denise Lee embarked on a six-week road trip during her gap year.Denise Lee

While Likewise doesn't regret his decision, he does admit, "on a day-to-day basis, it's a little lonely."

Still, he thinks he made the right decision and acknowledged how lucky he was to have the decision to live at home and work with his family's business in the first place.

"When I compare this to the alternative, my decision to gap was really clear in the moment and it still is really clear to me," he said.
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