With the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students were forced to reconsider their plans as schools shut down, internships were canceled and lockdowns were implemented around the globe. From Medford to Dubai, many Tufts students took gap years to gain professional experience, to prioritize their own physical and mental health and to explore passions outside of a classroom setting.
According to Dean of Admissions JT Duck, there are about 40 to 45 newly admitted first-year students who take a gap year before enrolling at Tufts each academic year. Duck explained that the 2020–21 academic school year saw an increase in gap year approvals.
“Tufts Admissions approved gap year requests for about 140 first-year students during the 20-21 academic year,”Duck wrote in an email to the Daily. “The number of approved gap year requests returned back to the 40-45 range this past year.”
Junior Kyle Sayers chose to take a gap year after being sent home in March 2020. Sayers was able to find work as a junior software engineer at GreenSight, a Boston-based company that develops flight and sensor technology for drones.
“I think for me, I took [a gap year] as an opportunity to kind of restart on my experience at Tufts and see what life outside of school really looks like,” Sayers said.
As a computer science major, Sayers explains that he was able to employ what he learned in his classes, including image processing, machine learning and web development.
“The gap year was incredible, because now I have a year and a half of almost full-time work experience under my belt and all the tools and skills and personal relations that come with that,” Sayers said. “In terms of interpersonal [skills] … being able to forge an identity outside of college and classes was a really important step in my life.”
Similarly, first-year Sofia Ladak used her gap year to gain work experience and volunteer in Sri Lanka. Originally from Dubai, Ladak explained that the city had very different COVID-19 restrictions from the U.S., and she valued her college experience more than the amount of time it would take to complete her degree.
“It wasn’t my intention to take a year off, but kind of looking at the situation … from abroad, I saw just kind of how hectic everything was in respect to [COVID-19],” Ladak said. “I just didn't really feel like the American college experience that I was coming over here for [was something] I was gonna get if I came in September of 2020.”
Ladak was able to find an in-person internship position at a college counseling firm, as well as a remote internship at Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, where she examined agricultural projects in Afghanistan. In her free time, she tutored students in math and biology.
As COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted, Ladak was able to pursue her love of travel. She had a busy schedule; she went to Sri Lanka to teach English in a local orphanage for 6 weeks, then went to Europe to visit Spain and Italy. According to Ladak, volunteering at the orphanage helped her explore her passion for education.
“My experience in Sri Lanka … has put together what I want to do in the future, which is looking at education through the purpose of life development … and looking at how we can improve and reform education systems in developing countries,” Ladak said.
While some students took time off at Tufts to gain professional work experience, first-yearAliza Keegan decided to take a gap year in August 2020due to medical reasons. Keegan has lived with Lyme disease for six years, and decided against immediately enrolling at Tufts due to being immunocompromised and having a family history of chronic illness. According to Keegan, her decision was very last minute, so she had limited job opportunities.
“The pandemic impacted me a lot and so a lot of it was dealing with mental health,” Keegan said. “I think that the most valuable part of it was seeking help for a lot of underlying things that I had been dealing with for a long time.”
In between doctor’s appointments, Keegan worked part-time at a cafe in Belmont, Mass., her hometown. She also volunteered at the Cambridge Women’s Center and Cradles to Crayons.
Keegan explained that it was quite a struggle to see her friends go off to college.
“It’s kind of a double edged sword, … because they’re all starting college in the pandemic and so it was much different, but still I wanted so badly to be in that position,” Keegan said.
However, in the end, Keegan ultimately decided taking a gap year was the best decision for her.
“So many people are on so many different paths in their life,” Keegan said. “There isn’t one direct path that you have to go down to be successful and to be happy which again, is a really valuable … thing that I learned.”
According to sophomore Jenny Lu, she also didn’t have the traditional gap year experience. After enrolling at University of Pennsylvania in 2019, she decided college was not the right fit for her at that time and decided to take a leave of absence for the 2019–20 academic year. During her time off, Lu worked as a lifeguard and a substitute teacher for the Medford school district before the COVID-19 pandemic left her unemployed.
“Those two jobs were very difficult, so they really taught me discipline,” Lu said. “[For example], getting up every day at 5 a.m or dealing with a roomful of 20 children.”
Lu explained she felt both parental and societal pressure to attend college right after high school, but she wished she took her gap year sooner.
“I didn’t want to fall behind,” Lu said. “I just wanted to push through a normal path. But now, I can very confidently tell people that it literally doesn't matter if you graduate at 22 or 23 or 24 [years old]. It doesn’t make a difference at all … in the grand scheme of things.”
Upon transferring to Tufts for the 2020–21 academic year, Lu, who is from Medford, explained that being only 10 minutes from home made her college transition smoother. For Ladak, returning back to academics was a struggle, but she was eager to return to the classroom.
“[It had] been a good year and a half since I’d been in an academic setting,” Ladak said. “It made me really excited to go into it.”
Sayers agrees that it was an adjustment period returning back to campus life, but his gap year solidified his academic pursuits and encouraged him to be more open to new friendships.
“During my gap year, I met people from India, I met people from China, I was friends with people who were a decade older than me,” Sayers said. “So having had those experiences with people who have different age ranges with me … made me feel way more comfortable being friends with people who were maybe a grade below me or a grade above me.”
To anyone thinking about taking a gap year, Ladak advises that planning ahead can enhance the experience.
“There might be a lot that’'s not in your control, and that can get frustrating, so just be flexible,” Ladak said. “I think having a little bit of a goal of what you want to get out of that year helps you figure out what to do and make it productive.”
Keegan also emphasizes the importance of taking a gap year, and the many valuable lessons she learned along the way.
“If you’re thinking of taking a gap year, do it,“ Keegan said. “Taking time for yourself when you know that you need it is the most important thing that you can do for your mental well- being, for your physical well- being. … The gap year was the most important thing I could have done for myself. I changed a lot as a person in a lot of really good ways.”