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MIT student blogger Kathleen E. '22

Gap Year, Week 1 by Kathleen E. '23

my plans for a year away from MIT during COVID-19

I’ve officially been on my gap year for a week! To begin my gap year, I left my home on Long Island to go live on a Christmas tree farm with a close friend. In this post, I’ll describe how I made the decision to take a gap year, how the first week went, and what my plans are for the next 51 weeks.

christmas tree illustrationMotivation and Rationale

I’ve discussed briefly in some previous posts why I decided to take a Leave of Absence this year. The event that originally led me to consider taking leave was the way undergraduates were sent home last March. I was frustrated that so much of my happiness relied on my proximity to a university campus from which I could so quickly be expelled. I was also frustrated that the announcement to send us home came without any warning. One moment, everything felt normal, and the next, I had to leave campus as quickly as possible. I felt blindsided; with a bit more time to plan, I could have made arrangements that would have made the last few months a lot better for me. More specifically, I could have looked for alternative housing so that I wouldn’t spend nearly six months in a household I had long since outgrown.

The next few months after getting sent home only increased my frustration with MIT’s response and the new reality of being an MIT student during COVID-19. At first, the idea of taking leave was just a small seed in the back of my mind, but after many more weeks passed with no official news from MIT about how they would handle the fall, I decided to seriously consider taking leave. I realized that taking leave would allow me to feel in-control of my life again.

flower illustration

If I took leave, I wouldn’t have to wait for MIT to announce their policies to know what my next few months would look like. I would be free from any sudden policy changes MIT made. I could determine on my own where I would live, who I would live with, and how I’d be spending my time.

I asked my parents what they thought of me taking leave. They said they would be on board with me taking leave as long as I found internships to fill all of the time I would otherwise have been in school. This aligned well with my own goals; I didn’t want to just take leave and do nothing.

In early June, after finishing my final exams, I began searching for internships. I got lucky and managed to quickly get a few offers for the fall. I was surprised – I had a pretty rough time the previous year as I had gone through the application and interview processes for summer internships. Once I had a few job offers for the fall, I re-negotiated one of them to start in the spring. By late June, I had finalized my work plans for the next nine months. I told my parents, and the plan was set. I’d be taking leave from MIT for a year. I made arrangements with my friend to live together on the farm.

flower illustration

On July 6, MIT released their plans for the fall. In the end, I felt that MIT provided very little real transparency as they formulated their fall plans. As Nisha pointed out in her post, the main options they presented to us as being in consideration ended up all being very different from the plan they finally decided on, which was to only bring back seniors and have nearly everything (classes, research, etc) be remote, or cancelled if a remote version wasn’t possible. (However, I am very proud of MIT for taking a conservative approach to reopening. In recent days, many schools who took a more optimistic approach ultimately had to cancel their plans to bring students back at the last-minute. Many schools that brought students back anyway have scary numbers of COVID cases on their campus.)

For various reasons, some perhaps purposeful and some perhaps just due to the rapidly changing nature of COVID-19, it seems like universities keep announcing plans at the last minute. Most of these announcements make the academic year a worse (but safer) experience for students. For example, schools like Princeton and Johns Hopkins made their semesters almost entirely remote just before the start of the semester, when for the previous several weeks their students were under the impression that they’d be heading back to campus. I fear MIT will end up making one of these last-minute announcements as we approach the spring. They’ve said that the three other classes (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors) will all be invited back in the spring, but I don’t see how that’s possible given that this semester they could only safely handle having one class back.

Last-minute announcements make it extremely difficult for students to make alternative plans. A lot of my peers who wanted to take a Leave of Absence after MIT’s July 6 announcement found that they didn’t have enough time to look for internships or make other arrangements. I was only able to find a job and housing by making lots of negative assumptions about MIT’s unreleased plans. But it shouldn’t have to be that way – schools should be transparent such that students aren’t blindsided by policy announcements.

So, all in all, my biggest motivation in deciding to take a gap year was my desire to be in-control over my life. Being an MIT student and living according to last-minute dramatic policy announcements was just too stressful for me. My heart goes out to all the students who feel similarly negatively affected by these circumstances and can’t take leave.

Gap Year Plans

I’m incredibly excited for my gap year. Coming into college, I never thought I’d take a gap year. I guess I also never thought that a pandemic would happen or that I’d get sent away from campus. Of all the unexpected twists of the last year, taking a gap year is one of the rare few I feel excited about.

I have a few main goals for my time off from being an MIT student:

  • Career exploration: My previous internships have given me some insight, but still left me mostly undecided about what kind of career I want to pursue. As I try three different internships over the next nine months, I hope I can gain more insight into the career path I want to pursue once I finish my undergraduate studies at MIT. I also want to evaluate my choice based on how it will impact others and help solve pressing global issues.
  • Social readjustment: I felt really constrained living at home during the pandemic. I’m enjoying the increased independence from living away from home and the companionship of living with another college student.
  • Regaining balance: There are a lot of things that I struggle to balance when I’m a full-time student. By “struggle to balance” I mean both not having enough time for some activities and not having any time at all for others. This year, I’ve committed to reinvesting time into the activities I’ve left behind in my journey as a student. Some of them are:
    • Cooking: For the first time ever, I both have access to a fully-furnished kitchen and the complete freedom to decide my every meal. I cook a lot at school, but it’s typically more large-scale meal-preps and quick things like breakfast, all done in a small kitchenette in my suite. At home, I have access to a larger cooking space, but I have to balance the needs and wants of the rest of my family. I’m excited to spend more time making more elaborate recipes and really leveling up my cooking abilities.
    • Consistent exercising and sleep: I find that I have way more time for these two things when I’m working instead of being a student. This summer, I managed to stick to a pretty good exercise routine. I’m trying to keep that up this year. I also want to nail down a healthy sleep schedule. It’s been hard over the last few months while living at home – sometimes the dead of night was the only time I could truly get for myself and too often I’d find myself going to sleep as the sun was rising.
    • Exploring nature: I’m living in a fairly rural area for a few months. I’m excited to explore the nearby parks and eat produce from the nearby farms! I love living in a city so much – and I miss Boston dearly – but I do love the way in rural areas the sky gets so much darker at night, and how much bigger the sky is when you can see it touch the ground instead of hide behind a skyline. I miss pulling up to random farm stands and grabbing the most delicious produce I’ve ever tasted.
    • Personal projects: I have so many ideas that I’ve only had time to write down. I can’t wait to try working on some of them on the weekends and nights when I’m not working. My roommate and I also have some great collaborative ideas. Since she normally goes to school at Harvard, this is a rare chance to be able to work together without any of the usual transportation or scheduling barriers.

Week 1 Recap

In a word, the first week of my gap year was amazing. I think I’ll just leave a collage of photos to summarize the fun I had hanging out with my roommate and making progress on my gap year goals.