‘I’m in limbo right now’: 5C students reflect on gap semesters

A man types on his laptop at a kitchen table.
Nick Morgenstein PO ’23 interns at an augmented reality company during his gap year. (Courtesy: Nick Morgenstein)

Max Pollak PZ ’22 felt freed when he found out that school was online for the fall semester as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. When asked what his response would’ve been if he had known he would be taking the 2020-21 academic year off to work as a social media consultant at a startup and create his own small business, a screen printing company, his response was simple.

“I’d have said ‘I wish,’” he said.

Across the 5Cs, students have chosen to take time off. Some, like Pollak, found that the prospect of Zoom classes was the final push to do what had been kicking around in their heads for a while. For others who took a leave, it felt like there was no choice. Many have found this time formative –– productive, even –– but experiences are varied. A large portion of people opted to return to school out of choice and necessity, and even among those who took time off, the uncertainty of coronavirus has taken its toll on well-laid plans.

The free time Pollak found himself with this year presented him with the chance to cultivate his passions.

“The screen printing thing,” he said, “kind of opens up the door for me to do a lot more creative stuff because when it’s up and operational, I’ll have this big workshop, supplies [and] steady income from it,” Pollak said. 

Other students opted to stay in school. One sophomore, Olivia Rosenberg-Chavez PZ ’23, found the draws of finishing school and doing important work too strong to compromise. 

“I want to graduate on time and so I wanted to continue taking classes,” Rosenberg-Chavez said. “And that’s not to say I wouldn’t take time off, but I think I would have to have something that consumes all of my time,” she said.

But Rosenberg-Chavez isn’t just taking classes — she’s one of many students juggling a job on top of an online course load. As a political science major, working on Kara Eastman’s campaign for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District was too good an opportunity to pass up, so she decided to do both. 

“It definitely wasn’t part of my plan to be thrown into adulthood so soon,” she said. “But I’m not doing it alone. I have a good support system here.”

Others decided to take time off in the hopes that in-person classes will soon return. Nick Morgenstein PO ’23 took his leave in order to preserve the chance of returning to campus for longer in the future.

“The things that I really can’t get anywhere else in the world is what you get when you’re in person in Claremont, which is the experience of being in college, meeting people, having new experiences doing things, being in clubs and being active on campus,” he said. “And to me, that supersedes the other components of college, like the academics, although the academics are super important.” 

That’s not to say that Morgenstein is upset with his current arrangement; during his interview with TSL, he was standing by a serene river in Healdsburg, California, watching the wildlife. He’s been living with friends, juggling two computer science classes, an internship at an augmented reality company and a job doing phone banking and analysis for a San Francisco supervisor candidate. 

“One of those might have to go in the near future,” he said.

“…Your academic experience will be so heavily complemented by an opportunity to explore other interests and live on your own.” -Nick Morgenstein PO ’23

Having a plan isn’t a prerequisite for taking time off, but Pollak, Morgenstein and Rosenberg-Chavez all seemed intent on staying occupied this fall, with or without school. Counterintuitive as it may be, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have provided clarity to some students. In quarantine, faced with big life decisions and few avenues for escapism, people have been forced to confront themselves — their priorities, fears and beliefs — head-on.

“I would absolutely recommend to anyone who has the opportunity that they should take time off, not only because there are so many amazing things to do in the world other than classes, but also that your academic experience will be so heavily complemented by an opportunity to explore other interests and live on your own,” Morgenstein said.

Pollak thinks that the formative experience many are having right now might create a paradigm shift in how people do college going forward. 

“It might be a liberal arts renaissance where all of these students take a year or two off to go pursue actual real-life things, figure out what they’re passionate about and then come back to these amazing schools where there are professors you can discuss theory with — you’ll be in the classroom having real-life experience at the table,” Morgenstein said.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced students to carve new paths on the road to adulthood and independence, adding flexibility to the college experience. This alternate method of completing college, where students graduate in five years rather than four, could continue to gain traction long after the pandemic is over.

But not everyone feels as optimistic about the future of leaves of absence as Pollak. For many, whether this semester off is a blessing or the best of a bad situation remains an ambiguous and unanswerable question. 

“I’m not trying to achieve bliss right now,” Sophia Brill PZ ’22 said. “So I’ve surrendered.”

“It kind of feels like I’m in limbo right now … My senior year I went from going to school, having an internship, having a job, to essentially having nothing.” — Aries Ramirez SC ’25

Even so, she admitted that she is happier now than she was in March. She is spending the semester working as a server and interning for the literary magazine Lucky Jefferson, exploring her passion for writing and the arts.

“I do think it just makes a lot more sense for me and my family for me to be working and trying to live in Claremont based off of working, while also having the privilege for that to be an experiment of sorts,” Brill said.

Opportunity, support and connections all came up repeatedly. Pollak’s uncle is a founder at Vibemap — the startup he is working for, Rosenberg-Chavez is friends with Kara Eastman’s daughter and Morgenstein said that he got his internship after being connected to the head of the company through a couple of friends. 

Without connections, plans for a gap year can fall through. Aries Ramirez SC ’25 decided to take a year off to work in a congressional district in Arizona, a job she had already lined up for herself after interning there in the past. But when her family had to uproot and move to Merced, California due to unforeseen circumstances, that opportunity was taken off the table. 

Ramirez didn’t have the same safety net that Brill did. She knew she had to live with her family this fall and didn’t have the money to live on her own, so when her family moved to Merced, she joined them.

And as Ramirez explained, jobs in these types of offices are almost always acquired through contacts. With her network in Arizona uprooted by the move, she was left without the connections she had worked so hard to cultivate. The main thing that had made her want to take time off in the first place was taken away. Now, she’s working as a barista, trying to roll with the punches.

Ramirez has clear goals; she wants to work in politics and go to law school. The quiet reflection that others benefitted from has not had the same effect on her. 

“I never took a gap year because I felt like I needed more time for myself. It was more so I had this opportunity in place,” she said. 

The pandemic and ensuing gap year haven’t provided Ramirez with much clarity. 

“It kind of feels like I’m in limbo right now… My senior year I went from going to school, having an internship, having a job, to essentially having nothing,” she said. “It’s a weird feeling, it’s like having your whole world kind of flipped.”

While some have found leaves of absence to be transformative experiences, others have encountered obstacles and been let down, as plans have gone awry in the uncertainty of a global pandemic. For many, growth and time off have gone hand in hand, but one does not necessitate the other.

Brill joked, poking fun at herself and others who have found this time life-altering. 

“I think that you can get to the profound, elevated place I’m at without taking a semester off.”

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