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Travel restrictions force gap years to go virtual

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As colleges and universities gradually reveal their plans for the upcoming school year, many incoming freshmen are deciding to take a gap year due to the inability to gather on campus for activities and events. Although travel has been a quintessential part of past gap years, students are finding other ways to make the most out of their year through remote internships and online classes. 

Elaine Kharbanda, who will be attending Columbia University this fall after taking a gap year during 2019-2020, is the founder of LetsGapp, a resource for everything gap year related and a community of 500+ global gap year students. 

“Students…go straight from kindergarten all the way through high school, graduate high school and then go straight through college…you can learn a lot by just stepping back and taking a gap year,” Kharbanda said.

Since starting LetsGapp in April 2020, she had many conversations with future gappers and noticed an increase of students taking a gap year due to the uncertainty that comes with COVID-19. 

Audrey Pe ’24, took a gap year last year to work on her global tech nonprofit, WiTech, which aims to educate, inspire and empower youth to break gender barriers and use technology to make a difference. Pe told The Daily about how she was inspired to start WiTech due to the lack of females in technology, especially in the Philippines, and now advocates for gender equality and tech accessibility. 

Throughout her gap year, Pe travelled to Thailand to speak in front of entrepreneurs and government delegates from 16 countries and traveled to Portugal to speak in front of Filipinos living in Lisbon. 

When asked how she thinks future gap years will be different, Pe said “there’s still so much to look forward to given the circumstances, like there are a lot of online internship opportunities, online work opportunities, ways to connect with your peers from around the world that exist because of technology.”

One future gapper is David Peters, who was accepted into Harvard’s class of 2024. He decided to take a gap year largely due to how difficult it is for performing arts to happen with COVID-19 restrictions. Peters said the “whole point is that you’re in a space together, like acting together, playing music together…if you can’t do that, then there’s just so much lost.” 

Serena Lee, who will be part of Stanford’s class of 2025, is also taking a gap year because the social aspect of the college — interacting with new friends, professors and living on campus — won’t be the same. Lee, an international student, believes a gap year is particularly appealing to international students during these times. 

“There’s a bit of uncertainty regarding visa applications and the ability to actually fly out and get to campus come fall,” Lee said. “That’s made taking a gap year a lot more attractive because [students] would be left with remote enrollment as their only option.”

Although her gap year plans aren’t finalized, she plans on using this year to gain work experience and take online classes on topics beyond the classroom. 

Kharbanda has also been utilizing online courses after her gap year was cut short; her goal was to travel to all seven continents, but she was one continent short when COVID-19 struck, leaving her stuck in New Zealand. Despite this, she has made use of this unexpected free time by pursuing other passions. 

“You can think of any interest that you always said, ‘oh, I never had time for that,’” Kharbanda said. “And now is the time to do it.”

Kharbanda’s trip to Antarctica inspired her to take an online course on polar climates and the Arctic. Kharbanda also took an online course on electronic music production, a topic that she’s always been interested in but never had the time to explore. 

With online courses and remote internships accessible, Pe added, “I think that despite one type of social interaction not being available anymore, there’s still other ways.”

Contact Agnes Mar at agnes.mar ‘at’ hotmail.com.

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Agnes Mar is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.