Weinberg first-year Daphne Zuckerman expected to be marching through the Weber Arch in September 2020. Instead, she found herself rafting down the Colorado River through Utah, 1,500 miles away from Evanston. This was just one portion of the 70-day camping trip through Utah, Colorado, Arizona and California that Zuckerman took in the fall.

“I loved it,” Zuckerman says. “I thought it was the perfect balance between just exploring nature and living in a tent for three months but also getting to do some cool volunteer work and make connections I probably wouldn’t have had it not been through some sort of program.”

Zuckerman was one of many college students to take the last school year off amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, first-year undergraduate enrollment dropped by 13.1% in fall 2020, compared to a 1.4% drop in fall 2019. Northwestern students also said the University’s decision to not allow first- and second-years to move on campus impacted their choice to take a gap year.

Zuckerman’s roommate, Weinberg first-year Izzy May, initially felt ready to go to college, expressing that it was the “natural trajectory” of her life. However, Northwestern’s announcement made her consider the prospect of a gap year.

"I have a more nuanced perspective on college in that it's not the end-all be-all."

Weinberg first-year Daphne Zuckerman

When she still thought she would begin college at the traditional time, May signed a lease for an Evanston apartment during the Fall Quarter with three other incoming first-years. After extensive discussions with her parents about her options for the year, she decided at the last minute to take a gap year. She says she wanted a real college experience and felt that she would not be able to get that during a pandemic.

May had already signed a lease, though, so she still moved to Evanston in the fall. In need of a way to occupy herself during the day, she found a job tutoring an eight-year-old boy on Zoom every weekday from September through November.

This was not May’s first choice for her gap year. If she had more time before Northwestern sent out the announcement, she says she would have preferred to go to Israel for her entire year off. Instead, she chose in September to go there for the second half of the year.

May returned to her hometown in Bethesda, Maryland, for the first months of 2021 while she waited to hear from Aardvark Israel, the program she applied to go abroad with. She was initially scheduled to leave for the program in January, but her departure date kept being pushed back because Israel had shut down its border due to COVID-19.

“That was a really challenging time,” May says. “I didn’t know when I would be able to go. I was half packed for weeks.”

After months of waiting, May finally departed for Tel Aviv, Israel, in April, more than three months after she originally planned to leave. Once in Israel, she had an internship at i24 News, a broadcast journalism station airing in France, the U.S. and Israel. She wrote stories and recorded herself for on-air broadcasts.

Now, May is attending her first quarter at Northwestern. She says the transition back to academics after taking a year off has posed challenges, especially with the added uncertainties of the pandemic.

“I’m seeing progress every day, but I had a lot of trouble focusing the first week. It just took me a lot longer to do some math work or reading than it would’ve a year ago,” May says.

Weinberg first-year Mo Moritz, who spent his year traveling and working on a farm in Iowa, says he felt unproductive at the beginning of the school year. As the quarter has progressed, though, he says he has gotten back into the swing of academics.

“I sort of had a hunger to learn again which I never really had before. I wasn’t just trying to get good grades, I’m actually interested in my classes,” Moritz says. “It’s weird when school is always your top priority and then all of a sudden it’s just not. I think it was really beneficial for me.”

Weinberg second-year Seth Pierson followed his own gap year timeline. He attended Wesleyan University his first year and decided he wanted to transfer in March 2020, which was past the transfer deadline for many of the schools he was interested in. Instead, he took the year off and coached soccer and tutored in the fall.

"It’s weird when school is always your top priority and then all of a sudden it’s just not."

Weinberg first-year Daphne Zuckerman

Pierson lived in an apartment with a couple of friends in his hometown of Berkeley, California, because he did not want to infect his parents with COVID-19. In the spring, he went on an 87-day outdoor wilderness trip hosted by the National Outdoor Leadership School with other students his age.

“In terms of school, I don’t feel like I took a step backwards necessarily,” Pierson says. “The biggest impact I feel like is now I’m a year older than most kids, and being a transfer means I’m in more of a similar boat with freshmen and transfers than kids my age, which is an adjustment.”

Pierson and Zuckerman say taking a gap year was often a point of connection they found with other students who had the same experience. Northwestern organized a gap year bonfire during orientation, and Pierson says he had been spending most of his time with other transfers he met during Wildcat Welcome and first-years who took gap years. He has also looked for connection through student groups like the men’s club soccer team.

“I feel like integrating into the community of kids that have been here will just come with time,” Pierson says.

Zuckerman says she switched from McCormick to Weinberg during her gap year since the time off changed her perspective on her academics. She realized she wanted to be able to pick from a broader curriculum to accommodate her growing interests. As a whole, Zuckerman says she has no regrets about her gap year.

“I have a more nuanced perspective on college in that it’s not the end-all be-all,” she says. “If a test doesn’t go my way or if something doesn’t happen that I want to happen, I see the bigger picture a lot easier than I could have before just because I’ve enjoyed so many things outside of college.”