Entering his final year of homeschooling, Jared Brown envisioned a 2020 fall semester that involved actual classrooms at a university a few hours from home.

But facing the reality of the coronavirus, the Virginia Beach resident decided to delay college. Instead, Brown arrived in Quarryville this August for a Christian gap year program sponsored by Lancaster-based OneLife Institute.

“I started to consider my options because I didn’t want to do virtual learning or learning from home,” Brown says. “Here, I think I’ve enjoyed a lot more than what most people could experience this year. Those face-to-face experiences have been really important.”

Adam Martin applied to OneLife last December but hadn't really decided whether he wanted to delay college. By spring, when COVID was rampant across much of the country, he’d narrowed his choices to working for a year or the gap year program.

“I did not want to be stuck behind a computer because of COVID,” Martin says.

Nationally, freshman enrollment is down 13% compared to last year, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Locally, post-secondary schools also are reporting a higher-than-usual number of would-be college freshmen taking gap years or deferring college enrollment.

But a traditional gap year — often dedicated to international travel, an on-site internship or full-time, paid work —might not be in the cards either. Many businesses canceled internships, certain jobs are scarce and international travel remains severely restricted as COVID-19 rages.

Still, local educators say there’s plenty students can do to ensure they seize this downtime and keep growing intellectually so that they are ready for an eventual return.

“We know students were really interested in having a high level of engagement, both inside and outside the classroom,” says Brian Hazlett, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at Millersville University, where about 40 students deferred enrollment this fall, up from fewer than 10 most years.

Those students were all given the opportunity to save their spot for this spring or next fall, no questions asked. But the university encourages students to remain engaged academically, particularly through transferable classes offered at their local community college. In place of travel, Hazlett says students should be considering getting more involved in their own communities.

“A lot of students are looking for more service-oriented opportunities, things like tutoring that create a bridge for others,” he says. “This is a generation that wants to give back. Keeping the joy in the journey is hard during this pandemic.”

He says students should focus on experiences that broaden their worldview.

Instilling lifelong lessons

At OneLife’s Black Rock Retreat location, a cohort of 38 students rotates through coursework (think theology, but also culture and personal finance), experiential learning and travel opportunities.

Despite 21 students withdrawing after making an initial deposit because of COVID concerns, the program’s three sites this year attracted the most students they’ve ever had, says OneLife Institute President Josh Beers.

Beers says they’ve run the entire program with slight adaptations, noting that students quarantined for 14 days after their initial arrival, wear masks on all outings and continue to live in a COVID bubble except pre- and post-travel. He expects more students in the coming semester.

“It’s getting old to sit and wait, but maybe they don’t want to jump into a university program in January, when things are worse than they were before,” Beers says. For students who defer their gap year experience or college, he recommends finding ways to serve their community, reading and studying their faith.

“Our heartbeat is: How are we growing? We want to create lifelong learners in our students through the things we read and the people we meet. … We want them to expand their worldview, and if you’re not interacting with people, you can have experiences through a book.”

Making the time count

“A gap year student is fulfilling a meaningful gap year if they are able to show us how it improved them as a person,” says Lukman Arsalan, dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, where 45 first-year students took a deferral this fall.

Typically, F&M has 10 deferrals, with an average incoming class of 650. This year’s first-year class was 577. Arsalan said many families were concerned about sending their student to college only to have to abruptly end their studies during another COVID-19 shutdown, and some worried about access with ongoing border closures.

Students often take a gap year to care for an elderly family member, or they might work to support their family, save money for tuition or pursue a unique opportunity they can’t get in school.

“These are all legitimate and meaningful reasons to pursue a gap year,” Arsalan says.

His advice to those who have deferred because of the pandemic is to relax, even if their schedules aren’t full.

“What is important here is for us to understand how the student is finding ways to thrive even if it is during a global pandemic. How is the student continuing engagement in a different way? We’re looking for students who are disruptively innovating and challenging the status quo. That’s how you find the next student leaders that will lead us through the next crisis.”

Brown’s OneLife experience —particularly an “eye-opening” trip to Washington, D.C., and some of its high-poverty neighborhoods — underscored his interest in social justice issues. He plans to study criminal justice next year at Cairn University in Bucks County. The private Christian school awards students credits for completion of the OneLife gap year program.

Martin says highlights have included a cultural trip to the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana and sharing dormlike settings with other participants.

“It’s a lot of getting out of my comfort zone, doing things I would have never done alone,” Martin says. “I am only three months in, and I’ve learned so much about myself.”

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