CHICAGO — Angeliki Vassilatos knew she wanted to go to a college with a program for people who are deaf or a significant population of deaf students.
Deaf since age 9, the senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School spent her academic years learning alongside hearing peers.
She was accepted into Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and partially deaf students in Washington, D.C., that met almost all her criteria.
But instead of going to Gallaudet this fall, Vassilatos will take a gap year and work on a farm outside Seattle in hopes that mask restrictions and virtual classes will be a thing of the past come fall 2022.
“I totally understand the importance of masks. I wear them. I think people should wear them,” said Vassilatos, 18, of Hyde Park. “That being said, it means I can’t read lips, which can make it so much harder to understand people when I’m out and about.”
Nationwide, roughly three to four times as many students as usual took a gap year during the 2020-2021 school year, according to Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association. With international travel — often a staple of traditional gap year programs — on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, more students than ever made an independent itinerary for their year off from traditional school.
The number of students doing a traditional gap year program is trending back to ordinary levels for the 2021-2022 school year. But Knight said the number of students like Vassilatos doing independent gap years remains higher than normal.
“I’ve spent the last year and a half learning from my bedroom, and I spent a lot of time on screens and sitting down,” Vassilatos said. “I would really like to just spend more time outside and move around and do things.”
Colleges nationwide experienced a surge of students deferring admission for the 2020-2021 school year. Close to 200 Loyola University Chicago students did so, compared with the “handful” who normally take a gap year, said Paul Roberts, vice president for enrollment management.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, about 400 students deferred admission to spring or fall of 2021, far surpassing the “couple dozen” students who typically took a gap year before the pandemic, said Kevin Browne, the school’s vice provost.
“Traditionally it was only those with military service or (who) had engaged in a formal gap year,” Browne said. “With the pandemic, we’ve been very, very flexible with students, understanding that they just don’t know where they may end up wanting to be once we begin to reopen things.”
Hank Gurley graduated from Evanston Township High School in spring 2020 and, until the end of July, planned to attend the University of Missouri in the fall. But taking virtual classes from a dorm room didn’t seem like a good use of time or money, said Gurley, 19.
He took a gap year and worked at a golf course while taking an online course at Oakton Community College in the fall. Spring semester, Gurley spent eight weeks in Costa Rica for an educational service program. The time off from school gave Gurley the opportunity to reconsider his college choice. He reapplied to schools and will attend Butler University in the fall, he said.
“If it weren’t for COVID, I most likely would have gone to college” right away, Gurley said. “I had a great experience taking a gap year.”
Audrey MacVicar, a New Trier Township High School class of 2020 graduate, ended up on the same Costa Rica trip after spending the fall in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, learning about Native American tribes and national parks and earning her wilderness first responder certification. MacVicar’s gap year solidified her desire to study something about sustainability or the environment when she attends the University of Dayton in the fall, said MacVicar, 19, of Winnetka. After a year away from academics, MacVicar said she’s “ready to go to school.”
Gap years are a time to “reboot” and “reflect” after 13 or more years of school, said Gretchen Stauder, post-high school counselor at New Trier. Instead of deterring students from returning to college, gap years can give students clarity on how they want to spend their college years, Stauder said. One study found 90% of students return to college within a year of completing their gap year.
“I’ve never had students who say, ‘I regretted taking a gap year,’ “ Stauder said. “If anything, I’ve maybe had students who would say, ‘Oh, I wish I would have taken one.’ “
The pandemic introduced doubts about whether Hugo Tierrablanca should take a gap year before heading to Harvard University on a full-ride scholarship. Harvard encourages students to take gap years, said Tierrablanca, 18, but the 2020 Palatine High School graduate knew the volunteering and traveling he longed to do wouldn’t be an option.
Tierrablanca took the 2020-2021 school year to train to become an emergency medical technician and pursue interests such as playing guitar and work. From November to February, Tierrablanca worked three jobs, at a pizza place and for Target and Amazon, and slept about 20 hours a week, he said, usually from 5 to 8 a.m.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would be in the mountains in Spain right now,” said Tierrablanca, a first-generation college student who plans to pursue neuroscience and premed at Harvard. “It might not have been the kind of gap year I meant to take, but I learned more about myself.”
At the University of Chicago, both before and during the pandemic, anywhere from 80 to 100 students take a gap year, said Peter Wilson, director of undergraduate admissions. With changing regulations around vaccinations, it’s “too hard to tell” how many students will take a gap year for the 2021-2022 school year, Wilson said.
Doing something nonacademic next school year became even more appealing for some students who spent the past year in virtual classes.
Isaiah Moore initially planned to head straight to graduate school after graduating from Columbia College Chicago May 15 . But online classes “accelerated the way that school was happening,” and Moore, 22, realized how all-consuming spending hours on end on their laptop was. Moore wouldn’t have been able to put their “best foot forward” by going straight into graduate school.
Instead, Moore will spend a year writing TV show scripts and exploring the screenwriting industry, waiting to apply for graduate school to get a better sense of where they want to live.
Russell Schmidt, 18, of Hyde Park, will also pause his schooling to pursue becoming a professional ballet dancer. The senior at St. Ignatius College Prep has been dancing since he was 6, but the pandemic changed the way he viewed ballet, he said.
“It stripped away the social aspect and the in-person aspect, which can give you a lot of motivation,” Schmidt said. “When you’re in your room by yourself, you have to make the motivation yourself.”
Schmidt will start a summer program in Seattle in July with Pacific Northwest Ballet. He hopes to be accepted into the school’s year-round program, which serves as a feeder into the professional dance company, Schmidt said.
This year, Schmidt applied to colleges but “wasn’t totally invested in the process,” he said. He said he saw it as a “dress rehearsal” for when he reapplies to schools. If he went straight to college, Schmidt said he would never have determined whether he can make a career out of ballet.
Schmidt’s determination to become a professional dancer surprised his mother, Sasha Austin, at first, but as long as her son goes to college eventually, Austin, 56, said she supports “whatever he wants.”
“It’s strange to not have a template for what your kid is about to do,” Austin said. “If he were going to go to college, I would know exactly what it’d have in store. It’s both exciting and strange.”
Vassilatos, the Whitney Young senior, said a mentality of “competitiveness and being the best” present at her selective enrollment high school made her reluctant at first to consider a gap year. When immersed in that attitude, Vassilatos said “it’s very easy to get tripped up.”
“We have this idea that being successful is like going straight to college,” Vassilatos said. “I just, I guess, realized that original nibbling concern was nonsense, rooted in something that I don’t want to be making my decisions based on.”