The sun sets later day by day in the southern hemisphere. By an unfortunate combination of Princeton’s academic calendar and the onset of COVID-19, I have lived through three consecutive autumn/winter cycles, so it’s a refreshing change of scenery to finally roll into summer.
This also happens to be the first summer that I will spend on a gap year.
The idea to take a gap year first crossed my mind toward the tail end of Spring 2020. Like many other international students, I endured a cruel time zone difference, “zooming in” to class every day from New Zealand which can be 16, 17, or 18 hours ahead of Princeton (depending on the combination of daylight savings hours).
I thought to myself, “how could I maintain this lifestyle for another semester, or even a year?” Promises of “asynchronous” meetings did little to ease my concerns. On one hand, recorded lectures would be undeniably helpful, but on the other, a significant amount of my growth at Princeton was through collaborating with my friends on arduous problem sets which seemed impossible to recreate “asynchronously.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t like being on campus in person would necessarily be better. While New Zealand was experiencing a rapid decline in COVID-19 cases through efforts of a strict lockdown, the United States saw astronomical rises in case numbers through an apparent disregard for public health. It became a hypothetical question of whether I would be willing to give up the haven of New Zealand for the paradise of Princeton. I was stuck between the choice of online classes, or living among COVID-19. Neither seemed appealing. However, there was a third option.
I consulted many alumni for advice who, having been on their own four-year Princeton journeys, were all sympathetic, acknowledging that I, along with many other college students, was in a rather unfortunate situation. Their messages were clear: “Take a gap year.”
On June 8, New Zealand rejoiced in beating COVID-19. My plan to take a gap year was all but confirmed upon receiving Dean Dolan’s email. On July 20, I submitted my request and was granted approval to return in Fall 2021 on Aug. 15.
It made a lot of sense to enroll at my local university, the University of Canterbury, where I could take full advantage of my year of free tuition and in-person classes. As an A.B. candidate, I’m allowed to transfer in total up to three credits towards my degree, and despite — or perhaps precisely because of — the fact that I’m a prospective physics major, I took no courses in physics. Having plans to keep myself academically occupied, and at the insistence of my director of studies at Princeton, I also found work as a research assistant and sought out a summer internship.
Even though my post-graduation plans are about as clear as Lake Carnegie after a rainstorm, there exists a fear that my gap year isn’t contributing to my goal, whatever it may be, that it might be a waste of time. During the grind at Princeton, it’s easy to lose track of the present in blind pursuit of the future, so I can’t deny the trepidation that comes with my decision. However, I can confidently say that my gap year has been meaningful so far and I intend to view it as a reminder to live in the present every once in a while. It’s true that I’m barely closer to getting my degree than I was half a year ago (in fact I may consider myself to be farther away), but given what I have already gained, I would surely hesitate to call it a waste.
As of now, it is December 2020. I have just finished the first semester of my gap year and have found summer at last. I’m keen to see what the future may hold, and sincerely hope for a long-awaited return to Princeton’s campus in Fall 2021.