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Harvesting hemp, analyzing blood, and ‘being an adult’: Tigers take on the pandemic gap year

Mahya Fazel ’25 working as a student research assistant in the Gingras Laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Courtesy of Mahya Faisel ’25

Before April, Dominic Dominguez ’25 never thought about taking a gap year.

“I thought it was a dumb idea,” Dominguez said. “I always imagined, if you took a gap year, you would just be sitting around for a while.”


Nonetheless, Dominguez — among many other Princeton admits and students — has found fulfilling ways to spend his time. The Daily Princetonian spoke with five admits and current students about their decisions to take gap years, where that’s taken them, and what they’ve learned. 

In the Service of Humanity

Dominguez has always been interested in service. In May, his mother suggested that he take a gap year to become an EMT, which he saw as a compromise between academics and real-world work. What was previously a daunting and unappealing prospect became a year for exploration and practical experiences.

“Before I get into all this academic, theoretical stuff that is college, I really want to do things with my hands,” he said. “I want my work to have real impact.” He felt that this aspiration was particularly pressing in the context of the pandemic.

He took a certification class over the summer and currently works part-time for a medical transport company. On his 12-hour shifts, he’s in an ambulance with a partner, transporting patients to and from hospitals or extended-care facilities. These patients might have psychiatric or ambulatory issues, or require basic care like CPR or airway suctioning. 

Through this work, Dominguez feels he has developed deeper empathy for strangers. 


“This job allows you to see very intimate moments into people’s lives, into their houses, into them being sick and caring for each other,” he said.

Dominguez recalled a patient he transported who was recovering from COVID-19: On the brink of tears, the patient was overjoyed to see that the trees — green when he had entered the hospital — were changing colors with the season. 

“He was talking about how happy he was just to be alive,” Dominguez recalled. “It really just makes you realize how good you have it.”

Dominguez is also an intern at the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome and Associated Disorders. He volunteered there in high school following a diagnosis when he was 16, wanting to advocate for Tourette’s and break the stigma behind it. He communicates with families and youth and creates content for monthly chats with teenagers.

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Besides his work, Dominguez has been able to enjoy the little moments: creating art, making jewelry, and spending more time with his siblings. He began keeping a journal for all the things he wants to remember.

Unlike Dominguez, Andre Biehl ’25 always wanted to take a gap year. Originally from Princeton, N.J., his interactions with University students who had taken time off made the prospect enticing even before the pandemic hit. 

He was initially interested in the Novogratz Bridge Year Program, but after its cancellation in June, he decided to look for other programs online. Biehl is currently serving a nine-month term with the National Civilian Community Corps, or AmeriCorps NCCC.

“We go out to different communities and do a variety of service work, including restoring houses, restoring wildfire damage in certain forests, and various other public work projects,” he explained. 

“I’m doing manual work that I wouldn’t really be doing in any other context. It’s a really good character-building program.” 

AmeriCorps NCCC teams serve at multiple sites across the country during their terms, placed wherever they are needed. Biehl’s group of ten was first stationed in Sacramento for training. Then, Biehl’s team took a five-day road trip to their first assignment in Delaware, where they got used to living together and meshed as a group.  

They worked for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing. Older and more experienced local volunteers, like retired construction workers, are hesitant to work because of COVID-19, so this young team stepped up, spending eight hours a day on the site doing construction work.

“A lot of houses here don’t even have proper insulation or plumbing. It’s a really big challenge,” Biehl said. “I know that a lot of the service that we in the U.S. do is exported [to other countries] … I think there’s so much to be done at home.”

Like Biehl, Mahya Fazel ’25 also always had a gap year in mind. Still, she didn’t finalize her decision until August — following the University’s reversal of plans which barred first-years and juniors from campus. 

In high school, Fazel had worked at the Gingras Laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital in her hometown of Toronto. Her mentor offered her a position as a student research assistant for the year, and Fazel couldn’t turn down the opportunity. 

Her decision was influenced by the prospect of a fully virtual semester.  

“[But] more important than that,” she said, “I really wanted to have a contribution in the global fight against COVID-19 beyond just wearing a mask and sanitizing my hands.”

Fazel’s lab deals with serology, or analysis of blood serum. They use automated and manual techniques to research the response of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Her research hopes to find better, more efficient testing capabilities and potentially aid in vaccine development. 

Fazel works directly with patients’ blood serum and plasma: “I’m working with a part of their body, and they’re fighting a very deadly disease … It’s firsthand.”

A prospective molecular biology concentrator, Fazel is finding her ground in medicine and biology. 

“I’m gaining tremendous amounts of experience in research which I doubt I would get in any biology class, in such…[a short] amount of time,” she said.

Non-Traditional Learning

Sterling Hall ’25 had considered taking a gap year even before the pandemic, but he made his decision days before the initial March deadline for incoming students. He wanted a break from academics and more time to focus on personal matters. 

Over the summer, he went backpacking with friends for four days at Linville Gorge in the Appalachians. 

“I almost died about five times on that trip,” Hall recalled. An eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a precarious cliff overhang, and a lightning storm were a few of those near-death moments, but he remembers them as the most exciting parts of his gap year.

Without a concrete plan, Hall talked to his youth pastor, who suggested a spiritual journey as part of his year. Hall, a Baptist, has been reading “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster. 

“It’s been helpful for me in my faith, giving me a guidebook, almost,” he said. 

Around the same time, Hall also began working at a knifemaking business. He has learned to plasma cut knives, refine their shape, make sheaths, and work on the forge itself. 

“Every day is something different,” he said. 

After building a strong foundation of self discovery and self knowledge, Hall said he feels more prepared for his Princeton experience next year. Along with his spiritual journey, he’s enjoyed the opportunity to play guitar, exercise, and spend extra time planning out meals. 

“Those are things that often get overlooked, but are just as important,” he said.

Nolan Musslewhite ’25 opted for a year studying more traditional academic subjects — classics and philosophy — from a sixteenth-century villa on the outskirts of Rome through a scholarship program from the Accademia Vivarium Novum. 

Musslewhite had initially decided not to take a gap year after he was admitted but reconsidered when the pandemic worsened in March. 

Despite initially assuming that the Accademia program would not run this year, Musslewhite came across the application in August and filled it out — two weeks late. After being accepted, he only had two weeks to secure a student visa, but successfully made it to Italy in October.

Students coming from around the world are required to converse in Latin — or sometimes ancient Greek — as a common language. The transition to speaking Latin was difficult at first, despite his rigorous study in high school. 

“I succeeded in the traditional metrics of U.S. high school Latin … You study for six years, and then you can sort of limp through Cicero, or struggle through Vergil, as long as you have a commentary that tells you all the grammar and vocab,” Musslewhite said. “The difficulty is translating that to skills you’ve never used before, like speaking.” 

Speaking became natural after a few weeks of immersion. Outside of class, students can socialize at four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, high tea, and dinner. Musslewhite recalled the views driving in and from the villa as a special moment in his year: “When the sun sets, you get a pretty amazing view.”

Maddie Plank ’24 took a more experiential approach to learning. A knee injury sidelined Plank during her freshman season on Princeton’s basketball team. Not wanting to miss a second season because of the pandemic, she decided to take a gap year.

Plank remembered her parents’ advice.

“We don’t want to pay for this year to be nothing,” Plank recalled them saying. “Try and support yourself, try and be independent.”

Plank reflected on the limits of traditional academics, especially during a virtual semester. 

“We’re always so bogged down by school, and being inside, and studying,” Plank said. “I want to learn, but I don’t necessarily want to be on a device all day.” 

A friend introduced her to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), a program where volunteers work on farms in exchange for room and board. 

Plank spent several weeks on two farms, one in New Hampshire and the other  in Pennsylvania. On the first farm, Plank mainly weeded but explored every day afterwards — biking for hours, visiting a pond every evening, playing basketball, and watching the sunset. She left early for Pennsylvania, where she found the work more fulfilling. She harvested hemp and garlic and ended the vegetable season. 

One night, a fellow WWOOF volunteer cooked a seven-course meal with food from the farm. 

“I got this whole, well-rounded experience,” Plank said. “The people were amazing. It was exactly what I was hoping for.” 

The people she met WWOOFing helped guide the rest of her gap year plans. Plank is considering concentrating in neuroscience, psychology, or economics. In New Hampshire, one volunteer who had majored in neuroscience advised Plank to try to find a lab to work in.

“It’ll really help you learn about what you want to pursue, if you see yourself doing research in the future,” Plank recalled him saying.

So, in December, Plank began working in a neuroscience lab at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, subletting a room nearby. “Being an adult, kind of crazy,” she said. 

For the spring, Plank is planning a 75-day bike trip from the Jersey Shore to Seattle, living in tents and visiting cities and national parks along the way. 

Hall, Musslewhite, and Plank all made the choice to take time off before solidifying any plans, upending the neatly structured college trajectory they each had in mind. Plank summed up the anxieties this uncertainty produced.

“I was really stressed that I would be wasting time, and that I wouldn’t find things that were fulfilling … that this year would just go by and I would have not improved as a human,” she said.

But none of these fears were realized. 

“I’m really, really happy right now,” Plank said. “I’m re-energized … I’m so excited to learn more.”