Many students trudged through Zoom classes and bi-weekly surveillance testing last year — but others skipped out on a year online or studied at home.
They took on new jobs. They traveled the country or stayed home, unable to return to campus during the previous academic year. Now, after a year away, many students who studied remotely or took gap semesters are back on campus, adapting to the routines of in-person college classes once again — or for the first time.
In the fall 2020 semester, over 600 undergraduate students took the semester off and over 120 incoming first-year students elected to take gap years. Many students on gap years found exciting and new ways to spend their time.
Christian Finlay ’25 was originally admitted to the Class of 2024 in the College of Arts and Sciences, but decided to take a gap year to avoid beginning his college experience online. He spent time working at home, embarked on a two-month cross country road trip with a fellow gap-year Cornellian and spent six months working in Breckenridge, Colorado, as a ski instructor.
While Finlay reflected fondly on his gap year, he also said he was excited for his return to school.
“I’m definitely excited to be on campus with a bunch of people my age, because I had a ton of fun this year, but I’ve been hanging out with 35-year-olds,” Finlay said.
Meghna Shroff ’22 also described feeling excited about being surrounded by classmates and friends, after wrapping up a gap year spent at home with her family in Bengaluru, India. She chose to stay home for reasons related to the pandemic.
“I’m really looking forward to that entire studio experience, hanging out in [Martha Van Renssellaer] and just going through the daily motions of attending classes,” Shroff said.
Cornell notified students, faculty and staff in early August that classes would be held in-person, with no option to attend remotely. Students now are adjusting to fully in-person classes and club meetings, with some students returning after a year away from academics.
Shroff said she stood by her decision to take a gap year, but also said she worried about graduating on time.
Chris Chavez ’23 spent the fall semester studying remotely at home in Boston and ultimately decided to return to campus in spring 2021, living on North Campus in the Seal and Serpent house. He emphasized the importance of in-person classes to his experience on campus, after feeling frustrated by attending fall classes online.
“There’s a certain amount of engagement that there has to be for in-person lectures that allows you to retain major points,” Chavez said. “When you’re taking these online lectures, and you can start and stop them at will, you become bogged down with a lot of extraneous details.”
For Chavez, in-person classes help create structure and are a more effective way to learn the material.
“I definitely am excited to actually get a lot more of my structure back, because that was definitely missing these past few semesters,” Chavez said.
After a fall semester of remote learning, Emily Grigg ’21, opted to spend the spring 2021 semester working at D.P. Dough in Collegetown and studying for the GRE, rather than taking on another semester of remote classes.
“I was very fortunate to have this big house with all of my friends, and I feel like I got a better social experience from that compared to if I’d only had one roommate or zero roommates,” Grigg said.
Ysabella Vistan ’23 lived at home in the Philippines studying remotely for the 2020-2021 school year and looks forward to participating in clubs again — and attending class at a consistent time zone.
“To be in the same place as the professor, or the TA even, there’s a more genuine connection than a screen-to-screen thing,” Vistan said. “When you’re in person it feels a little more genuine, you can see reactions –– facial reactions, body language — and you can’t get that on Zoom.”
Vistan added that many of the clubs she is a member of stopped meeting altogether or met significantly less often online.
Many of Griggs’ classes were held asynchronously, contributing to a lack of routine. As a member of the marching band, Grigg also said having structure outside of academics is important to her Cornell experience.
“It’s really helpful for me to know that I have practice on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and I have a game on Saturday,” she said. “I didn’t really have any of that. I kind of struggled in that way.”
After two semesters of remote learning from home, Vistan feels excited about returning to campus and rejoining the Cornell community in-person.
“Having a sense of togetherness within the Cornell community is going to be really nice,” Vistan said.