October 3, 2021

DERY | Normalizing the Gap Semester

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In office hours last week, a student mentioned he took a gap semester in the spring, opting-out of Zoom classes to build his own cryptocurrency company. I was impressed by his bold initiative, as were many others across the room, who listened intently. I thought back to this past spring on campus, when the closest I got to starting a business was joining the Carl Becker startup club Zoom call thinking it was a floor meeting. As I continued to listen about his semester off, his tone suddenly changed, and he concluded in disappointment: “so, technically, I’m still a sophomore.” With all the invaluable experience he gained from choosing entrepreneurship over problem sets for only a few months, in Cornell’s eyes, he was just a semester behind on classes. 

Now several weeks removed from immersing himself in a booming industry, he was back in TA office hours, working on assignments as if he never left. For the rest of us who return to campus semester after semester, there’s an understanding that the fall and spring are dedicated to studies, with the summer being the time for career exploration and passion projects. As a junior now, I’ve followed this blueprint that most Cornellians seem to take: enroll for eight semesters straight, then graduate. Like most Cornellians, I, too, see the summer breaks as a much-needed change of pace to focus on other interests, career pursuits, and often, to focus on personal matters that took the backburner during the semester. It’s ironic, then, that our school expects us to pinpoint our career paths during eight consecutive semesters, when so much of our time is spent just trying to keep up with the day-to-day deliverables it keeps us busy with. Sometimes one junior year summer internship is not enough to figure out what post-college life will look like. 

Any deviation from the four-year graduation track, particularly by taking a gap semester, for example, often connotes burnout or a lack of direction. This perception isn’t aided by the administration’s similar treatment of gap semesters, or what they call a “Leave of Absence.” In particular, Cornell’s unwillingness to recognize study abroad as well as other endeavors during these semesters by rewarding academic credit furthers the stigma that a gap semester is counterproductive to the college diploma, prolonging our studies and slowing us down. 

In spite of this, there are already students who, particularly during the previous Zoom semesters, took initiative to put school on hold to pursue their interests in a real-world setting. Now that the dread of Zoom classes is no longer a stimulus for these ventures, we must look elsewhere to encourage more students to deviate from the path most taken: It’s the administration that must lead the charge in normalizing the gap semester. 

This process starts with accessibility. Majors and their host departments could do more to recognize career pursuits during gap semesters, and realize that opportunities worth academic credit, like study abroad, are not exclusive to those programs partnered with Cornell. More customization within certain majors would allow students to opt-out for their own gap semester plans to be approved by an advisor on a case-by-case basis. The ILR School already offers a full semester’s credit to pursue approved professional experiences away from campus through the ILR Credit Internship Program, a blueprint which, if expanded to the other colleges, would accomodate all Cornellians.

However, what differentiates a gap year from something like study abroad in the first place is that it isn’t necessarily pre-planned with an advisor or motivated by career goals. Even more important is flexibility to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of our campus. This past summer, I met a college student in Florida, who, over the past several semesters, struggled to balance schoolwork and social life on campus with his family’s needs. This fall, he’s taking a gap semester to help out at home. Any notion that such a reasonable decision comes at the cost of losing momentum towards a degree is indicative of an unhealthy culture. Yet, equally unhealthy is pushing through eight consecutive semesters while sweeping personal issues under the rug, which can even be harmful to the studies we believe we’re prioritizing in the first place. 

To this end, aside from the administration emphasizing more course-related and financial accommodations, the burden of fixing this cultural issue lies within the student body itself. The negative connotation associated with a gap semester leads students to overlook serious issues for the illusory fear of falling behind. And though successful completion of courses is valuable to any field of study, the expectation that it’s done in eight consecutive semesters robs us of flexibility in our schedules and guilts us into putting our personal lives on the back-burner. Freed from this notion, we can view gap semesters as a means to get ahead, not fall behind.

Roei Dery is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.