Nora Stamp knew when she graduated from high school that she wanted to travel a bit, work a lot and move out of her parents’ house.
Stamp didn’t know where she wanted to go to college or what she might study.
She took time off — now popularly called a gap year — from school to grow up and become more focused.
That was four years ago. Now she is studying liberal arts at Metropolitan Community College and plans to go to the University of Nebraska at Omaha next year to study communications and property management.
“I enjoy school a lot more now that I want to do it,” she said. “I liked school, but not a lot” by the end of high school.
“I enjoy learning a lot more now,” said Stamp, 22, of Omaha.
As the coronavirus has compelled schools to close classrooms and deliver programs online, some wonder how many high school graduates or college students might take a gap year, or a break from school. But the virus will most likely affect what can be done with a gap year, too.
Some schools, including those in the University of Nebraska system and the Nebraska State College System, have announced intentions to hold classes on campus in the fall. But many uncertainties involving the virus, schooling and large gatherings remain.
“The gap year world is humming,” said Holly Bull, head of a consulting firm in New Jersey that provides year-off advice. “Gap time is all about rolling with change anyway. How do I deal with the change that’s happening either inside me or outside me?”
Lina Stover, undergraduate admissions director at UNO, said some students might delay college to provide financial support to parents who have lost jobs during the pandemic.
Stover said the NU system and UNO are unveiling new scholarship programs this year, such as Nebraska Promise, to make the university more affordable. Nebraska Promise offers free tuition to in-state undergraduate students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year.
Stover said it’s a gamble to take time off between high school and college.
“We know that if a student takes a break, it is much harder to come back,” she said. “You lose momentum in terms of studying.”
Further, when people start earning nice paychecks, Stover said, they depend on them and make purchases, such as cars, that require them to keep working.
“I would argue that students would mature while in college,” she said. They can do internships and study-abroad programs through their university, Stover said.
There are many ways to take a gap year. They include working, volunteering, traveling abroad or domestically, joining AmeriCorps for public service opportunities, taking a class in art, discovering how to play the piano or learning a language.
Ethan Knight, executive director of the Oregon-based Gap Year Association, said 12 years of grade, middle and high school can leave a student’s mind in park. He took a gap year between his freshman and sophomore years in college, traveling to India and Nepal. He also sold Nike products for a while.
He called his gap year a way of “getting out and seeing new ways to do this thing called life.” His year off stimulated his curiosity, he said, and he returned to college with a stronger commitment to school.
Knight estimated that 40,000 American students annually take a gap year and that 90% return to college within a year of finishing their gap experiences.
The Baltimore-based Art & Science Group surveyed 487 high school seniors in March and found that 35% were considering taking a gap year. But in April, a survey of 1,171 showed a decline in that category to 16%, perhaps a result of colleges starting to announce their intentions to offer on-campus classes in the fall.
The Art & Science Group wrote of this period: “The only certainty is uncertainty.”
Jane Sarouhan, co-founder of Massachusetts gap-year counseling firm J2Guides, said students want to know what’s possible if they start a gap year in 2020.
“There will probably also be limitations on what they can do if they take a gap year,” she said. Gap years are linked by many to big trips, Sarouhan said, but the real aim is to pause to examine one’s interests.
She said that for some, a gap year in 2020 might involve doing research remotely, helping grassroots groups with fundraising and social media, learning a language from a teacher on the other side of the world, or assisting with COVID-19 analysis.
Families are assessing options and making contingency plans, Sarouhan said. Many families don’t want to pay full tuition, she said, if a semester of classes will be provided online, as most were this spring.
“Everyone’s trying to wait and see,” she said. “There’s so much uncertainty, and it’s quite overwhelming. ... Nothing may look ideal this fall.”
Bull, whose late father started her consulting firm, the Center for Interim Programs, 40 years ago, said a year at college can be “an expensive party” if a student doesn’t know what he’s looking for.
She said she thought she was interested in marine biology until she took a gap year to do research in Hawaii. She discovered that she didn’t have the patience for it.
In the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, high school junior Elise Stouffer intends to graduate early, in December, and take an 18-month break from school.
Stouffer said she has felt pressure to do well academically in Advanced Placement and honors courses. She said there is “no time to rest” while she and classmates compete to get into top colleges.
She is enthusiastic about college, she said, “but I don’t know if I could be successful going right back in” to school. She doesn’t know what she wants to study.
Working with Sarouhan, she has dabbled with the concept of “work exchanges,” in which she would work on an organic farm, or help a dog breeder or an art school, and be paid room and board in return.
Going abroad would be nice, she said, but working and gaining rich experiences are the key.
Omaha’s Nora Stamp has work experience as a barista, nanny, bartender, movie theater attendant and an apartment leasing specialist.
During her time off from school, she traveled to Florida and New York City. She took some online courses through Arizona State University. She said she was ready to experience life as an adult.
Stamp said she has learned a great deal through her experiences. Her parents tell her that she has grown up.