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Students take gap semesters during the pandemic

Increased financial and academic stress have some students thinking about putting their studies on hold until the pandemic eases


“It's hard to justify the tuition when COVID-19 changes every part of the college experience you pay for.” Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

As COVID-19 cases remain high and stress levels among students follow suit, some have considered putting their studies on hold until the coronavirus is under control, and others have fully committed to doing so.

Students taking a gap year have a variety of concerns, including testing positive for the coronavirus, receiving an inferior education and worrying that ASU is charging too much for a lackluster experience.

When the spring semester began in January, Arizona had the second-highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

READ MORE: Active COVID-19 cases surge on first day of spring semester

Recent graduate Vincent Rainey decided to hold off on starting his master's degree right after graduation. Although it was a difficult decision, he said he felt it was the right thing to do.

“Almost all universities right now in this whole state are kind of struggling," Rainey said. "So there's not really anywhere for me to go, and going online for a master's degree, in my experience and from what I've heard, is just a nightmare."

Rainey, who studied psychology, said he doesn’t feel like he would have had access to the same support system and resources if he had started his master's this spring.

College during the pandemic limits traditional perks like study groups and in-person learning, he said.

ASU is doing the best it can given the state of COVID-19 in the community, but “the school can only do so much when the whole state itself is on fire,” Rainey said.

Robert Encinas, a senior studying communication, strongly considered taking a break because of the pandemic but decided to "power on" through his last year.

"The quality of my education has suffered to a degree," Encinas said. "I know the professors are doing the best they can, but I can’t help but feel that the education is lackluster compared to regular in-person learning."

Valielza O’Keefe, a senior studying materials science and engineering, decided to stay in her hometown of Las Vegas for the Fall 2020 semester and did not enroll in any courses.

"The state’s alarming rates of COVID-19 transmission was a principal reason I chose to take a semester off," O’Keefe said. 

But for the spring, O'Keefe said she decided to begin taking classes again because she would rather take courses, even if not ideal, than continue to put her education on hold. 

Financial stress was also a common theme among students’ concerns. Students are required to pay athletic fees despite not being able to attend sporting events and out-of-state students not on campus paying for gym facilities hundreds of miles away.

Rainey said the pandemic has highlighted how crucial financial support from the University is for its students, and ASU could be doing more.

“I feel like ASU is lacking in terms of financial compensation for the students and what they're going through,” Rainey said. 

Lowering tuition, increasing communication regarding financial options for students and providing more loans are some of the actions Rainey said he’d like to see on behalf of the school.

“Less loans are being given out to the students struggling, and it's just a whole nightmare for people in strict financial situations at the moment,” Rainey said.

The transition to Zoom was a leap into uncharted territory for both faculty and students; professors struggled to adapt their teaching methods to online environments, students struggled to keep up with coursework and no one seemed to be safe from the dreaded “Zoom fatigue.”

Many classes simply did not lend themselves to an online environment and students said they felt they weren't learning.

Nevertheless, Encinas is thankful for his professors' support and flexibility through these challenges.

"I feel that most of my professors have been very understanding of situations during the pandemic," Encinas said. "I appreciate everyone and their sympathy for things like stress, anxiety, increased demand of jobs, etc."

However, the quality of education remains a guessing game for many.

“It's really just a roll of the dice, whether it's going to be the better quality or not online,” Rainey said.

With COVID-19 cases remaining high and the future of the pandemic still highly uncertain, students who took a gap year are concerned about when they will be able to return to ASU.

“As much as we want to think that everybody knows what's good for the country, seeing how people are walking out without masks and partying, people don't have any idea what they're doing and we can't leave it up to them to, you know, help things get better,” Rainey said. 

The University is in the process of investigating an off-campus fraternity party that was brought to its attention through videos on social media of more than 50 students crowded together, maskless under a tent. The investigation was first reported by the Arizona Republic and confirmed in an email to The State Press by a University spokesperson.

Rainey currently plans on taking a gap semester before starting his master's, but he said changes in circumstance could extend those plans.

“I'm worried that things will stay really bad for so long that I'm going to have to just bite the bullet and go online,” he said.

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