Students are masking up and turning their Zoom cameras on to begin classes this fall. However, many University of Michigan students have opted for an alternate experience this upcoming year. Due to the spread of COVID-19 and remote learning, some students decided it would be best to take a gap semester or year.
More than five times as many first year students are putting off classes this year compared to the previous year. According to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, this year 245 first-year students and 51 transfer students decided to defer their enrollment until Fall 2021. In 2019, only 52 first year-students and 5 transfer students deferred enrollment.
“Clearly deferments are up this year as we face a global pandemic,” Fitzgerald said.
The Michigan Daily spoke to various students and found their reasoning for taking time off ranged from fear of contracting COVID-19 to using time off for personal growth and exploration.
Yoo Young Chun would have been an incoming sophomore in the School of Art & Design this year but decided to take a year off due to the coronavirus. Though she is not at high risk, she said she wanted to do anything she could to contain the disease, which included not returning to campus.
“I just feel like in the college environment, no matter how many precautions that can be taken, it’s still not gonna be a perfectly safe environment when it comes to something like a pandemic,” Chun said.
In addition to safety concerns, Chun discussed how it would be challenging to build her art portfolio through online classes. Chun said she considered how she would lose access to resources such as studio spaces and materials if she took classes remotely.
“I decided to take a whole year off because for STAMPS students, sophomore year is pretty important because we have sophomore review our second semester and that’s when we present all of the things we’ve learned and the journey and the track we’re going on to faculty,” Chun said. The challenges of remote learning also concerned Music, Theatre & Dance junior Jack Merucci, who studies vocal performance and decided to take a semester off.
Since quarantine began in March, Merucci has been living in Ann Arbor and is currently working on composing his own music. The impact of COVID-19 can have devastating impacts on a person’s lungs –– a health risk Merucci isn’t willing to take as a vocal performer. Merucci also didn’t want to pay full tuition for an online experience.
“Quarantine made me take a step back from school,” Merucci said. “The University, the main way they get money is from tuition. And I didn’t want to have them just take my money for a discounted class.”
Some students taking a leave of absence are anxious about delaying their graduation, according to Antoinette Morales, associate director of the LSA Academic Standards Board. However, Merucci said he is in no rush to graduate and enter the workforce.
“I’ll be graduating a semester later, but honestly that doesn’t bother me,” Merucci said. “The state of jobs right now, especially for musicians, is not great. The industry is changing. There’s no industry for live performance right now so it’s up to the artists to figure out how to survive on their own.”
Merucci noted that one of the advantages of attending higher education as a musician is to network and gain connections to succeed in the music industry. Merucci said support from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and its staff has shifted from helping students book gigs to simply finishing their degree.
Merucci said much of the mainstream technology used to adapt in-person experiences to digital platforms, such as Zoom, are not equipped for music performance or practice. In an interview with The Daily, Music, Theatre & Dance Dean David Gier said the capacity of the technology used for the school’s online classes will be the biggest challenge this semester.
Anticipated issues include lagging video calls, difficulties with student collaboration and the fact that the technology does not account for complex musical sound or acoustical dimensions that can be heard in person.
Gier said as of the first day of classes, the student population was down by only 1.8 percent compared to a typical year.
“We anticipated that some students would, depending on the state of affairs, decide to take some time off, but we also knew that students in the performing arts also had a real desire to be together,” Gier said.
Benjamin Thauland, facilities manager of the Music, Theatre & Dance School, was integral in creating the college’s safety plan. Thauland said it’s been inspiring to see students return to in-person learning this past week.
“This past week of the reopening, school starting, has been fantastic,” Thauland said. “Our students that have come back are excited to be playing their instruments. The ensembles don’t look anything like they usually do, they’re so spread out and distanced from each other, but people are making music again, people are dancing again, and it’s really exciting because it’s been six months almost (without it).”
Gier said his students understand the importance of following the Music, Theatre & Dance School safety guidelines because of how crucial in-person practice is.
While Gier and Thauland worked to create COVID-19 safety precautions, Merucci said the University was irresponsible for choosing to hold in-person classes at all. He said the Music, Theatre & Dance School’s plans for the fall never felt concrete.
“They definitely made a lot of contact throughout the quarantine and into the semester about what they were doing, but you know, all the plans were not really ever finite or concrete, they were always subject to change,” Merucci said. “I just didn’t feel like that was right. I felt like the University should have just acknowledged that coronavirus would be improbable to deal with and they should have just went online.”
LSA junior Zhehao Tong, an international student, decided to take a gap year and remain in China. While his first concern about returning to campus was the spread of COVID-19, he said he was also worried about experiencing racial hostility in the United States.
“It’s better for me to stay in an environment where I know is for sure not going to be hostile towards my presence,” Tong said.
LSA senior Elizabeth Martin is currently taking a gap year and secured a fall internship to keep herself busy. Martin, who is studying math, economics and art history, said she struggled to retain information in online classes and wanted to experience her senior year in person.
“I genuinely enjoy school and going to class,” Martin said. “Back in March, when everything went online, I felt like I didn’t learn or retain anything like I normally would in class. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do out-of-state tuition for that and for me to not retain any information.”
Chun said the support provided by Michigan advisers for students to pursue a gap year differed from other universities in the U.S.
“I do feel really good about the support I got from the school for taking a gap year,” Chun said. “I have friends that go to other schools all around the country and a lot of schools don’t offer that support, don’t offer that guidance. They kind of discourage you from taking a gap year. But I think Michigan really allowed me to go on a path that’s not completely traditional.”
Mika LaVaque-Manty, director of the LSA Honors Program, said he believes students should take advantage of gap years even when the world is not experiencing a global pandemic. In the LSA Honors Program, slightly less than 10 percent of students took time off this year.
“There are many small silver linings in this terrible situation, and one of them is that it’s forcing us to rethink many of our old ways of doing things,” LaVaque-Manty said. “And the flexibility for students to do really cool things, I think is really great.”
Daily Staff Reporter Callie Teitelbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.