Zhou said when he returns to UNC, he’ll also have to reapply for the Certificate of Eligibility I-20 Form, which provides proof that a student is legally enrolled in a program in the U.S. and is a critical document when applying for certain benefits.
“I think being an international student, it’s harder in these times,” Zhou said. “Because if I had family in North Carolina, I could just move home, and if everything worked out, I could just come back in the fall.”
UNC has yet to make an official decision about what fall semester will look like, but in a Faculty Council meeting on April 17, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the University hopes to have a decision by the end of May. Guskiewicz said some of the potential options include a delayed start around Labor Day or, “worst case scenario,” conducting classes entirely remotely.
While UNC currently offers a Global Gap Year Fellowship and deferred enrollment to first-year and admitted students who are considering taking time off before starting at the University, UNC Media Relations said it’s too early to determine how these programs will be affected by the pandemic.
“The University is working with the UNC System, and monitoring guidance and advisories from public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and University infectious disease experts, to make decisions about our response to this global pandemic,” UNC Media Relations said in an email. “We will continue to work with the system to determine how to best move forward in regard to the fall semester.”
Sophomore Erin Lee said she’s considering taking a gap semester if the University moves to online classes for the fall. She said with this current semester, she’s realized she took for granted the opportunity of being in a shared physical learning space in college.
“I think that just, financially, if it were to come down to it, I really don't think I'm getting my money's worth and I wouldn't want to experience this again, especially for an entire semester,” Lee said.
Lee said while she’s not sure if she would work at her parents’ beauty supply store, do a remote internship or something else entirely, she thinks taking the opportunity to do a gap semester would be a better use of her time than online classes because everything she likes about college is “basically gone.”
“I think the opportunity to network and go to the cool events that are happening, and even just hanging out with friends and taking advantage of libraries and stuff like that — yes, some of these events are still being held online, but I think overall people are getting less from it than they would have otherwise,” Lee said. “And it seems harder to justify.”
School of Education professor Daniel Klasik said he’s not surprised that some students are looking for alternative options should the University move to online classes in the fall, particularly in light of a loss of socialization.
But he also said the transition to online classes this semester was more akin to a triage situation. If the University moves to remote instruction in the fall, he said students will likely experience a far different semester than spring 2020 since courses will be developed with the intention of being taught fully online.
But fostering a sense of campus community with remote instruction may be difficult, Klasik said.
“We know that students persist better in college when they feel connected to their campus and their campus community,” Klasik said. “And really, whether we're online or whether students are taking gap years, it's going to affect the way that students are able to connect in a way that probably isn't great, isn't what we want for students as we hope that they persist and continue with their education.”
Zhou said his decision to not return in the fall was also driven by the potential impact to his parents’ income due to the pandemic and a desire to save as much money as possible.
“I don’t think we’re in dire straits,” Zhou said. “But they’re just preparing for the worst.”
UNC Media Relations said the Carolina Student Impact Fund plans to continue providing assistance to students who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic beyond the spring semester, and that the University is working to determine guidelines regarding the fund’s extension.
For other students considering taking a gap semester, Zhou said it’s important to consider your priorities. Zhou, who plans to spend his semester tutoring kids or working a full-time job, said he’s excited about the opportunity to take time off from school and be with his family, who he hasn’t seen in a year.
“I think you just got to think about what your goals are at the end of the day,” Zhou said. “Like if your goals are to finish University as soon as possible, then I don’t think it’s worth it to take a break. But if you don’t feel like you need to finish University as soon as possible, I think this is probably the best time to take a break.”