Students strengthened connections, prioritized mental health during time away from Occidental

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Emma Tiedemann/The Occidental

Many students chose to take a gap year or gap semester in Fall 2020, resulting in a 3.6 percent drop in undergraduate enrollment in the U.S., according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s December 2020 report. Occidental students Nicolas Eble (senior), Joe Malter (senior) and Eleanor Jeansonne (first year) said they mainly decided to take time off during the pandemic due to online schooling, as well as for a variety of other reasons — including spending time with family, working on professional growth and prioritizing mental health.

Eble said he took the 2020-21 school year off to work three separate full-time internships and spend time with his family, who lives in Germany. Eble said his gap year was the most time he has ever spent together with them, since he moved around frequently as a child.

“[Taking time off] disconnected me from people in my year, because everyone was still here and a lot of people graduated,” Eble said. “But it definitely brought me a lot closer with my family, which I’m happy with.”

Malter, who took the Spring 2021 semester off, said he spent the majority of his time with his family taking care of their new dog. Malter said he was grateful for the chance to do the things he wanted, like studying chess and learning about his personal priorities. Jeansonne said she took the 2021 Spring semester off to take care of her mental health and also worked as a hostess and part-time server at a restaurant.

Jeansonne said completing her first semester at Occidental online in Fall 2020 was challenging, which was why she decided to take the time off in the spring.

“I never would have taken time off if it weren’t for COVID, but I am very grateful for the chance I did have to work on myself,” Jeansonne said. “I feel like I got to know myself a lot more.”

Eble said he was even busier during his gap year than he was in college, developing practical skills and building his resume while working in consulting, insurance and the import-export business. Eble said he believes he made the right choice for himself and his future. He said he feels the experience taught him discipline and improved his work ethic.

Malter said he does not think his gap semester will impact his career path.

“I don’t consider myself to be behind academically because I did a lot of stuff on my own,” Malter said. “I’m still probably going to graduate on time. I’m not too worried about that.”

According to Jeansonne, taking time off was the right decision for herself. Jeansonne said she knows herself better as an individual and she is more aware of how she wants to spend her time, especially in friendships and relationships.

“I think it was more fulfilling for me, not being in school, because I was able to prioritize my mental health first and focus on my relationships,” Jeansonne said. “[I] went through a lot of change during that year and a half.”

Malter said it has been easier to adjust academically than socially since he has come back to school.

“I didn’t know how relationships had shifted, or how people had changed,” Malter said. “There’s all these people that have changed together and then me, having changed completely on my own. Coming back into it was a bit shocking at first.”

Jeansonne said adjusting socially has also been challenging, as she feels more introverted than she was before taking time off and her attention span is shorter, making classes more challenging.

“It’s hard to get into the swing of things,” Jeansonne said. “I haven’t been in school since March of 2020, which is so weird.”

However, this experience is not shared by all students. Malter said the social energy at Occidental feels different this year due to all the new faces and that he feels more open to new experiences than he was before.

“I definitely took for granted that there were all of these people around me constantly,” Malter said, “Now that I’m back I’m realizing that there’s so many people here, and for the most part, any one of them is going to be an interesting person to meet.”

Malter said he is excited to be back in school, despite the workload.

“Every class I’m taking is something that I’m genuinely interested in. Each reading is something that I’m excited to do,” Malter said, “I honestly think I enjoy it more now that I’ve been away from it.”

Eble said Occidental feels different than it did when he left, but he feels excited about the changes.

“I feel like everyone is a lot more sociable and proactive about things than we were in the past,” Eble said, “They realized all the opportunities available to them and are finally making use of them.”