Filling in the gap: the alternative to virtual college

Taylor Elliott and Hollis Belger

After a year’s worth of college applications, standardized testing and immeasurable amounts of stress to get into the college of their dreams, taking a gap year was the last thing on most seniors’ minds. However, the COVID-19 pandemic redefined what freshman year of college would look like for the class of 2020, leaving students with a difficult choice. Would they begin college in the fall as planned, despite heavy restrictions, or would they take a chance and defer? According to a recent LendEDU survey, 43 percent of high school seniors who had not yet committed to a college at the end of last school year were considering a gap year. To explore the fascinating opportunities that come with taking a gap year, five alumni shared how they are making the most of life after Redwood. 


Lyle Belger performing at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard on September 26. (Courtesy of Lyle Belger)

Lyle Belger

When Lyle Belger was accepted into Stanford University, the choice seemed obvious; she would double major in psychology and theater performance studies at one of the world’s top universities. However, when Stanford asked students to decide if they wanted to defer in early June, Belger had to make a decision despite limited information.

“I didn’t know what their plan was going to be for the fall, and it wasn’t until August that they released that they were going to be all online. So, I’m thrilled that I decided to take a gap year when I did,” Belger said.

With a spot waiting for her at Stanford next fall, Belger currently spends her days working at an internship for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in an assistant role and helping out with youth classes. She also plays music at restaurants around Marin. Finally, Belger tutors kids of all ages, which has given her some fascinating insight into online learning.

“It’s really interesting to see how kids are being taught these days and how their brains develop. A challenge is keeping them on task because they are sitting right next to their best friends, but I love that it gives them that social connection that I think is missing on Zoom classes,” Belger said.


Sarah Young

Sarah Young sporting her Dartmouth Sailing sweatshirt at the San Francisco Yacht Club, where she is both coaching and practicing sailing during her gap year. (Courtesy of Sarah Young)

Sarah Young is one of the top sailors in the nation, ranked second for girls under 19 in the Laser Radial class and was recruited to Dartmouth’s sailing team. 

“I was being recruited to three different schools and I knew I wanted to sail on a D1 team, so [I] chose Dartmouth. It was my favorite school and the team and coach were super welcoming when I visited,” Young said.

However, like many others, when faced with the idea of a fully online school year, Young took advantage of Dartmouth’s offer to defer, even as a committed athlete.

“[Dartmouth] extended their gap year deadline date, and I applied then. As far as I could tell, they let everyone defer if they wanted to, [including athletes], so they were really generous with it,” Young said. 

Currently, Young is coaching and practicing sailing every opportunity she gets.

“I am still training with my [sailing] team here, and I’m also on the [U-21] Olympic development team. [The Olympic development program is] just starting to do clinics again with the earliest one scheduled for Thanksgiving, which I’m hoping to go to,” Young said.


Charlie Tantum

After deferring from Williams College, Charlie Tantum has returned to Camp Belknap for his gap year. It will be his tenth year attending the non-profit traditional overnight summer camp for boys ages eight to 16 in Tuftonboro, New Hampshire. However, now Tantum is no longer a camper, but an intern with leadership responsibilities. He is working to improve the experiences of campers through offseason work.

“I started going there when I was eight, and I’ve been back every summer since. This summer, we made lots of fun videos on all sorts of topics. Some to help kids learn new things but mostly to keep them engaged and have fun watching camp stuff from home,” Tantum said.

Currently, Tantum’s work includes participating in activities like sailing, water skiing, archery and construction. After benefitting so much from these tasks in unexpected ways, such as gaining leadership skills, Tantum encourages future students to consider taking a gap year for fun rather than using the year as a resume builder as many feel pressured to do.

“Every day we’re going to do a cool new thing. A lot of outdoor stuff like learning how to route signs or drive a boat,” Tantum said.


Visiting Venice, Italy, Emily Comins travels to her third destination during her gap year. (Courtesy of Emily Comins)

Emily Comins

Originally from England, Emily Comins has made her way back to Europe this year, traveling the continent with friends and family. Unlike most Redwood graduates, Comins knew that she wanted to take a gap year regardless of COVID-19.

“I always knew that I wanted to have a break in between high school and college. A [gap year] just seemed fun,” Comins said.

Comins will be attending the University of Bristol next year but plans to visit England, Scotland and Italy alongside her friend and Branson class of 2020 graduate, Charlotte Fletcher, until then. Comins is already thrilled with her choice to defer and has discovered so much about European life.

“I’ve been immersed in the culture because I’ve been staying with friends and have been able to see how other people live,” Comins said.



Lauren Steele

Journaling after a long day of hiking Lauren Steele sits down to reflect on her experiences thus far with Pacific Discovery’s semester-long backpacking trip. (Courtesy of Lauren Steele)

After becoming overwhelmed and struggling to maintain motivation with distance learning during her last high school semester, Lauren Steele knew she wanted to defer early on if Duke University announced they would not return in-person. As soon as the announcement was made, Steele and her mother researched several programs before finally deciding on Pacific Discovery, a company that offers experience-based semester long trips for students taking a gap year.

“Right now, I’m in Idaho on their backpacking trip. We started in Denver and then went to Boulder and then started to go all over. Next, we’ll go to Wyoming, Montana and Washington, and then we end in Lake Tahoe,” Steele said.

Steele described that the program is about more than enjoying mountain biking, hiking and other outdoor activities. She feels immersed in diverse cultures, has worked on service projects, explored the wilderness and worked on personal development.

“A big focus of the trip is finding out who you are. We’ll do something super fun, like rafting or rock climbing, and then we’ll take time afterward and reflect. It’s also a requirement of the program that we keep a journal, and that’s also really helped me,” Steele said.

Steele will return home in November and then embark on another adventure to Israel through Aardvark, where she will learn Hebrew and hopes to land a journalism internship.


Despite the less than ideal circumstances that COVID-19 presented recent Redwood graduates with, they were able to make the best of their situations and take this year to explore new endeavors. Perhaps their stories will motivate other students to reconsider their plans after high school, whether that means taking a gap year themselves or finding different ways to travel during college.