Virtual gap year allows students to slow down, move forward

At Champlain College in Vermont, a virtual 15-week, for-credit program for 2020 high school graduates allows students to explore college life, holistic well-being and career options through real-time instruction and collaboration with professors and mentors.

The uncertainty around the college fall semester caused by the coronavirus pandemic has many students and parents looking for alternatives to being on campus.

In fact, a recent U.S. News & World Report survey found that about one in six students who planned to attend a college or university before coronavirus are considering a change in plans. A Carnegie Dartlet Senior Fall Decision Study found almost one-third of students are willing to defer or cancel their fall semester if schools go totally online.  While some students are considering gap-year programs, the majority of traditional, structured programs are currently unavailable.

Kimberly Quinn, Champlain College
Kimberly Quinn, Champlain College

In this unprecedented time, colleges must use all of their resources and ingenuity to develop cost-effective, value-based alternatives to on-site learning. These must not only keep students on a career-driven academic track, but address the unprecedented mental and emotional challenges—stress, disappointment and loneliness—faced by this age group, which already looks to be the most anxious and depressed generation in history. In a spring survey conducted by the non-profit Active Minds of 2086 college students, 80% reported that COVID-19 has negatively affected their mental health.

In response to these issues, Champlain College has created a virtual gap program. Unlike online classes, each component of the program will involve “live” face-to-face instruction over channels like Zoom to foster participation, and permit interaction and collaboration among students, professors and mentors in real time.

The program begins in August and aims to address the needs of students who are in limbo by providing an inspiring semester-long journey into college life, holistic well-being, and career exploration.  It is open to all students who graduated high school by August 2020, and offers options for three or six credits that can be applied at Champlain or transferred to another school.

Over the entire 15-week program, students will explore the human brain, and the use of mindfulness both inside and outside the classroom to develop resilience and integrate well-being into their professional and personal lives. Entitled Mindcraft, the course covers skills to promote better mental health and how changing our thinking can change our lives.

A 10-week Big Ideas section exposes students to college-level thinking, emerging issues and helps focus their interests in preparation for the internship portion of the program. Students will participate in graded discussion forums with leading innovators, who will address such topics as service, love, social media, race, gender and identity. In addition, students will “travel the world” through immersive virtual experiences.

A five-week hands on Virtual Internship helps students hone in on areas of interest and foster professional growth by working with employers and a job coach on innovative, interdisciplinary projects. Over the course of the internship, students will gain hands-on experience, and learn about time management, teamwork, portfolio development, presentation skills and networking.

We believe the well-being portion of the program will be especially valuable for students who are socially isolated at home with nervous parents. We want to give these students a reason to get up in the morning, provide structure, and help them move forward by teaching them to slow down. Most importantly, they will learn to take accountability for their brain’s health and their mind’s happiness. Instead of thinking that they will be happy when they are successful, they will develop the awareness and skills to understand that success follows happiness.

Students will become the “boss of their brain.” In addition to learning how the cognitive process works, they will take active steps to prioritize their own well-being through mindfulness; practicing and cultivating gratitude; and understanding the influence of cognition on emotion and behavior.

Also read: Why colleges are launching virtual gap years

We believe the lessons they will learn about self-care, and how to handle stress and anxiety will help them in every aspect of their lives.

Before the pandemic, we could never have imagined the current situation.  While it is difficult to find a silver lining, the pandemic has forced colleges to stop and think about the value of what they have to offer. Institutions that are able to develop creative approaches to education during this challenging time will help their students and become stronger in the process.

Kimberly Quinn teaches cognitive and positive psychology and is the Well-being and Success Coach at Champlain College. Her recent research is on the influence of social media on the well-being of college student

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