My COVID Gap Year Ended My Depression (Sorta)

Ellen Wang ’25
Staff Writer

Taking a gap year between high school and college was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I graduated from high school in May 2020, without most of the usual end-of-high-school festivities, without a live graduation, and without closure.

The COVID-19 pandemic had lasted much longer than anticipated, and the road ahead felt bleak and uncertain. I was only committed to Scripps on paper, still shuffling between other options and new offers. As the summer wore on, I explored my academic interests by attending the new breadth of free events available through a variety of digital platforms that enabled interaction in myriad creative ways.

When the Claremont Colleges finally made their respective decisions to be fully online and close campuses for the fall semester, the idea of taking a gap year had been brewing for a couple of weeks.

My mother had actually urged me to take one before my senior year after the catastrophic downward spiral slash burnout slash mental illness dumpster fire that was my junior year of high school. I was not familiar with that option and felt strongly against leaving my graduating class for the year below me, breaking the orderly rhythm of public K-12 education I grew up in.

I ultimately made the decision to take time off for a few standout reasons: one, I did not find online college financially or emotionally worthwhile; two, I had committed for the liberal arts college in-person learning experience; three, I knew that learning online was vastly ineffective for me, especially since I did not yet practice sustainable work habits; and four, I needed a fucking break.

During my year off, I conducted an independent research project with a mentor and presented my research at several student conferences, volunteered with my local United Nations Association USA chapter and on the national level, worked on several election campaigns, took free online courses to reclaim the learning I missed from high school, completed an intensive teaching fellowship, established a regular exercise routine, journaled almost daily, spent more time with family, cooked more, and continued to nurture relationships that were meaningful to me.

I got to hit pause on long-distance: my partner attends college elsewhere, and a primary perk of quarantine was being reunited together after some months not leaving the house, as he also completed the school year online. The relationships I maintained over quarantine were ones both members nourished with intent, a telling difference between ones developed in school simply from seeing each other daily.

The value of my gap was not so much the activities I mention when people ask me what I did, but the self healing and the enrichment of my relationships. That is not to say COVID, the mass-scale hurt experienced across the globe, and other darker parts of the year were not extremely painful for society as a whole and for myself. But I will not get into that unspeakable, incomprehensible pain here, though it contributed to some invaluable takeaways during my gap.

Alongside the freeing parts, I grew increasingly aware of how much being in school contributed to my compromised state. After a lifetime of coping with mental illness and immersing myself in that world and community, I’ve acquired a breadth of knowledge regarding dealing with it. I’ve played therapist countless times (though your peers are not stand-ins for professionals), yet at one point, there is only so much one can do to cope.

Mental illness is a healthy symptom of an unhealthy — that’s white supremacist, capitalist — society. Though I have never experienced food insecurity, how can people just “get therapy” when they are starving, when the system itself actively works to exploit the labor and suffering of the masses? This realization felt like a level of enlightenment in my journey living with clinical depression, anxiety, and generational trauma.

Conversely, nearing the start of my first year (Take 2: Ellen Revitalized), I was disillusioned about the American college experience and what I was doing at a private four-year school. I was anxious about transitioning back to school and into college. I didn’t think I would be hesitant to return, but after a year of healing and freedom, how could I not? When American higher education is inherently and irreparably a white colonial institution, what am I, especially as a woman of color and daughter of immigrants, doing subjecting myself and contributing my talents to it?

It was especially rough in the first month, as I drowned in readings and struggled to connect with peers. I was worried all my progress during my gap year was going down the drain, but it is natural to have an adjustment period before carrying over routines into a new environment. I kept thinking, I don’t want to keep living like this, feeling suffocated by the nonstop onslaught of assignments, surface-level social interactions, general college student bullshit that I felt I had outgrown ages ago, and the blatant disrespect of public health.

After harrowing weeks (one of which I got the Claremont cold and was extra miserable) and several breakdowns (during the times I visited home and felt safe enough to let it out), I started to find more rhythm. Thoughts of dropping out and/or transferring occurred less often. I grew close with friends, enjoyed my class content, and found solace in making music with Claremont Concert Orchestra.

I didn’t know anyone who had taken gap years from school. However, after my experience taking one, I firmly believe that gap years should be normalized and more commonplace. In fact, they already happen all the time without the label; people constantly take time off for mental and physical health reasons, to attend to family matters, to work, because college is no longer financially feasible, and so on. The popular notion of a “gap year” fails to address the multitude of events that occur during different people’s gaps; even without resume “appropriate” events (though I believe taking time to rest is resume-worthy), these leaves are far from an empty gap.

People grow in different ways at vastly different paces, and the popularized ideal life path is often far from realistic nor one-size-fits-all. There is no straying from the trail because the trail was a mirage to begin with, like the “American Dream” itself.

I was overall so much happier, at peace, self-assured, and centered during my gap year in quarantine. Having the option to take a gap year like mine is an immense privilege, and I am eternally grateful for it.

I still don’t have an answer for the constant conflict and contradiction of existing here at Scripps. I could go on about what the administrations can do to alleviate the cycles of oppression they perpetuate — giving more deciding power to faculty, staff, and students is one substantial non-bandage solution.

As Angela Davis spoke about at the Claremont Colleges recently, building communities is crucial to surviving and thriving. I’d love to be a resource for those curious about my experience, and I hope to continue community service and mutual care in this home away from home.

Image Source: Ellen Wang ’25