Blind Brook Class of 2020 graduate Martin Gonzalez hugs his little sister Lola, a Blind Brook Middle School rising sixth-grader, moments after his commencement ceremony on Sunday, July 26. Originally slated to attend Williams College in the fall, the 17-year-old is taking a year off instead.
Victoria Bresnahan|Westmore News
Blind Brook Class of 2020 graduate Martin Gonzalez hugs his little sister Lola, a Blind Brook Middle School rising sixth-grader, moments after his commencement ceremony on Sunday, July 26. Originally slated to attend Williams College in the fall, the 17-year-old is taking a year off instead. Victoria Bresnahan|Westmore News
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For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far, particularly when collective anxieties were climaxing in the first few months, Abe Baker-Butler was clutching onto the anticipation of attending Yale University in the fall as a light at the end of the tunnel of madness.

It was a tough bullet to bite when he slowly came to terms with the idea that, right now, college isn’t his best option.

“For a long time, I had not been contemplating taking a gap year at all. I was really looking forward to all Yale has to offer; the community, the opportunity to do good, the opportunity to learn,” the Blind Brook High School Class of 2020 top scholar said. “Then, all of a sudden I got the email with specific plans around July 1. That’s when I realized the experience in the fall is not going to be anything like what I thought I was looking forward to.”

For many high schoolers in the Tri-State region—especially those in prestigious school districts like Blind Brook—pursuing higher education after graduation is more of an inevitable than a decision. It’s the pivotal next chapter they’ve persistently aimed for during four intense years of studies.

While most graduating from the Blind Brook and Port Chester school districts are set on following through with their college plans, a handful of students have been grappling with the question: is it worth it? Freshman year in the COVID-19 era will be undeniably strange as students enter a novel world with heavy restrictions on socialization and education. Perhaps that time can be better spent. Perhaps college can wait a year.

Of course, some students in less advantaged situations contemplated the same question. But for them, there is no choice in the matter.

The COVID-19 college reality

Martin Gonzalez got a taste of distance learning in his last few months at Blind Brook High School—it wasn’t for him. At Williams College, where he was slated to play soccer in the fall, hybrid learning will be practiced. He could attend some classes in person, and others from his dorm room staring at Zoom.

“As a senior, towards April and May, all we were really doing at that point was prepping for AP tests. So (distance learning) was fine because the workload wasn’t that serious,” the Woodland Drive resident said. “But going into freshman year and getting to know your teachers from a distance, it doesn’t seem like the right thing for me. I think it would be overwhelming, especially because of the new environment.”

For multi-faceted reasons, Gonzalez is taking a gap year. Predominantly because he was going to the small liberal arts college to play soccer. And this fall, there will be no soccer—or any sports, for that matter.

School in the fall will also be missing a key aspect at the heart of college life: socialization. Gonzalez was initially intrigued by Williams College because with around 2,000 undergraduates it’s a tight-knit community—just like Blind Brook, a district he enjoyed growing up in.

But chummy and intimate, while perfect for him, aren’t ideal features during a global pandemic. There would be no weekend events or his highly anticipated bonding experiences with his team. Realistically, he’d only get to know the other students in his dorm.

In an ideal world, Gonzalez said he’d be going to school carefree, with the freedom to play with his team without any COVID-19 worries. However, in this day and age, everyone is making personal sacrifices.

“I had never considered (a gap year) before, but my soccer coach was really straightforward with us about what he thought the fall semester would look like. He told us from the get-go that he doubted there would be a fall season. He wasn’t optimistic about the whole team playing on campus,” Gonzalez said. “When the plans came out, I started weighing my pros and cons to take a gap year. In the end, I decided there were more pros. I honestly thought there were a lot of cons about going to school.”

Similarly, Baker-Butler was hesitant to forgo the social opportunities at Yale University. The Ivy League school wouldn’t hold the same majesty without in-person classes, dining halls, extra-curricular activities and cultural centers.

It was daunting, he added, that if any of their seven suitemates contracted COVID-19, they would all need to quarantine alone in a single room for two weeks.

At a certain point, especially at private institutions with a hefty tuition bill, Gonzalez said students have to ask if it’s a wise financial move.

“They did cut the tuition a little bit, but you’d still be paying a lot of money,” he said. “It’s really not worth the tuition in my eyes, to go out there with everything being weakened with the restrictions being in place. It’s just another reason why it wasn’t worth going on campus.”

Time better spent

Both Yale University and Williams College are giving freshmen the gap year option—automatically enrolling those who request it in the Class of 2025. The time, both Blind Brook grads agree, won’t be squandered.

As a 17-year-old who won’t reach legal adulthood until November, Gonzalez is young for his grade. He doesn’t see a gap year as a negative thing at all—it’s a year to mature. A year to nail down his academic interests because as of now, he’s undecided. While working as a soccer instructor, tutor and picking up shifts at his father’s restaurant in New York City, it will be a year to taste the real world.

Baker-Butler ambitiously plans to use the time to better the world. Over the last few years, the Rock Ridge Drive resident has made a legitimate name for himself as a local, county and state advocate—pushing for gun safety legislation and public health initiatives amongst other progressive ideals.

“I have a number of goals that I’ve developed for the gap year,” Baker-Butler said. “One is to grow personally; another is to develop skills helpful for life and gain a better sense of my career and academic interests. And I really want to appreciate this year to the fullest, to make the best of it I can to improve the world and our society during this crazy time.”

It’s been an intense year, with COVID-19 shadowing a presidential election and national outrage over race issues and police brutality. This summer, he’s finalizing plans to work as a research assistant with a Florida State University School of Law professor studying policing and incarceration reform. Of course, he said, he’ll also be active in the Joe Biden presidential campaign, because “we need action to change our country.”

Choice is a privilege

While the year won’t go to waste, Baker-Butler said ultimately, he’s glad he even has a choice.

“I’m also very aware and concerned that with gap years, privilege is what allows most people to take it,” the 18-year-old said. First-generation and low-income students are much less flexible, while some scholarships and special programs forbid it. “A lot of people who are forced by financial needs and requirements by their programs to go directly to school, they can’t take a gap year. And of course, you have to have the resources at home.”

Case and point: Joseph Tapia’s situation.

Tapia graduated from Port Chester High School in June with a full-ride to Stanford University in the fall—a prestigious school in Santa Clara, Calif., an area where COVID-19 currently runs rampant.

Stanford University hasn’t announced plans for the fall yet, Tapia said. But ultimately, the outcome doesn’t matter. He can’t afford not to go. He has a family to care for.

The Fawcett Street resident was faced with a predicament that he said a lot of his peers couldn’t relate to. Most Port Chester High School graduates are heading to colleges nearby—in the Northeast where COVID-19 seems to be under control, at least for now. With California experiencing a drastic spike in cases, there’s an undeniable appeal to wait out the situation.

“At first they said we’d be on campus with restrictions, but a couple days ago they sent out an email saying plans may alter, because Santa Clara is not steady right now. It’s kind of up in the air,” Tapia said. “It’s frustrating because I’ve been wanting to go to college for so long, and if it’s not starting the way I hoped, I started thinking maybe I should (take a gap year).”

However, it struck him during one of his frequent therapeutic bike rides around town: he can’t.

Tapia isn’t just going to Stanford University to further his own ambitions. The inspiration to succeed is rooted in getting himself into a position where he can support his family—a moment that can’t come soon enough. His parents are undocumented, the family immigrated to Port Chester from Mexico when Tapia was a child—looking for a better life for their children.

“Because of that, they don’t get health insurance. Their focus has always been bills and payments and stuff like that,” he explained. “When I’m older, I want to support them because social security won’t help them. All of that will come down to me and my sister.”

Throughout high school, Tapia tried to lessen the financial burden by picking up part-time jobs. While going straight into the workforce is an option, he said it simply wouldn’t be enough to support himself and them.

If Tapia were born into a different circumstance, he probably would have put heavier weight on the decision of taking a gap year. There’s no way of knowing, he said. What he does know is his current truth.

It’s also about the youth in the family. His young nieces live in Port Chester. Currently they are 6 and 2 years old. By the time Tapia graduates from Stanford University, they will be 6 and 10. As a child in Mexico, he loved soccer, but his parents couldn’t afford his entry into the local sports clubs.

He dreams of a different reality for them.

“When I think for my nieces, it’s a lot more personal. Port Chester is incredible, and I want the best for them. Everyone, they’re only getting older,” Tapia said. “I want to make sure if they want to do running, or soccer or ballet, that they have the money they need to support their dreams. The sooner I can get into a situation to help them, the better.”