(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)
Last year, Nat Parry had her college plans mapped out. She was looking forward to graduating from Mountain View High School in Meridian and moving into Boise State University’s Honors College.
Then the coronavirus struck. Even before March 13, when Idaho reported its first case, Parry knew she had to change plans. She has Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. Her symptoms are dormant, but could re-emerge if she were to contract coronavirus. She is riding out the pandemic from her family’s home on the outskirts of Boise.
“I’ll be here for a while,” she said in a recent Zoom interview.
Parry is still starting with Boise State this fall, however. She signed onto the university’s new “gap year” program, which allows students to earn credits remotely, while getting support from faculty and student mentors.
Initially, Boise State envisioned the gap year program as a stopgap — a recruiting tool for students who will not or cannot come to campus during a pandemic. But already, the first-year program is also showing promise as a retention tool, a way of keeping at-risk students from dropping out.
How it works — and how it started
Gap year students do not have to take traditional Boise State courses, and they don’t even have to be admitted to the university. But they can earn up to nine elective credits for the year, and can enroll at a low cost — $750 per semester, or $1,250 for the full year.
The students can earn credits in several ways. They earn three credits by completing a personalized learning “pathway,” which can also include job-shadowing, internships, or teaching and entrepreneurship opportunities. They can also take online courses for additional credits.
The university started talking about a gap year program in mid-May, a few weeks after the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak shut down the campus. Interest waned. The virus didn’t. By summer, the second wave of coronavirus cases hit the Treasure Valley.
”I hadn’t anticipated what became a very quick timetable,” said Kelly Myers, the interim associate dean of Boise State’s College of Arts and Sciences.
On July 17, President Marlene Tromp signed on to the idea. On Aug. 3, the gap year website went live.
Fifteen students signed up for the fall semester. Working with faculty and student mentors, they are just beginning to figure out what their program is going to look like. Myers acknowledges that the program is trying to strike a balance. Students need some structure so they don’t get lost, but they also need some latitude.
“A gap year is a totally individualized experience,” she said. “That’s why they do it.”
‘The perfect candidate’
As she starts her college journey at home, Parry is torn between two destinations.
She’s considering a career in neurology, or a career in music production.
She sees at least one common thread between her two options: a long road to success either through medical school or in the competitive music industry, where she knows she will have to push herself to hone her art every day.
Early on, her gap year is introspective by design. Parry is taking a class on the science of well-being — allowing her to reflect on something she wrestled with throughout the pandemic. The gap year will culminate with creating a website or a portfolio to show off her two career interests by writing about medicine and posting her music projects.
As she begins the year, and the mentoring process, Parry says she’s beginning to learn how to stare down her own fears, her apprehensions about committing to a professional path.
“I’ve definitely learned that a lot of things that have been holding me back have been intrinsic,” she said. “Even though life is completely unpredictable at this point, there are ways to work through this.”
The gap year isn’t just a good fit for Parry because she’s home-bound.
In a traditional setting, Parry might be pushed to choose between medicine and music. Jennifer Snow — interim dean of Boise State’s College of Education, and Parry’s faculty mentor — says the gap year gives her the time to figure out how to balance her two passions, or take the leap in one direction or the other.
“She was the perfect candidate,” Snow said.
‘We are going to be building something that genuinely helps people … ‘
Parry also fit the prototype for the gap year — a true first-year student who wasn’t ready to come to campus, due to coronavirus or other concerns.
That was the profile Boise State had in mind with the launch. But only four of the 15 fall students fall into that profile.
A few students fit into a little bit of a different category: first-generation, nontraditional students who are interested in Boise State, but wanted to test college without the upheaval of moving to campus, Myers said.
The largest group of student was enrolled at Boise State for face-to-face learning in March, but had “absolutely hit a wall with online learning,” Myers said.
What was designed to be a recruiting tool, designed to attract students during the pandemic, might actually have promise as a retention tool, she said.
For the faculty and student mentors, just like the gap year program students, the new program is an unknown.
“We are defining it as we go,” Snow said.
“We are going to be building something that genuinely helps people, but we don’t know exactly what we’re building,” Myers said.
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