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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Filling in the gaps: How Middlebury students spent their pandemic time off

A week into the semester, the excitement of being back on campus is still palpable. Dining halls have been buzzing with talk of summer plans as friends reconnect after the three-month break.

But time away from campus was far longer than three months for some students. While many Middlebury students chose to return to campus last fall in the midst of pandemic social distancing and quarantine requirements, a number of others elected to take a semester or full year off, pursuing other opportunities instead. 

According to Brett Perlmutter ’24, fewer chances to socialize and meet new people deterred him from returning to campus for the fall semester.

“I love to interact with people,” Perlmutter said. “And with that taken away, [returning to campus] didn’t feel like the right choice, so I opted to do something that was slightly different.”

Julianna Haensly ’23.5 and Caroline Haggerty ’24.5, on the other hand, were on campus for the fall of 2020. However, after experiencing online classes, room capacity limits and close contacts, both Haensly and Haggerty elected to take the spring semester off. 

“I wanted more out of my college experience,” Haensly said. “It wasn’t worth it to me to come back and feel like I wasn’t getting that whole college experience.” 

Courtesy of Caroline Haggerty

After coming to the conclusion that taking time off was the best choice, these students were tasked with finding fulfilling ways to spend it.

“I had a lot of plans and goals, and it ended up being a lot of randomness,” said Haensly.

That “randomness” included interning with a Boulder-based nonprofit that provides cultural integration to immigrants, teaching a weekly remedial math class to middle schoolers via Zoom, coaching for a local swim club and volunteering at a food bank.

Through a farm work exchange program World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Haggerty was able to split her three months between a farm in Hawaii and a farm in Wisconsin. While living on the farms, she was exposed to different political beliefs and lifestyles, did manual labor and learned about the value of the agricultural industry.

“I wouldn’t have done it without Covid, but I am so glad that I did it. I gained a different perspective on a lot of things, and I am definitely grateful that I was able to have that experience,” she said. 

Scott Li ’23.5 had the choice between taking the fall semester off or studying remotely, as he could not travel to Vermont from his home in China. It was pretty clear to him, though, that the best option was to take the semester off. 

“One of the most important things for college is the college experience,” Li said. “If you can’t see your friends — eat and hang out with them — go to classes, and see your professors face to face, there’s no point.”

Although he is a STEM student, Li ended up working on a film crew in Hengdian, China — a place well known for movie making, he said. Despite having no prior experience in the world of film, Li said he learned a lot in a short period of time, as he took on the role of directing the extras on when to enter a scene.

After his adventures on the movie crew, Li feels like a new person returning to campus. “To live this simple, pure kind of life after experiencing what I’ve experienced [on] the movie crew, it feels really good,” he said.

Like Li, Perlmutter found himself gaining real-world experiences different from anything he could have done at Middlebury on his year off. Perlmutter worked two internships — with a private equity firm and a podcast — while living on the island of Kauai, Hawaii with a friend from another college.

“Within a week, our two best friends on the island were two 31-year-old guys,” Perlmutter said. “We created this community [in Hawaii] that I didn’t want to walk away from.”

Perlmutter shared similar sentiments about the impact his time away had on his perspective of life at Middlebury. “I have a very different perspective of what my college experience is now going to look like in a great way,” he said. “Middlebury is a great place to teach you how to think.”

Zev York ’23.5 also spent his time off in places very different from rural Vermont. After working on a political campaign leading up to the November elections, he road-tripped across the country to Santa Fe and then worked as a beekeeper in the south of France. 

“I found a lot of spiritual meaning in the experience of road tripping,” he said. 

Though all five students found themselves bringing a new, refreshed outlook to life at Middlebury this fall, it was nerve-wracking to step back into the campus environment after taking time off. 

“I was really nervous about having a disconnect, but it feels like I haven’t missed a beat,” Haensly said. “I’m getting back into my groove, and it feels right and normal.” 

“It’s really cool to come back and have everyone be in the same place,” York said. “It feels like the chance of a lifetime to be around people I really care about.” 

Maggie Reynolds

Maggie Reynolds '24 (she/her) is the Editor in Chief.  

Maggie previously served as the Senior Local Editor, a Local Section Editor, and a Staff Writer. She spent this past J-term interning for VTDigger, covering topics from affordable housing in Addison County to town government scandals. She also interned for Seven Days VT as an arts & culture reporter summer 2022 and as a news reporter for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY summer 2021.   

Maggie is majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and Spanish. She was a three-year member of the Women's Swimming and Diving team. Maggie enjoys running, hiking, and iced maple lattes.