Deering High School graduate River Dufour is lobstering this summer and fall. He plans to defer his admission to Yale University this fall and instead travel to Chile to work on a salmon farm. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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The lobster boat Billy and Andy was loaded tall with traps as it motored up to Union Wharf in Portland last Friday afternoon. Sternman River Dufour climbed out and started unloading ropes and buoys. 

The Deering High School graduate was just admitted to Yale University for the fall semester but has decided to defer admission for a year to complete the lobstering season and then travel to Chile to work with a sustainable salmon fishing operation. 

Dufour said his decision was “100 percent based on the (coronavirus) pandemic.” 

“The reason I chose (Yale) was to be surrounded by super cool impassioned young people,” he said, “and I figured that even best-case scenario if you’re on campus there would be some social weirdness.”

Trying to make friends without social gatherings or parties would be difficult, he said, and those were experiences that he did not want to miss. 

“If I couldn’t shake the hands of my peers – even something as little as that – that amount of disconnect I thought would be funky,” Dufour said. 

He also has concerns about remote learning. Although he graduated at the top of his class, the would-be political science major characterized himself as “not super academic,” and said he has found online classes unstimulating.

Sternmen Nick Werner, left, and River Dufour, and lobster fisherman Bill Coppersmith work aboard the Billy and Andy June 26. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Paying tuition for that experience, Dufour said, would not be worth it, especially since his high school career was highly social and contact-oriented. He participated on the Waynflete School crew team and has been part of the Seeds of Peace leadership development program, traveling to schools in other states to conduct training in peer-mediated communication and conflict resolution. 

It was through the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield that he met the salmon fisherman he intends to work for. His plan is to raise enough money lobstering to cover his travel and living expenses in Chile; if there is anything left over, that would go toward college.

He also hopes there will be a COVID-19 vaccine by the time the 2021 school year begins. 

“To me (a gap year) just seems like such an obvious decision with very few downsides,” Dufour said. But he admitted that “surprisingly few” of his friends are deferring and will still be attending college in the fall in whatever form it takes.  

Ready before, ready now

One of those friends is Nick Werner, the other sternman aboard the Billy and Andy, and a graduate of Waynflete. He was accepted to Bowdoin College and will be attending the school in person in the fall.

“I was ready for college before all this and I’m ready now,” Werner said. 

Although he struggled with the decision for a while, he said he trusts the college administration and ultimately decided to follow its guidance. Bowdoin released its plan for the 2020-2021 school year June 22 in a letter from President Clayton Rose.

First-year students will come to campus in the fall along with a few other categories of students: those who cannot access remote learning from home, seniors honors students who must be on campus to complete pre-approved projects, and residential life staff. Students in dormitories will be housed in single rooms and will be expected to follow distancing guidelines. Fall sports have been canceled, and even for students on campus, most classes will be taught online. 

Nick Werner, a graduate of Waynflete School in Portland, will attend Bowdoin College in the fall. “I’ve been ready for college before all this,” he said, “and I’m ready now.” (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

In the spring semester, campus attendance will be reversed: Freshmen will stay home, accessing classes remotely, while sophomores, juniors, and seniors will return to Brunswick. 

“I’m excited to meet people, but it’s definitely a loss to not have the full experience,” Werner said. “Hopefully it will still feel as personal, but the distance learning is definitely going to take away from that.” 

College representative Doug Cook said it is too early in the process to know if more Bowdoin students are deferring admission this year than in previous years. 

Rachel Morales, admissions director at the University of Southern Maine, said June 26 that so far there has been a slight increase – “in the single digits” – in the number of deferrals, but a large increase in the number of questions the office is fielding about the deferral policy. 

“Most folks are weighing their options now,” Morales said. “But as for actual deferrals being processed, … not quite yet.” She said she anticipates seeing more in the coming weeks, as students and families have more information. 

Over the past several months, Morales said, USM administrators have been looking at various scenarios for enrollment and other things that could be affected by the pandemic. Because the number of deferrals have been fairly small so far, she said, “in the big scheme of things it hasn’t worried us too much.”

But even before the pandemic, the number of students taking a gap year after high school has been increasing each year, Morales said, so USM partnered with Verto Education, an agency that provides gap-year experiences for college credits and guarantees acceptance to at least one of its partner colleges. 

While it is more common for students in Europe and Australia to take a year off before college, gap years have been gaining popularity in the U.S., as evidenced by the growing number of commercial gap year programs being offered.

The Gap Year Association surveyed “gappers” in 2015 and found that the main reasons they chose to take a year off were to gain life experiences; travel and experience other cultures, and to take a break from the traditional academic track. 

Several are choosing to do so this year for financial reasons, too.  

Pandemic’s economic impact

“Many families have been hit hard financially, so working for a semester or a year is necessary,” said Libby Heselto, a guidance counselor at Deering High School. “It also makes sense for students who struggled to finish their senior classes through remote learning, because college classes will be more of the same, probably with fewer supports.” 

Fatuma Hassan, a graduate of Casco Bay High School, was accepted at several colleges, but decided to spend a year working and will reapply next year. “I didn’t want to go into my freshman year with all that uncertainty,” she said. (Courtesy Fatuma Hassan)

Fatuma Hassan, an immigrant from Somalia who just graduated from Casco Bay High School, did not commit to any of the colleges that accepted her; she decided to take a year off to work and reapply next year. 

“There was a lot of uncertainty, and I didn’t want to go into my freshman year with all that uncertainty,” she said. “There’s just like a lot of things going on and I didn’t want to jump into college without financial stability.” 

Hassan’s family is planning to move back to Africa, but she does not know when. Her father is there now, in Kenya, and she was not able to discuss her options with him. She was accepted at her first-choice school, Simmons University in Boston, with scholarships and a good financial aid package, but it wasn’t quite enough. She finally decided to work for a year to save money.

She worked as a server at The Cedars retirement community while her mother worked nights as a cleaner at a health clinic. But both of them stopped working because of the pandemic.

Hassan said she liked her job and did not want to leave, but promised her mother she would if a case of COVID-19 was detected at The Cedars. She left when a resident tested positive in April, just before an outbreak was confirmed. She said she hopes to return to that job, and would possibly pick up a second job, too. 

She still plans to study international relations and global studies with a minor in political science, and said she is not worried that a gap year will set her back from achieving her college goals. She said she is certain she will attend college in 2021, and be better prepared for it.

“I think in our society, college is thrown upon us a lot,” Hassan said. “It’s like ‘you have to do this and you have to do that in a certain amount of time and you have to do it this way.’ But I feel like this is probably the best decision for me, considering everything that’s going on in the world and in my life in general.

“I will be a lot more comfortable,” she said. “I’ll be an adult and not, like, a kid, you know?”