Marlis Boord (top left), Ella Lubin (bottom left) and Lucy Poulson (right) all grew up in Sitka, but left town for college. Now, they’re back in Sitka for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic. (Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Ella Lubin loves school. Unlike a lot of her friends, she never wanted to take a gap year between high school and college. 

“I was so excited when I graduated high school to go to college,” she said.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, she’d be studying her way through her Sophomore year at Yale University right now. Instead, she’s back in her hometown of Sitka living with her parents. The pandemic has disrupted all of our lives in some way or another, but it’s had a particularly dramatic impact on the lives of college students. In Sitka, many students who normally would’ve headed out of state for in-person classes have opted to stay home.

“Touching down on the runway in March–because March was when I came back–was definitely bittersweet. And it was a beautiful sunny day, the water was glistening, and I was so happy to be in this wild place again,” Lubin said. “But at the same time, I kind of understood that it was very unlikely that I would be leaving and that felt a little suffocating.”

As the fall semester neared, she had to decide like so many other college students whether or not to go back to school in the middle of a pandemic. She had the option to take online classes, but instead, Lubin decided to do something she never thought she would: Take time off. And she’s not alone. Nationwide, enrollment numbers for undergraduate students are down two and half percent, according to data from Clearinghouse. Lubin said she doesn’t regret it. She’s doing things she never would’ve done otherwise.

“I just got off a fishing tender, which I was on for a month. And that was super cool. It was my first time interacting with the commercial fishing industry firsthand,” she said. “And I loved it and I loved being on the water and seeing these incredible places in Southeast Alaska.”

Now she’s working as a campaign outreach director for Representative Jonathon Kreiss-Thomkins, who’s running for a fifth term representing Sitka in the Alaska Legislature. The work may even influence her major, she said, which is still undecided. And Lubin’s not the only one trying to get the most out of the unexpected time off. 

For example, the Sitka Sound Science Center recently introduced a free gap term program for local college students with unexpected time off this fall.

“We spent a lot of time in the spring and in the summer thinking about ways in which we could support our community and all the different changes or different decisions that they needed to make,” Educational Director Janet Clarke said. “And of them was the undergrads in our community.”

Students can work with scientists on research projects or even get their scuba diving certification. And it’s not just for science majors. Anyone can apply.

“Instead of feeling like you’ve lost some time, you feel like you’ve gained something,” Clarke said.

Marlis Boord was supposed to start her junior year at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, but she didn’t feel comfortable returning for in-person classes this fall. So, she stayed in Sitka and is taking online classes from UAS that weren’t offered at her school. She’s also working as a COVID screener at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport.

“I’m a public health major, so this COVID screening, testing deal, kind of falls under what I want to do when I’m older,” Boord said.

Boord said she does better with in-person classes, and she misses her college friends. She hopes to go back to Fort Lewis in the spring. But until then, she’s enjoying the unexpected time with her family.

“You know this is something nobody has ever experienced before, so being back home has also helped with that because family also gives me a lot of comfort during this time,” Boord said.

Spending time with family has been a bright spot for college sophomore Lucy Poulson too. She spends most mornings taking classes at Harvard thousands of miles from campus, and her afternoons taking walks with her mom and their dog. But it’s also been hard to let go of freedom that she’d just started to get used to. 

“It just felt like it was completely ripped away as soon as I came home, and it almost felt like returning to high school a little bit, you know, you’re sleeping in the bedroom you grew up in, you’re sitting down to dinner with your family every single night,” Poulson said.

Poulson didn’t have the option to return for in-person classes, and she worried that if she took time off, she’d lose momentum and never go back. So, she’s trying to look on the bright side and recognize the lessons this experience has taught her.

“I think it’s one that I will have learned a lot from, both about myself and just kind of how everything just functions, when suddenly everything we thought we had is just turned on its head,” she said. “I feel like I’m learning a lot about how society functions in crisis.”

None of them know what college will look like in the spring or even next fall. For now, they’re learning to live with that uncertainty, just like the rest of us.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.