On October 22, the Pratt Institute student body received an email with the most straightforward subject yet: “Academic Updates for Spring 2021.” The email announced, unsurprisingly, that Pratt would remain hybrid for the spring semester. The email also announced that study abroad programs would remain on hiatus, and spring break has been swapped out for “Wellness Days,” meaning the spring semester begins January 19 and ends May 11. Of course, as the email states, “Our world is just not ready...yet.”
Despite this unsurprising announcement, the response to online education is almost unanimously in agreement: it’s draining. The Washington Post recently published an article titled “College Students are weary of ‘Zoom U.’ But they’re also trying to make the best of it.” Though it tries to be in good spirits, the article uses statistics, such as from The National Survey of Student Engagement, which shows a 14% decline in student engagement since starting online school. In addition to this, the article also discusses the decline in the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s enrollment rate as an example: of the 13,200 students enrolled prior to the pandemic, only 10,000 returned this fall for online school.
College students all across America are asking themselves the same question: Do they want to take the semester off? Instead of being angry at Pratt’s decision, Pratt students are now scrambling to envision themselves taking a semester off. To take time off from art school adds an extra pressure of trying to figure out how you can keep up an artistic practice during a pandemic. This leaves us all slightly more uninspired, but now without access to studios and proper time to devote to building skills.
In addition to the fear of losing inspiration, there is also the imminent fact that taking time off is an inherent privilege. Nande Walters, pre-COVID BFA film class of 2022, was lucky enough to find work at FranklinCovey, a Utah based company that specializes in training other companies in how to treat their employees and build trust. Others have taken jobs at coffee shops or Blick Art Materials, though this is not something every Pratt student has chosen to do. When I asked peers who had already chosen to take time off about how they were spending the time and how it felt to do so, the responses I got were primarily based in privilege and the economic comfort of never worrying about access to basic necessities. In every college community, there is generally a vast wealth disparity that this pandemic has forced to come to light, and asking students from Pratt Institute was no exception. When it comes to those who stayed in my own personal friend group, the decision to stay or go remains divided. There were plenty of factors we have each weighed differently: whether or not we ourselves could afford it, when we would get our degrees and what it meant to take time off.
Nande Walters decided a leave of absence was in order after the Willoughby Residence Hall chose to rescind opening its doors this August. Many Pratt students who are in need of on-campus housing made the exact same decision, as did many Resident Advisors who were unenthused at the idea of participating in Zoom antics rather than a normal academic experience.
Walters currently resides with her parents in Southern Florida, and spends her time working a remote job as well as planning, editing, promoting and networking for her self-started creative online platform, Kickback Shows. Kickback first began in June, and consists of interviews and Project Spotlights, which showcase a variety of art from different mediums. The project is dedicated to sharing peers’ art in lieu of a classroom. On the homepage, Walters writes, “I missed being inspired by my friends, so I created Kickback.” Its growth was rapid, and on August 1, Kickback debuted a Summer 2020 Film Screening, which primarily consisted of Pratt student’s work.
In a recent conversation, Walters informed me that Yessenia Sanchez, one of the main orientation leaders at Pratt, got in touch with her about hosting a film screening. After receiving 30 submissions, it was decided that it would be best for the screening to be split into two nights, furthering its success and the dedication to it. It was an attempt to boost morale and inspire students, even if they weren’t deciding to return to the school in the coming semester. It took place over Zoom with over twenty attendees and is available to watch on Kickback’s YouTube channel.
Personally, I’m also considering taking time off, so I asked Walters about her relationship with Pratt during this separation. She did not hesitate in telling me how grateful she was to still be involved with the Pratt community despite her decision. Head of the Pratt Writing Department Beth Loffreda echoed the sentiment during a phone call about my tentative leave of absence. I was promised that no matter my decision, the Pratt community would “always be there for me.” I could feel how true it was.
When it comes to taking time off, Walters considers it a “blessing in disguise,” and informed me that instead of having too much time on her hands, she doesn’t have nearly enough.
“I want to devote more of winter to rest and relaxation!” Walters told me, overwhelmed with how busy she’s become with Kickback. If anything, she’s grateful for the time she's been able to take off and how it’s given her the chance to explore artistic platforms that aren’t film. These mediums have influenced what she wants her life to become, even if she doesn’t have the answer to that question yet.
It’s true that Nande is most likely the exception to the rule when it comes to being busy during time off amidst a pandemic. Many have scrambled to find work in the city, while others have stayed at home on unemployment. However, Nande’s story should be a beacon of hope to those calculating their next academic move: you might take the time to learn more about yourself than you ever anticipated. It might be scary, but it may be worth embracing too.
Of course, does Nande miss Pratt and New York City?
“Without a doubt,” she states. “There was nothing I was more excited about than returning to New York, but the world hasn’t magically repaired itself yet.”
Photos courtesy of Nande Walters and Jamison Lung