When Will Braff ’05 wanted time off from his hectic Yale life, a walk in the woods seemed like the right chance of pace. So he took a leave of absence, strapped on his backpack, and hiked 2,172 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.
By the time he emerged on Mount Katahdin, Maine from his five-month hermetical odyssey, he had realized that he didn’t need an entire year away — he was ready to return to New Haven.
“I’ve been backpacking for a while,” Braff said. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”
Braff is one of a minority of undergraduates who buck the trend and decide to take a break from Yale’s typical eight-semester track. While some students choose an accredited abroad program, Yale’s leave of absence option is, by far, the easiest way to get away. It requires almost no paper work: students need only submit a petition to their residential college deans before the deadlines. And, in contrast to withdrawal, leave of absence does not require students to apply for readmission.
Despite the ease of petitioning for leave of absence, comparatively few Yale undergraduates ever consider taking a leave — or any other form of time off. Bulldog culture does not foster a relaxed attitude toward college. Although a semester or two away can be a beneficial break, many students fear leaving the well-trod path of advancement. Friends, academics, extracurriculars and the omnipresent pressure of the mainstream student mentality contribute to discouraging Yalies from stepping outside the four-year box.
“There’s a kind of way of moving through this place,” Thomas McDow, dean of Branford College, said. “The administration is very open to students taking time off. The very fact that students don’t take that has more to do with the way students see a ‘Yale Career.'”
After plugging away at their “Yale Careers” for a few semesters, even the most energetic Yalies can feel burned-out, disoriented or disillusioned. Leave of absence can provide the weary with a welcome chance to reflect and recuperate.
At the end of her freshman year, Leila Afshar ’06 was not sure she wanted to return to Yale. Her first year had been a challenge. She felt undirected in her academics and missed her home and family.
Unsure she would return, Afshar took a leave of absence and found an internship editing and researching political science at the Brookings Institution near her home. One year passed, and Afshar discovered she was so engrossed in her work there that she wanted to stay longer: she had finally found a passion.
Another year passed and her colleagues at Brookings encouraged her to give Yale another chance. She came back to New Haven with a new attitude.
Although taking a leave of absence turned out to be the right decision, Afshar said, it was not initially an easy decision to make.
“I was so scared to take time off,” she said. “It took a lot of courage for me. In a way, it felt like an admission of defeat.”
Dean McDow said students considering taking leave come to him with a wide range of concerns. In particular, he said, students worry about leaving friends and activities behind.
“What seems most measurable is missing out on friends and things here, but what is not measurable is the perspective you gain,” he said.
Aaron Goldhamer ’04 decided to take two spring terms on leave of absence not because of burn-out, but simply because he had the option. He spent the time teaching high school as a part of his teacher preparatory work and travelling around the country on Amtrak trains.
“Taking time off gives you so much perspective on the very, very bizarre world that is Yale,” Goldhamer said.
Although he did have some problems when he lost his acceleration credits, Goldhamer said his dean and advisor were very accommodating and helpful.
Goldhamer dismissed fears of losing friendships or missing out on Yale life. In the end, he said, taking time off forces you to reprioritize your life in a healthy way.
“It helps your social cholesterol,” he said. “You engage with fewer fatheads everyday, which is a good thing. It can end some relationships, but oftentimes those were superficial.”
Taking a leave of absence also forces students to streamline their extracurriculars. When Braff decided he would hike the Appalachian Trail, he faced having to tell his various organizations that he would be absent the next semester. Braff ended up quitting Yale Symphony Orchestra, a decision he said he does not regret.
But the first few months on leave of absence are often lonely. Elizabeth La Duc ’05 is currently on leave of absence in Austin, Tex., living in an apartment of her own and looking for a job. Were it not for AOL Instant Messenger, La Duc said, she would have a hard time staying in touch with her friends.
“I miss my friends and my activities,” she said. “It’s difficult adjusting.”
Looming behind all the worries about friends, academics and extracurriculars is the prevailing Yale attitude that being here is better than being anywhere else: the accepted notion that the quintessential Yale student spends four years under the shadow of Harkness before moving on to his prosperous, predetermined life.
Assistant Dean Jill Cutler, who chairs the Readmissions Committee, said she often sees students who think that leaving Yale for a time is some sort of failure.
“There’s a culture here of gritting your teeth and sticking it out,” Cutler said. “Even going abroad is a big deal. People view it as a betrayal of the ethos.”
While positive about her experience on leave of absence, Afshar said she felt the University could have done a better job making her feel comfortable with her decision.
“It would have been nice to know that it’s a normal thing, that many kids go through that,” Afshar said. “Rather than having a set of norms, an optimal college track, if Yale could focus more on what the student wants, that would be better.”
And though he took a 2,000-mile detour from the typical Yale path, Braff said that somewhere between Georgia and Maine, he rediscovered his Bulldog roots.
“[Time off] gives you a chance to figure out why you were [at Yale] in the first place,” he said.