Every year, I am struck by the number of people who take time off from Yale and the energy they bring with them when they return to campus. Whether to sing with the Whiffenpoofs, work on a political campaign or refocus their mental energy, all of my friends have returned with a renewed appreciation for their time at Yale.
But most of these students came to this decision by way of chance. As it stands, those who take time off generally do so either because they’ve been unexpectedly offered a yearlong position — resulting from a summer internship, for example — or because they strongly feel they are not using their time at Yale well. For many in the second group, making this decision is difficult and certainly not one generally built into the accepted system of Yale. But for students in both categories — at least if the 11 individuals I spoke with are any sample size — it was one of the best decisions they could have made in regards to their academic careers.
The current policy — which allows students to withdraw 10 days into the semester with no repercussions for up to two semesters — makes it easy for the students who are confident in their decision to take a leave of absence. But for the average student, Yale is four years long, and there is little awareness that there is any other option. Even if they feel that the time and distance would be positive, the decision seems too drastic.
But if Yale is serious about producing leaders for the next generation, it should more actively encourage students to consider taking time off. The vast majority of us come to Yale with almost no understanding of who we are outside of our identity as students. The Light Fellowship, which funds students to take a year off to live in Asia, is a great example of how Yale can encourage productive time off.
There is a little-known precedent to a more encouraging policy. In the 1970s, President Kingman Brewster instituted the Yale-Carnegie Five Year B.A. Program, a selective opportunity that allowed about 15 students a year to take time off in the developing world, gaining real work experience and learning the local language. Although the program ended after a few years, mostly due to a lack of funds, it is the type of program that I think many at Yale would benefit from.
Robert Bildner ’72+1 spent a year in Iran following his sophomore year, an opportunity he feels “was probably the most valuable experience of [his] undergraduate [career] at Yale.” He returned to Yale’s campus a different person, with a renewed sense of what he wanted to study and how he wanted to take advantage of his time on campus. He still speaks Persian to this day.
The biggest drawback to taking time off, both for Bildner in the 1970s and for Yalies today, is the loss of class identity. Yale is built around the residential college system, and one’s graduating class is often fundamental to how one identifies on campus. Coming back to a campus where most of your friends have graduated can definitely be jarring for students.
This is a trade-off that students must consider, but it should be part of an active consideration. The decision to stay at Yale for an uninterrupted four years is currently made far too passively by the vast majority of students — many of whom would probably benefit from taking the time to learn more about themselves and reconsider what they want from this incredible university.
This is the time in our lives that we are supposed to learn about ourselves. While I reject the idea that these are the “shortest, gladdest” years of life (as a senior, I’m hoping there is still a lot of gladness coming my way), I do recognize that if there is any period of my life I’d like to elongate, it is probably now. Some of my friends are excited to be done with school and get out into the real world. I get that. Kind of. But why rush through your twenties to arrive earlier to the stable career you’ll stay in for decades?
Shira Telushkin is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at email@example.com.