As the fall semester starts to wind to a close, you may be asking yourself, “Self, what am I doing here?” While Mother Yale certainly doesn’t encourage prolonged undergraduate attendance (eight semesters is the limit), it does allow each student to take one or two terms of leave of absence (Yale College Programs of Study, III J). Last spring, I took Yale up on its offer and became a temporary dropout.
My term off was amazing. I traveled the United States by train with a friend, seeing the nation and high school buddies at colleges scattered around the country. I could have been BS-ing a ridiculous paper or listening to some econ TA struggle with the English language. Instead, I had a blast going to the Olympics, hitting San Diego beaches, exploring Pacific Northwest forests, enjoying Jazzfest in New Orleans, and partying with Vermont hippies. It was 89 days, 35 states, 2,200 bucks. Beats your typical semester of travel between WLH, CCL, and Commons.
Many people return from travel and make vague claims about how much they learned about themselves or whatever. I won’t lay that touchy-feely stuff on you, but I did learn a lot of other things that I never could have learned at Yale. For instance, I discovered that I really don’t need many material things to be happy; after living out of my backpack for three months, it was almost sickening to come back to boxfuls of crap. I also remembered that reading can actually be enjoyable; two and a half years of skimming/blowing-off class reading obscured this for me. Last, I saw that there are many cool and fun things to be doing other than school. After 16 years of my precious youth spent in class, I was beginning to wonder what else there was.
The prevailing attitude at Yale is exceedingly industrious, and most of Yale’s students have been on fast tracks (to somewhere) for many years. This rat race mentality isn’t conducive to taking leaves of absence or even studying abroad. While a friend told me that 75 percent of Stanford’s junior class has been known to be abroad or on time-off at any given time, only 110 Yale students did so last year. In another sign of the Yale rat race, many people are totally bamboozled when they find out I’m planning on taking next spring semester off as well to graduate a year late. Here, the emphasis is on late. But I ask: What’s the rush? Why hurry to leave the most talented and interesting group of people you’ll ever be around? What’s compelling about starting to make money as quickly as possible, especially since you will be devoted to doing so for the greater part of the next 40 years anyway?
Looking back on my semester off, I have no regrets, except that I didn’t do it earlier. Even better, I looked forward to going back to school more this year than I ever have. To those of you thinking about taking time off, I recommend it. Don’t let a fear of missing out on Yale life deter you; I stopped by Yale for about a week in April and the overwhelming sentiment was that everything was “same-old, same-old” business as usual. Yale and your friends will be there for you upon your return, as will your activities. But how many more chances do you have during life to pack up everything and go do something spontaneous? Go ice-fishing in the Ukraine. Climb Kilimanjaro. Travel the country by train. Help orphans in Guatemala. Control the Jackelope population in Minnesota. Whatever. There’s nothing but options.
I’m just saying that many Yale students could profit from making an exit from The Grind to try something else. If it makes you graduate in four and a half or five years, so be it. But be aware that the moment of truth is quickly upcoming: Nov. 30 is the deadline for penalty-free relinquishing of on-campus housing. Will you complacently let that date pass you by?
Aaron Goldhamer is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.