When you arrive at Yale as a freshman, all doors are open. You can be anything you want to be. There are no boundaries to your curiosity, no boundaries to your athletic ambitions, no boundaries to your imagination. This campus is an open field with no closed doors and no constraints; an educational paradise that is unmatched in freedom and choice. And it’s ours for the taking.
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but it was with this perspective in mind that I notified my residential college dean early last September that I wanted to take my senior fall semester off. For the 90 days that followed, I lived and breathed the liberty at the core of a liberal arts education. Without a room or a class schedule, I crashed at my friends’ places off-campus. It was an amazing social experience that made me realize how aptly George Pierson had captured the Eli spirit when he described Yale as a “a society of friends.”
The days were filled with Master’s Teas, panel discussions and film screenings. I took the opportunity to work on my senior thesis, teach myself some minimal programming, Photoshop, video editing and sailing skills and grow The HappyHap Project team. And that was just the beginning.
I undertook several visits to New York and to Boston, where I attended MIT’s Startup Bootcamp and Harvard’s Igniting Innovation conference. In addition, I took trips to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Stanford University, Palo Alto and San Francisco, primarily to conduct interviews for my senior thesis. I met with a host of amazing professionals ranging from accomplished Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to top consultants in San Francisco to high-level executives at the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas.
In retrospect, the removal of the short-term stress-pressure loop inherent in the combination of classwork with extracurricular activities, social life and regular exercise is the single best decision I have made while at Yale. My adventure in self-education did not just allow for unparalleled personal growth fueled by many insightful learning experiences, but it also gave me ample time to reflect profoundly on life’s big, long-term questions before embarking for the real world in May 2012.
What matters most to you? What values do you cherish in life? How can you align the things you do on a day-to-day basis with your understanding of what matters most in life? What makes you happy? In asking these questions of myself, my peers, Yale alumni and the many professionals I met along the way, it became clear that — although society tends to suggest that there is a prewritten path to success (like finance and consulting for economics majors such as myself) — there actually isn’t such a one-size-fits-all solution.
Rather, it is each individual’s responsibility to find a set of answers to life’s big questions, to gain a clear sense of direction and derive from it the confidence to travel boldly down the road that has been his or hers all along. What’s more, many of us may not realize it just yet, but college is the time when our opportunity to think for ourselves is the highest. As life progresses, we are compelled to take on more responsibilities, and taking time off comes at an increasing opportunity cost.
If I learned anything from my semester off, it is that Yale is an educational paradise at its best when you know what you want from it. Without a clear sense of direction, Yale turns into an overwhelming and often turbulent sea of countless opportunities.
In that spirit, I challenge you to put aside whatever schedule you had planned for today, take a day off, find a comfortable spot, embrace the unknown and reflect on what it really is that matters most to you in life. With this new compass that you have prototyped by the end of the day, explore Yale, learn, discover, enjoy and repeat daily.
Sunnie Tölle is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.