Last Friday, the senior male a cappella group the Yale Whiffenpoofs left campus for their winter tour. But no members will have to worry about missing class, as they have joined the ranks of Yalies trading the traditional Yale experience for the freedom to pursue their passions.
This academic year marks the first that all of the Whiffenpoofs have elected to take a leave of absence from the college to attend to their singing duties.
Students who take a semester off are separating themselves from the University, Whiffenpoof Alexander Oki ’13 said. Once on leave, a student cannot live in dorms, apply for student jobs, have a dining plan or use swipe cards, Oki added.
“The administration is very black and white: you’re either a Yale student or not,” fellow Whiffenpoof Raphael Shaprio ’13 said, adding that he felt frustrated with the loss of student privileges including not getting emails about senior class events. “[The Whiffenpoofs] are such a recognizable Yale trademark … to me, it seems that there are shades of gray here to be worked out.”
As the Whiffenpoofs travel thousands of miles from home, Darren Zhu ’13 is in the heart of Silicon Valley using his second semester off from Yale to test the prototype of his new synthetic biology project. And back on the East Coast, in Cambridge, Mass., Leon Noel and Harley Trung have withdrawn their status as Yale students to operate a startup that facilitates online science surveys.
While some students — such as directors of large organizations like the Yale College Council and Dwight Hall — consider their extracurricular responsibilities to be a valuable part of their undergraduate experiences, others feel they can only pursue their passions with the extra time and flexibility that come with taking a leave of absence. The Yale experience, for them, is put on hold as they build startups or devote themselves to extracurriculars that demand more attention than they could give as students.
DEFINING THE YALE EXPERIENCE
Jan. 18 marked the deadline for students to declare a leave of absence for the spring term. Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker said in an email to the News that residential college deans are aware of which students are on leave but that this information cannot be shared.
Students do not have to explain why they want to take time off, Schenker added — they simply need to be in good academic standing and turn in their forms on time.
“You just go to your dean and write a very short letter,” Shapiro said.
Yale’s leave of absence policy allows a student to take up to two semesters off to pursue any activity of their choosing while maintaining the option of returning as Yale students.
A leave is necessary for the “full Whiffenpoof experience,” Oki said; an experience that comes with extensive travel requirements. Oki added that his decision to take time off was necessary because his job as the Whiffenpoofs business manager required more than eight hours a day.
The a cappella group is not the only student organization that requires intense time commitment of its members. Former Yale College Council President Jeff Gordon ’12 estimated that he spent six hours every weekday on YCC duties, in addition to devoting time to his YCC tasks on the weekend. Although Gordon said he handled his academics well, he admitted to only sleeping an average of five or six hours a night.
“That definitely has long-term health effects,” he said with a laugh.
Marlena Vasquez ’13, a current co-coordinator of Dwight Hall, said she sacrificed participation in other extracurricular activities and has taken a lighter course load in order to focus on her role in the service institution.
Last year, Whiffenpoof Nataniel Calixto ’11 did not take a leave of absence from Yale and said he struggled to balance academics with extracurriculars. Although Calixto only had courses Tuesdays through Thursdays, he said he often missed portions of the Whiffenpoofs’ tours.
“On the Whiffenpoof experience, I got out of it the most that I could have,” Calixto said. “The experience that I feel like I missed out on more was the academic — a full senior year.”
Oki noted that this year’s group has been able to extend the length of their winter tour by an extra week because all members are currently on leave. Eliot Shimer ’13 said he has also benefitted from taking a leave because he can spend both more time with his friends in the Whiffenpoofs and in the graduating class. Because they have taken a leave of absence, as opposed to withdrawn, they will be guaranteed readmittance to Yale College.
“As long as you can afford to pay your rent and feed yourself while you’re here, why not?” Shimer said.
EXPLORING, WITH A SAFETY NET
While the Whiffenpoofs take time off for extracurriculars, other students use a leave of absence to take a gamble with their entrepreneurial ventures.
On a Saturday afternoon, Sean Haufler ’13 types away at his laptop in his room on the third floor of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Most of the building resembles a stereotypical frat house — littered with red cups and Miller Lite cans — but Haufler sits in front of a white board filled with business ideas for his startup BooksAtYale.
“I was underwhelmed with the concept of working hard in class to get good grades,” Haufler, who began his leave of absence this semester, said. “I wanted to see what I could do with a laptop, time and my ideas.”
Students such as Haufler are not concerned with missing out on academics because, as Haufler said, “I can always go back.” Despite the inconvenience of not being able to use his swipe card, he still does his work at the Jonathan Edwards College buttery and is otherwise attuned to the Yale campus.
Although he now wakes up at 11 a.m. most days, Haufler said that he accomplishes more than when he had to balance his startup work with classes. Some days he works for 14 hours straight, he said, adding that his business model has now launched in 130 schools.
Dozens of start-up companies have been started by enrolled Yalies over the past several years who have been supported during the academic year by programs such as the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute and the recently launched HackYale. But YEI also sponsors a summer fellowship in which Alena Gribskov ’09, YEI communications and program manager, said about 80 students have participated over the past five years. About five or six students, she said, chose to take time off from Yale after the summer fellowship program to pursue their startups.
Gribskov said the YEI does not explicity encourage students to take leaves of absence. She believes it makes sense for many students to continue in their studies but some feel it is impossible to do so.
“For the students we’ve seen, it gets to a point where it’s taking too much time, or investors want students to take a leave of absence,” Gribskov said.
Some even decide to continue work with their startups beyond the two-semester maxiumum allotted for a leave of absence and withdraw from the University.
Noel, co-founder of the research website, left Yale at the start of his final spring semester at Yale in 2010 after being selected for funding by startup incubator TechStars. He said that he had already been missing classes and working through the weekends when the program required he take three months off.
“We were already pretty much out the door, and getting into TechStars just pushed it over the edge,” Noel said.
Two years later, Noel will have to reapply for admission to Yale should he choose to return. He said he does not have definite plans but that the administration was very supportive of his taking time off to pursue entrepreneurship, and that the process for readmission seems “very straightforward.”
Noel added that, although he is no longer enrolled, the “underpinnings of a Yale education” and the intellectual culture at Yale served as his initial resources.
Unlike TechStars, the Thiel Fellowship — which sparked controversy in 2010 when it began offering students $100,000 to leave school and pursue startups — requires a two-year commitment. Yalies participating are forced to withdraw from the University.
Paul Gu ’14, one of Yale’s four Thiel Fellows, said that taking time off allows someone to truly explore his or her interests, adding that fellowships such as the Thiel allow students to pursue ventures with legitimacy and support. Gu said that his main goal in this venture is to grow as a person by learning entrepreneurial skills and by testing how much he can succeed without the pressures of an academic environment.
“College is right for some people and some fields,” said Jonathan Cain ’03, president of the Thiel Foundation, which funds the Thiel Fellowship. “For others, the best way to learn skills is by practicing.”