This Tuesday, I turned 22, and as I drove to Safeway for some last minute groceries, I thought about how I’ve changed since turning 21. At first, 21 felt like a big deal. I’d get a rush of pride whenever bartenders asked for my ID. A year later, my right to a Bud Light is less exciting. Legal booze just meant I had gotten older, not necessarily more mature. But standing in line with tonic water and limes, I realized that at 22 I finally feel more like an adult than a child.
This is because, a year ago, I decided to take a year off from Yale. The University has shaped my life for the better in more ways than I can describe, but there are also aspects of the Yale experience that made it difficult for me to grow up. Growing up means different things to different people, but one essential theme is self-awareness. Adulthood entails a sense of who you are and what you want. At Yale, who I was and what I wanted was in flux — my major, my crushes, my clothes. These changes are part of college life in the liberal arts, and such breadth of experience is a boon to well-rounded kids looking for their groove. But it’s only a boon when you can slow down and think.
I didn’t. After three years, I was still moving too fast to look at myself. I didn’t parse passion from pastime, and was drawn to attention and prestige. Was the person in my bed a fling, a friend or a future fiancé? It was too exhausting to figure out. Rather than asking myself what I wanted, I made big decisions by choosing whatever was “most efficient.” Fulfillment became extracurricular.
Maturity also entails preparing for the future. By my junior year, any postgrad plans I had — about politics, medicine, writing — were still incoherent. I spent my efforts on English classes and pursuits with little explicit relation to my future ambitions. I was too busy with rehearsals to write columns. I didn’t appreciate Moby Dick because the book brought me no closer to understanding the life of a campaign staffer, cardiologist or columnist. I couldn’t settle the cacophony of my life into a calling.
These were impatient, unreasonable expectations. Yale is a university: Its duty is not vocational. It was my fault for not trying any of the medical, political and journalistic opportunities on campus. The school is also great at providing the kind of clarity you find at a career fair, but that wasn’t what I needed.
So I left. Daunting at first, the prospect of 14 unscheduled months was freeing. I had time to try what I might want to do. For the summer and fall, I worked on campaigns in Colorado, lived on my own budget and learned how to cook. I spent the winter shadowing heart surgeons and psychiatrists at the Mayo Clinic. This spring I’ve done research for journalists in D.C. All year, I’ve been writing columns for the News.
I don’t have a calling yet, but I developed a sense of what my future holds: helping people and seeing their faces. For me, campaign memos and columns sometimes lost their urgency. Doctors, patients and surgery never did. My day-to-day experience with these jobs answered questions that reading Moby Dick could not.
I had so many attachments to Yale, and though these connections stretched me thin, they also made me feel like I was part of something much bigger than myself. My greatest fear about leaving was loneliness. But instead of loneliness I found solitude.
Removed from the thrall of Yale, my life became clearer. I had space to stop, look and think. My preoccupations with society tap and the Whiffenpoofs began to seem cosmetic. I’ve begun to walk away from pastimes like singing and theater to spend time cultivating passions like medicine and writing. With fewer people in my orbit, my relationships also became clearer. This year I’ve only had expectations of a few dozen people.
I miss Durfee’s and the Harkness bells, but leaving Yale was the best decision of my life. When I return to Yale, I certainly will not have everything figured out. But I feel that I am on my way, uncertain but moving forward.
Most people who pass through Yale do not choose to take a year’s leave. Ninety percent of us will graduate in four years, and many of us will emerge with purpose and poise. But I think that there are many who might benefit from a year of adulthood before we’re handed our diplomas. If you take anything away from this column, my last one of the year, let it be that you can leave Yale, and it might be the best thing you ever did.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .