On Aug. 23, 2017, I sat naked in my unair-conditioned summer apartment eating pan-fried chicken and listening to the grunts of new Boston Conservatory students struggling to carry mattresses up my building’s steep staircase, when I received a very pleasant email from my dean asking whether I’d be returning for the fall semester which began in a week. I read the email a few times before deciding that no, I would not be, and that was that. I closed my laptop and asked my roommate pass me another La Croix.

Though I pushed “last minute” to its near-literal extreme, deciding to take time off on a strong instinctual urge alone is not uncommon among people who do take personal leave from school. However, many feel that they are unique in this, that they should have some grand plan. The truth is there are many viable and affordable options when taking leave and the process as a whole is far more elementary than college.

Any student is allowed up to two semesters of personal leave from Yale. Requesting personal leave is a simple matter of sending a formal email to your dean stating that you would like a leave of absence. There are a few requirements: You must request leave before the 15th day of the semester, and you must be in academic good standing.

Unlike a medical leave of absence, which requires students to unenroll and reportedly creates distance from Yale and faculty members, a personal leave allows students to remain connected to our institution. Students on personal leave are eligible to retain Yale Health coverage as well as access to all electronic Yale services such as email, online subscriptions and software accessible via NetID. For example, I spoke regularly with a Yale career counselor, emailed with my Yale address and watched “Sex and the City” with Yale’s HBO subscription throughout my time off.

Personal leaves do not require a student to unenroll or reapply. Students are automatically granted reinstatement after either one or two semesters, whichever they communicate to their dean. Recent graduate Angela Henderson ’18, who took leave in response to a serious head injury her senior spring, also highlighted the emotional support she received from her dean and professors –– specifically in the African American Studies Department.

Still, nerves about the unknown and ill-defined persist. “Before, I was hesitant to admit that I was honestly considering time off. I’d joke about it here and there but I think many of us like to joke about leaving Yale,” Henderson said, pointing out the demanding work-hard atmosphere at Yale that commonly elicits jokes on sleep deprivation, stress and unhappiness as can be observed via the popular Facebook page “Yale Memes for Special Snowflake Teens.” She continued, “The overall culture seems to be one that encourages us to drag ourselves through the struggles just to adhere to an inherited time line. So it did feel uneasy to stop and own the fact that I really needed a break.”

David Rubio ’19 expressed similar feelings: “I felt kind of strange deciding to take time off. I felt like people would wonder ‘why now?’” But leaving Yale didn’t really bother him once he had done it.

“I immediately felt like I’d made the right decision,” he said.

Rubio took leave the spring of his sophomore year to explore what careers in environmental science, his intended major, looked like in practice. He worked a paid internship at Katy Prairie Conservancy in Houston, Texas — which lost Katy Perry as an ad icon to the 2015 Super Bowl, shucks. He knew he was interested in environmentalism but, like many young students, was unsure what exactly he wanted from his education or in a career. Instead of pushing through another semester of demanding but unfocused work, he met with his dean and sophomore advisor who both encouraged his growing desire for time away from campus.

Justine Xu ’19 echoed this sentiment, explaining that her time at Yale before her leave felt like she was merely going through the motions, rooted deeply in the history of institutionalized education. Having existed over 300 years, Yale has developed a strong culture and prescribed path. There are distributional requirements, credit requirements, major requirements and reputations behind various extracurriculars, sports and internships. With such a long-standing history, it’s easy to identify a lineup of courses and extracurriculars which stitch together the pattern of what kind of Yale student you want to be, but matching yourself to a best fit of those who have come before is not always the best way to find direction. That’s not to say it does not work for many, but entering the fervent flurry of meetings and deadlines which is the Yale experience unsure of what you want often results in your time eaten away by arbitrary obligations and no time to consider what you wish you were doing instead. So some people step back.

Xu decided her sophomore fall that she wanted time off and spent the semester planning for it. She had enjoyed her first year at Yale but didn’t feel especially energized, engaged or that Yale was serving her as best it could. She decided to audition to role-play at the Happiest Place on Earth — talk about changing who you are! With no previous performing experience, Xu felt extremely out of her comfort zone but excited by the fresh challenges at Orlando’s Disney World rotating through playing various characters such as Pooh Bear, Sadness, Chip and Dale. The program was specifically designed for college students, so it lined up with the semester system and allowed effortless arrival and departure. They also offered to help organize accommodation but Xu opted to find an apartment and roommates herself, noting that these responsibilities set the stage for increased personal agency. “It was so different,” said Xu of her time away from campus. “The pace of life was different. It gave me the opportunity to consider what I wanted to be prioritizing and how I wanted to be living. I focused on my relationships a lot more and learned how to love myself. I had a completely different life, kind of like I was no longer a student.”

Xu maintained this sense of individualism and clarity upon returning to campus, leveraging it to make the following terms the best she’d had at Yale. “When I came back I knew more specifically what I wanted to do to make my Yale experience what I want it to be,” Xu said. “I didn’t really continue with anything I’d had going on the first three semesters, but it was all very intentional and specified to what I wanted.”

In this sense, the nature of taking a personal leave is distinct from the more popular and traditional choice: a gap year. As opposed to taking time off before starting college, taking a leave of absence allows for reflection on how you want to occupy Yale with the useful reference of how you have already engaged with the school, an important distinction which allows informed consideration of how you personally desire to fit into the fabric of Yale.

That being said, the strong culture of Yale which makes it so insidiously intoxicating can make it difficult to hold onto these newfound perspectives. Throughout our time here, but especially upon a return, reconciling who Yale pushes you to be and how you want to be can prove difficult. “In some ways it scared me how quickly things felt normal,” Xu commented, “because I’d changed as a person, had a lot of different experiences and didn’t want to lose any of that falling back into cold patterns of familiarity.”

But along that delicate line of pushing for success while actively differentiating between Success™ and personal goal realization is where the unequivocal benefits of an elite college education flourish. Yale is a wealth of resources, both physical ones, like funding and equipment, as well as abstract ones, such as support networks and access to professors’ insight. The purpose of this institution is arming its students with the tools they need to go out into the world and confidently pursue their dreams — no small luxury. With only four years at Yale, it’s in our best interests to explore our personal values in order to leverage this opportunity to help us on our particular paths –– which may not have an existing mold. This realization marks how I changed in the time between Boston pan chicken and Murray bibimbap.

And more eloquently, a sentiment captured in all my interviews but spoken here in Henderson’s words: “My leave of absence coincided with a very transformative time in my life — a time of emergence. It gave me the space to start seriously considering how I want to be here in this life. Building this kind of foundation cultivated a greater spirit of courage within me, so in that way my image of myself did change. I found that being a Yale student is really not the most interesting or even the most excellent thing about me at all.”

Julia Leatham julia.leatham@yale.edu .