Why Taking a Semester off Can Recharge You
Most introductory conversations usually begin like this: exchanging names, sharing what each person does, and then moving on to more profound things. These days though, my conversations get stuck on the second question:
“What do you do?”
I study, I dutifully reply.
“Where?” people want to know.
I tell them.
Then something falls into place, usually instantly, but often much later into the conversation: “Wait… shouldn’t you be at college right now?” On cue, I launch into an explanation. I can give the two-second response: “I wanted to do other things.” Or, I can give the 15 minute detailed tirade involving an exchange semester that fell through, senior year requirements, a shuffling of academic plans and the fairly appealing option of taking a semester off that conveniently presented itself to me. The follow-up question then is whether I’m enjoying this time off. It’s too early to have made up my mind yet, considering I still have six more months to go and haven’t got out of my ‘honeymoon phase.’ Still, I tell people it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I’ll tell you why.
1. The people you meet
My days are spent with a range of people, where new ones are a constant; I’ve reconnected with old friends; I’ve met journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, actors and writers; and I’ve discovered even more friends at a local cafe I frequent: some study, some work, some are figuring things out. Every time I have a particularly interesting conversation with someone new, I’m forced to think how in some other scenario, our paths would never have crossed. The best thing for me is that very few of these people do the same things I do. Since a substantial amount of my time is spent with them, self-reflection becomes a key part of our interaction.
In college, you are surrounded by people exactly like you. Don’t get me wrong; of course these people come from different perspectives and backgrounds, but they do the same things as you, day in and day out. There are papers to be written, meetings to be attended and parties to be crashed. You more or less agree on what’s important and what’s not. But college is a specific, created space. Although it provides exposure to a variety of perspectives, it does so within an academic environment, within a certain socialized code of conduct. Outside of it, you reground yourself. Even if for a little while, you relearn that the world is made up of more complex perspectives, who also have a lot to teach you.
2. The things you do
I have some fleeting idea of what I want to do in my life. These ideas inform the courses I take in college and the extra-curriculars in which I participate. For a change though, I can put my interests into practice, in the setting they will eventually inhabit. Since my time isn’t taken up by school, I can sign up for almost anything. I’m doing part time archival research, helping out with a public art project in my city, teaching children and doing freelance writing. I meet people with exciting projects all the time, who are particularly interested in taking younger people on. Even if these opportunities are mostly unpaid, since they don’t come with the frightening commitment of long-term jobs, or the sinking feeling that their result will determine my college career, I’m able to take them on merely out of interest and curiosity.
3. You reprioritize
During college, all that matters is college. Whether you’re doing enough academically, where you’re headed afterwards, are you making the most of it. These are important exercises in keeping us on track, but they make us forget that college is just one track, and a fairly comfortable one at that. The rest of the world may not be running on an elite institution’s ideas of how things can be studied, analyzed and solved.
I remember a phrase I often heard thrown around at Mt. Holyoke: “Get out of your comfort zone.” The thing is, college is our comfort zone. We adapt ourselves to the script of this small town in the middle of South Hadley (or wherever we are), so that once out of it, we realize we know little else.
A semester off can prove to be a much needed derailing.
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