Time Out!

As the spring semester progresses, many students find themselves planning the next months and even years of their lives. Students who aren’t graduating this spring may plan to study abroad, while some will opt for staying on for the semester here in Claremont.

Sometimes we even need a break from our beloved Claremont McKenna.

But some students feel the need to get out of the Claremont bubble.  Some say they feel out of place.  Some feel confined, frustrated, or tired.  Some students feel they lack direction.  Others yearn for experiences they can't get here at Claremont McKenna College.  Sometimes a day at the beach just to get away from classes or a weekend at home can leave students feeling refreshed, but some find they need more time than that.

Few Claremont students, however, contemplate taking a chunk of time off from school.  Some may worry that it will disrupt their education or career track, or that they will miss out on time on campus. If well spent, however, time away from the college grind can be a valuable learning experience.  Some students use the time to work, some to think about the future, and some students take time to travel, learning outside the box.  These experiences can be invaluable in gaining the experiences and maturity necessary to be successful both at CMC and in the professional world.

Jessica Torres and I spoke with several students who took time off, or plan to take time off from classes at CMC.  One student plans to work on a political campaign, which will challenge her both personally and professionally.  Another student took a gap year to devote himself to serving the community, while another student took a full year off to travel.  One current senior took two full years off to work, as well as to combat stress and mental health issues before graduating.  All of these students felt their time off had been an improvement to their college experience, rather than a blemish.  What they learned while away from campus has contributed to their successes and helped to shape their future plans.

Laura Epstein (CMC ’14), for example, is taking a semester off next fall to work for President Obama’s presidential campaign.  Originally, she thought about going abroad. “But I kept thinking about how much I would miss being in the U.S. for such a huge election year,” said Laura of her decision.

With enough credits to graduate on time even after taking the semester away from classes, Laura plans to volunteer in central Pennsylvania, primarily organizing volunteers.  She’ll also be participating in grassroots politics by phone banking and knocking on doors to spread President Obama’s campaign messages.  Although she’ll be volunteering at first, she hopes to be able to land a paid internship with the campaign further down the line – a great opportunity to pursue her political ideals and to better understand the nuts and bolts of campaigning.

As Laura experiences different aspects of the campaign, she will no doubt face challenges to her political opinions.  Taking time off is a great way to test personal convictions and try out a future career path.  These experiences not only build character, they also help expand the scope of the average college experience.

Similarly, Evan Lind (CMC’12) took a gap year before coming to CMC to teach at an under served school in Boston through AmeriCorps.  He said the experience was transformative: he only made $3 an hour, and lived in the community where he taught.

Volunteers in Boston paint a mural.

 Because he was younger than most people in his high school class, he felt it was a good time to pursue his passion in serving the community before settling down in college and making major plans for the future.  Living away from home and working for such a small hourly rate forced Evan to make some tough choices; he had to manage his life entirely on his own.  Living within the community he served, his time highlighted the hardships and the major issues faced by people within under served areas in Boston.  As he said, the experiences were transformative.

Upon his return, Evan was surprised that he felt no real distance from his high school or college classmates.  In fact, he appreciated the privileges college experience even more, and worked hard to pursue his interests.  “I think I had a better understanding of myself as a person and what I was passionate about,” said Evan of his time off. “The cons are that I felt a little left out as all of my high school peers were having awesome freshman year experiences.  I felt like my gap year set me back a little as far as being in an academic groove.”

Miles Bird (CMC’12), on the other hand, took a year off between his sophomore and junior years so that he could travel.  He said it was like “pausing the real world” to evaluate where he’d been and where he wanted to go.  In retrospect, he feels it was a good experience because he had complete freedom with his time.  “Finding apartments, making friends, managing and balancing my time, rationing my money - successfully or unsuccessfully doing these things would have a very tangible impact on my life,” Miles said.

Health.com says time off from everyday responsibilities can reduce stress.

Yet there were also some drawbacks.  Miles had to sacrifice time with friends, and will have to put off graduation by a year.  He said he also feels like he’s ready to move on from college and into the real world even though he’s not graduating this year.  In addition, he sometimes feels distanced from classmates, especially during milestones like the 200 Days Party.

Olga Kofman (CMC’11) knew she had to take a break from CMC after her sophomore year when she didn’t feel at home.  She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew that something was preventing her from reaching her full potential.  In high school she had excelled in academics and in athletics, but as a freshman she didn’t make the field hockey team and realized that she was no longer the best student she could be.  It was hard for her to fit in and create a new identity for herself, so she went home to south Florida in the summer of 2009 and took a leadership position distributing FEMA aid money to families on the brink of homelessness.  Then she worked for another non-profit through AmeriCorps VISTA and took some classes at a state school.

In her effort to be truly healthy and fulfilled, Olga did an immense amount of soul searching.  In Olga's case, it wasn't just about her career or about travel, but about being happy with herself and with her choices, about finding her own equilibrium so that she could be happy - no matter where she decided to work or finish her degree.

Olga's efforts paid off.  After two years away, Olga came back to CMC last fall and will be graduating with the class of 2012 this May.  She has worked closely with Dean of Students Mary Spellman to keep everything in check and to stay on track so that she will only graduate one year late.  Asked whether she felt the time off was worth it, she said, “Perhaps I could have done this at CMC, perhaps not, but during this time I learned to embrace myself and my experiences as unique and lovely […] I encourage everyone who is curious to follow their intuition.”

There are many reasons to take time off from college.  Some students want full time work experience or are offered a job that they can’t pass up, while some serve the community, take time to reflect, work on personal problems or holistic health goals, or even just travel to see what’s outside of Claremont.  The most important factor is to make the best individual decision possible.  Taking the time to contemplate each step is imperative to one’s success.

In the next few months as freshmen, sophomores, and juniors evaluate their plans for next fall, it's important to consider all the options, even if it's outside the norm.  Whether students stay or go, it’s up to every person to build the life they want to lead.

Jessica Torres contributed reporting.