Why leaving Harvard for a semester was the best and hardest decision I ever made

‘You’re taking time off? Is something wrong? Are you OK?’

Yes, I’m OK. In fact, I’ve never been better. It may not be conventional, and it may not be without sacrifice, but choosing to take a leave of absence this semester has given me precious time and space at a critical moment in my life.

The race to graduate

In America, it seems, school is meant to be finished – fast. We value competition as well as camaraderie, pushing students to earn top marks throughout the semester and then retain massive amounts of information during finals. The semester is a crescendo, not a solo; pressure ebbs and flows according to syllabi and calendars, not the needs or interests of individual students.

When students stray, there can be consequences. Those who push ahead or fall behind might seem try-hard, lazy, or disorganized. To leave one’s graduating class and build a life outside of college can be daunting, complicated, and isolating. This sociology keeps us focused and on-track, but creates an unnecessary stigma for those of us who operate differently.

As Danny Manning, a junior at Harvard, points out, self-reflection and gratitude are also threatened by this rigidity. “Most kids our age have been on a path since their first year of school,” he writes. “Always having to look to the next step prevents you from appreciating the accomplishments and memories made thus far. Taking a leave forces you to step off this path, lending some much-needed breathing room and an invaluable perspective.”

A growing trend

Although leaves of absence make surprising news, they are not so uncommon. In fact, according to The Crimson, about one in 20 Harvard students choose to take time off (this figure excludes gap years taken between high school and college, which are also quickly growing in popularity).

“In the U.S., taking time off for travel, experience, or simply rest, was long considered an indulgence, where in the U.K. for example, it has been slightly more of an expectation,” according to Adrienne Green, writing for The Atlantic. “The increasing popularity of gap years in the U.S. could signal increased efforts to combat the workaholic culture that has proliferated at elite American higher-education institutions.”

One cause of this growing trend may be the increasing need for mental health treatment, as well as corresponding academic accommodations. For struggling students, Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services offer thorough screening processes to help determine whether a leave of absence (and, later, a return to campus) is right for them. Even for those without clinical issues, though, leaves of absence can encourage emotional hygiene and career exploration, promoting both long-term mental health and a more enriching academic experience when they return.

Social media has given my peers a rare soapbox to share their transitions. Through Facebook and Snapchat, I have seen how and why many other Harvard students are taking leaves of absence. Some virtual sign-offs have clear goals, like foreign travel or physical recovery, and others are sweet and personal – proud goodbyes to buzzing libraries and study pills.

Learning to thrive

Now facing a blank slate, I can begin to think clearly. There are no deadlines or credits to worry over, only my deepest goals and values. What have I always believed in? How can I use this time to grow into a wiser, more nuanced person? Am I taking full advantage of my time at Harvard?

For those of us who can live with parents, friends, or relatives, a leave of absence might allow for unpaid internships, or an opportunity to save up for the costs of college social life. Strict concentration requirements may limit our curiosities during the semester, but on a leave of absence, minds are unhindered: we might audit classes, build startups, try art or cooking, and so on.

Taking a leave of absence from Harvard may have felt like the hardest decision of my life, but that was because I thought I was alone. Friends, readers, strangers – it is never too late to stop and reflect in the hyper-stimulating world of college. And if you do, know for certain that you are not alone.