Coming back to school was a culture shock. Everybody here is the same," says Kim B. Ladin '87-'88, who left Harvard after her sophomore year and worked as a union organizer in San Francisco.
"I got out of here and found there was a whole other world that didn't look anything like Harvard Yard. While I'd always known about the difference intellectually, in San Francisco I learned it emotionally," she explains.
"Here we have a bunch of white, upper-class students wandering around campus. A lot of us want to go study the working class as an intellectual exercise," says Ladin. "But when I did the work I really loved it. I discovered I like people enough to be effective at working with people from many different backgrounds."
The Quincy House resident says she took time off from college because she wasn't sure why she was in school or what she wanted to do. "I think Harvard really pushes people toward being burned out. They stress you as much as possible--exams after Christmas, deciding a major so early--and then give you the option of taking time off," says Ladin.
"If I hadn't gotten away," Ladin says, "I might have had an emotional breakdown."
Each year, roughly 20 percent of all Harvard undergraduates take time off. Students leave because they feel stressed out and overwhelmed, they want to focus their studies or they need to get a clearer perspective on their education. It is an option, some call it a safety valve, that the University encourages.
"Harvard has a very positive attitude toward leavetakers," says Mary Fan Kain, assistant director of Office of Career Services (OCS). "This time is theirs, and what they want to do is completely within their own control, unlike most of life before and after."
"Taking time off is a change of pace that is not necessarily any less hectic, but it does offer [students] a different atmosphere," Kain adds.
Leave-takers spend their time working on kibbutzim, clerking in law offices, backpacking through Southeast Asia, picking apples in the French countryside, and studying at other schools. The most popular time to leave Harvard, according to statistics recently published by OCS, is after the sophomore year, and most students prefer two semesters away from Cambridge.
Since 1982, fewer students in each graduating class have taken leaves of absence. Among members of the Class of 1986, only 262 took time off--nearly 150 students fewer than just four years ago. This year, for example, College officials have cited the declining number of leave-takers as a direct cause of the campus housing crunch.
Fewer students may be exercising this option, Kain says, due to rising cost of Harvard tuition. "Some people feel the need to move quickly along. Financial pressures push people forward," she says.
The Bigger World
Some students feel that while time off could prove very valuable, staying with their friends and graduating with their class is more important. Others are postponing that year spent doing everything they always wanted to do until after college.
Ted Lockery '87-88, who spent a year working for WashPIRG, a public interest research group, says, "I don't think of what I did as time off; for me it was time on. Getting beyond the lecture halls and really for the first time being a part of that bigger world gives my formal education a third dimension. It's the difference between a square and a cube."
Lockery drove to California the summer after his sophomore year and then went up to Seattle, but his decision to stay in Washington was made the night before the August housing deadline. "I just enjoyed being out of the East and experiencing new people," he explains.
Many leavetakers who devote their time to community service work say they believe the experience opened new possibilities to them. "I met enough lawyers to decide I don't want to go to law school," Ladin says. "I realized that it's possible to go to Harvard and be a union organizer, not a professional."
"I never had any idea of how many different jobs people could do instead of just being bankers or lawyers," says Rachel E. Golden '86-'87, who spent her year off traveling and working through Europe and Israel. "I met so many crazy and different people and it is meeting those people that changed me," she says.
"During the boat ride from Greece, we spent one night on a dock in Crete and a storyteller told tales by candlelight," Golden recalls. "It wasn't a very safe part of town, but I felt really secure sitting by this little candle stuck in a paper cup and listening to a man who wasn't that much older than me telling stories of people on the road. He didn't want to get a Ph.D or anything, he just wanted to be a storyteller. That is one of my most vivid memories."
Students often complain about feeling out of touch with the subjects they study. For James A. Anderson '86-'87, an East Asian Languages and Civilizations concentrator, it was the desire to see "the flesh and blood behind what I was learning" that prompted his enrollment in a language program at Nanjing University in China.
Anderson says that after his junior year, "All I could look ahead to was my thesis and [the idea of doing] it made me tired. From over here I couldn't really see what China was all about." Anderson's thesis concerns modern Chinese art and he calls his year off "a spiritual consolidation of a lot of things." The Dunster resident says, "[The time off] changed my over all perspective on how my studying affects people over there. Meeting the contemporary artists and seeing the conditions they live under put the subject in context; it lent reality to the texts."
Rhonda J. Roberts '86 had similar reasons for leaving. "I left because I was starting to burn out. Things were beginning to have no meaning for me," Roberts says. "What good does it do to go to class and take note without knowing how what you're learning affects other people? I started thinking it would be nice to see some of what I'm learning in practice."
Roberts spent the second semester of her junior year England working as a translator and waitress in a small hotel. The Government concentrator says she felt her time at Harvard was going much too quickly. "It didn't make sense for me to try to choose a career or grad school without having lived in another culture."
Stewart Gibson '87-'88, who spent a year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, also left for academic reasons. "I wanted to study something that was more limited in scope than it is possible to examine here," explains the History concentrator. "I felt the need to slow down a bit and take a look at things from the outside, and this gave me the chance to concentrate on one academic track," he adds.
Although the History Department granted Gibson one semester credit for his year-long labor, departments here give course credit for study abroad on a case-by-case basis. Most students enrolled in course programs abroad say they receive some credit from Harvard.
Focusing Academic Goals
"Now when I look at the [Harvard] coursebook, it's not with the same sense of confused awe. I have a focus," says Gibson. "It's no longer a question of having to choose four courses out of four million. My leave of absence has given me an academic direction, and that makes it much easier to put together a cohesive curriculum."
Even those leavetakers who did not spend their time off studying agree that time away from Harvard was a decisive factor in increasing the satisfaction of their education. Lockery recalls, "I didn't return with a senior thesis in my backpocket, but I do have experiences that will inevitably shape the next two years and beyond."
In addition to focusing academic goals, time off often helps students put their lives in perspective. Students say that leaves of absence give them a chance to think about where they're headed and also make them more relaxed about not having a specific goal.
"A certain percentage of Harvard students have been very pressured for a very long time. There is a tremendous amount of exceed/excel stimulus and a lot of people think, "I need to stop that for a little while," says Kain. "A lot of people come in [to OCS] without any definite plans," she says. "They tell me they need to be away from Harvard; they need to be in a different space and time for a while."
"During my time off," says Roberts, "I learned what I'm capable of. I learned that I could set my own agenda and make it work for me." Roberts says she's noticed that people who return from leaves of absence are, on the whole, calmer. "I think it's because we realize in a very large sense that this all doesn't matter. We all want our GPAs, but getting that paper done by five just isn't as important any more. How you do isn't who you are," she explains.
People stop defining themselves in terms of what they do or how well they do it when they learn that there are other, more personal yardsticks by which to measure achievement. "For me there are no formal standards, not grades, not recommendations. I think I've learned to judge myself against my own expectations," concludes Roberts.
"I realized that not having a direction is not a bad thing. Being directionless doesn't mean you'll end up on skid row," says Rebecca J. Carpenter '86-'87, who took a year off to study, travel, and work. When Carpenter returned from travels in Germany, she "felt like [she] was ready to take advantage of the Harvard experience."
Carpe Diem Syndrome
Daniel Brenner '85-'86, who spent a year teaching math in a private school, takes a philosophical approach to time off. "You may not come back a buddha or anything, but you come back more confident about school and why you're doing it," says the native New Yorker. "Coming back to Harvard was my decision, and that made being in college more of an active than a passive thing."
Brenner calls his year off crucial for psychological advancement. "There's something inherent in the nature of school, in just what school is, that is antithetical to personal growth. The deadlines are set and you abide by them; you take vacations when they are given to you; you know what you are taught for the final exam," he explains.
"But during a leave of absence there's a shift to understanding that you're not doing it for them. Academia becomes more your own, less theirs. The University becomes your own. It's no longer just Harvard because you are an active member," says Brenner.
Sense of Autonomy
Students who have taken time off to travel and live on their own find that they establish a sense of their autonomy. Living and traveling alone allows them to assume control of their lives and achieve a certain independence that many found lacking within the confines of school or family.
For some, this new found self-sufficiency translates into a desire to live off campus. "Coming back to a house after a leave of absence would be like moving back home after graduation," explains Brenner, who now lives in Somerville. "My apartment gives me a sense of detachment from Harvard; I'm not a student 24 hours a day."
Other leave-takers say the independence gained during time off gives them the confidence needed to take their own ideas seriously. Roberts says that although she had always been very interested in social service, she had never followed through on anything. "When I came back I started thinking about the ways I could use my skills to contribute to a community. I designed a course in textile design and taught it to elementary school children through HAND," she says.
"My whole time off was a self-dialogue; it was spent finding out what makes me work inside," says Roberts. "I could have stayed here, but I would have graduated with the feeling that Harvard had somehow failed me. Now my time here has been enriched. It's completely changed the way I look at things I do."
LEAVE TAKERS 1982-1986 Total Number of Leave Takers: Percentage Who Took Leave: Class of 1982 410 25.9 Class of 1983 289 19.4 Class of 1984 325 22.0 Class of 1985 270 18.3 Class of 1986 262 18.0