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.