Free Fall

By Sophia S. Liang and Matteo N. Wong
By Isabella C. Aslarus

I once jumped out of a plane, falling freely, briefly terrified, immersed in a cushion of air, an unparalleled view of the ground, my parachute firmly in place.

An entanglement of unrivaled freedom, risk, and fear makes free-fall exhilarating: defying convention, embracing the moment, while knowing the odds favor your landing safely.

Over the past two weeks, I have spoken with seven different students on leave this fall, plunging headfirst into their own state of “free fall.” They are among the 20 percent of Harvard students who decided to not enroll this term. Once you hear their stories, you may want to take the plunge this spring, too.

Jacob R. Jimenez ’23 logs onto our Zoom call a few minutes late. Just back from the Saturday market, his sole opportunity to leave the idyllic organic farm he’s been working on in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Jimenez described the strange paradox of his freedom. On the one hand, he has no car, shaky wifi, and is geographically restricted. On the other, he feels a newfound “intellectual freedom and mental health freedom not to worry about the due dates of tomorrow and the assignments of tomorrow.”

As Jimenez spends his days weeding, mulching, and seeding new plants; Michael Montella ’21 is digging his hands into U.S. politics — fighting for democracy and the freedoms it entails. A virtual organizer for the Iowa democrats, Montella said, “I just cannot imagine a 45-year-old self of my mind looking back and be like, I did not do everything that I possibly could to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and other Democrats in this consequential election.”

North of where Montella and friends are living in Nantucket, Nuri Bhuiyan ’22, a Crimson Arts editor, is literally sketching blueprints for social justice in upstate New York. In addition to a film internship, she told me she is researching “how a lot of spaces are default built for white people” and “experimenting with medium to explore this concept of what it looks like for Black Americans to take up space.”

A similar entrepreneurial fervor can be found in Mia C. Johansson ’22, who is “coding all the time” in her new off-campus apartment in Cambridge. In high school, Mia founded The Teen Magazine, a site with almost 600 student writers who submit content and offer peer feedback. Having leaped from 20,000 to 70,000 monthly pageviews since the pandemic’s onset, Mia is seizing this momentum. Free from schoolwork but not from responsibility, Johansson described her decision as “scary.”

“For the first time in my life, I'm deciding my own goals, I'm setting what success looks like,” Johansson said. “And I'm having to keep myself accountable for staying on track.”

These four students are not the only ones diving into new learning experiences: Yeokyeong “YK” Kim ’23 has just moved from Pennsylvania to Korea for a digital marketing internship; Henry Kuo ’23 has enrolled in not-for-credit hardware courses at National Taipei University; Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor originally from Spain, is tackling Italian while working in Rome.

One way or another though, “free-falling” students remain connected to the Harvard community, through overactive email lists, professors, alumni, webinars, or — as has become pervasive — student organizations; involvement during these times seemingly overrides compliance with the College’s ban on unenrolled students participating in campus clubs. Students on leave are often still vital to the institutional knowledge of our clubs, enriching the lives of those enrolled. Even if the policy had a coherent logic in past years, it would appear unnecessarily harsh and isolating during times that are harsh and isolating enough.

“I’ve loved the response from clubs and groups to be really supportive. Harvard people, like the rest of the world, have grown and become more human, and it feels good,” Bhuiyan shared.

Of course, this sample of students is just that: a sample. Some students taking time off may possess the privilege of having no concrete plans, others may be taking time to financially support their families. Conversely, the pandemic posed significant economic and relational challenges for my family, making Harvard a much-needed haven.

Montella described his time working on the election as a welcome opportunity to “recalibrate.”

“There were also just like a lot of things that I wanted to do before college ended, like certain travel and just kind of having the time to recalibrate and think about what I would like to get out of my life, rather than just sort of mindlessly going through the Harvard lazy river,” he said.

Similarly, Kim craves an opportunity to reflect on her first year at Harvard and take a break to “reassess” and “fully understand” her own needs and wants before getting back on campus.

She added, “With a lot of my friends that I've talked to, if we kind of reflect on first semester and second semester, we weren't doing as well as we tried to tell ourselves that we were doing.”

The thrill of being busy is an adrenaline rush for many of us, but when this is all we ever know, it can become a problem.

My brother, Jasper Johnston ’20, who graduated this past spring, once said, “Time at Harvard flies like an ant walking down the aisle of a jumbo jet — each foot takes forever but suddenly it's a hundred miles from where it started.”

Free-falling students remind us that to truly understand Harvard’s unique laws of time, motion, and gravity, and how these forces influence each of us for better or for worse, sometimes we have to get off the aircraft completely. Students leaping into the unknown, falling away from academia, are grounding themselves, putting their Harvard experience, in all of its small, peculiar and arbitrary glory, into perspective, while relying on their vital sources of communal support as parachutes to soften their landings.

I once jumped out of a plane, falling freely, briefly terrified, immersed in a cushion of air, an unparalleled view of the ground, my parachute firmly in place. I might just try it again this spring.

Aysha L.J. Emmerson ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a special concentrator in Resilience Studies in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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