I took a leap of faith by coming to Cornell. I took another one by leaving it.
After my plans to study abroad in the spring of 2022 were curtailed by COVID, I opted for a less traditional study away path: taking a leave of absence to intern full-time in D.C. I made the decision with a deadline of 48 hours, and although it felt like I consulted with no fewer than 48 people during those two days, I still had little sense of what the coming semester would hold. It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made at Cornell.
In some ways, my choice to take a semester off was unsurprising: I had toyed with the idea of a leave of absence several times. During a recent procrastination scroll through the depths of my inbox, I found an email I’d sent inquiring about taking time away after my first semester in college. When some of my friends stayed at home rather than returning to campus during COVID, I once again explored that option, only to ultimately decide against it: the pipeline of school provided a sense of certainty I couldn’t reject.
It may come as no surprise that I spent high school focused on academics, clinging to said pipeline of scholastic certainty. Once I arrived at Cornell, I was faced with the realization that I had little sense of where my true passions lay. I felt like a walking stereotype: a driven student with only a vague understanding of the world beyond the stifling pressures of the academic bubble.
As I lamented not considering a gap year more seriously, I also realized that I may benefit personally, mentally and emotionally from a leave. But, each time I considered it, I was derailed by the same questions: How would I manage on my own? Would I still have friends on campus once I returned? And most importantly, without school filling up my days, what would I actually do?
Although it felt daunting to stray off the beaten academic path, I found immense growth and value in stepping away.
Taking time off from Cornell allowed me to start defining myself as a person, not just as a student. Without the persistent pressure of exams, papers and club obligations, I discovered the space to question who I am when classes end and life begins.
At risk of glamorizing the nine-to-five, the structure of an internship gave me valuable time at the end of each day and on weekends to read, write, cook (Trader Joe’s frozen meals), find hobbies, meet people and explore a new city. Moreover, as a government major, my time in D.C. reaffirmed my interest in working in international affairs and gave me a more thorough perspective on my potential futures than I had before.
It was, of course, not a perfect five months: my initial sublet fell through, adjusting to work was challenging and it took time for me to make friends and find my footing on my own. Although I appreciated the much-needed change of pace, I missed my friends and classes and also regretted missing out on a semester abroad.
Nevertheless, my house in Georgetown quickly became a home, and the challenges were outweighed by the perspective I gained. I returned to campus this year with a change in priorities, a renewed vigor to learn and greater clarity on what I want from college.
Even as I advocate for taking time off, I recognize the privilege in having the resources to handle the logistical, financial and emotional challenges that come with a leave: I had a paid internship that allowed me to finance the semester away, as well as friends and family that supported my choice.
Further, while my experience on a personal leave was relatively smooth, this was in little part due to Cornell’s support. Upon returning, I am still sorting through issues like ensuring that my student loans are handled correctly after time off and the annoyance of being classified as a junior — a joke my friends got plenty of mileage out of during pre-enrollment. These factors vary in significance but all serve as a testament to the work that Cornell still faces to make flexibility in education feasible.
I have more than a column’s worth of thoughts about the all-consuming nature of academics at Cornell, but I’ve come to accept it as a likely reality of the university we attend. Thus, if faced with the need and the means to do so, I would encourage any student to seriously consider the option of time off.
Leaves of absence are also more common than you might think. Once I started talking about my own, I found that many of my classmates had taken semesters to work or travel, for medical issues, for family reasons, or for personal ones. Indeed, some obstacles can leave students with no choice but to take time off; yet, I think it is also important to acknowledge that needing a break from school is a valid enough reason to allow yourself to take one.
More broadly, it is important to continue normalizing pathways other than the traditional four-year degree. Whether by want or by necessity, it’s okay to step off the yellow brick road of academics which many of us have followed for most of our lives.
There is no one right way to experience college. So, don’t be afraid to take the path less traveled if it’s calling your name.
Lia Sokol (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-kolled Life runs every other Sunday this semester.