Need a semester leave? Take it and don’t look back.
Like many Rice students, I am Type A. Since middle school, I’ve done everything at full intensity — pulled more all-nighters than I could possibly count, competed at the highest level of my sport of choice, completed hours of community service, etc. I had every next step planned and worked for it with all of my being. We’re all like this to some extent; that’s why we’re here, and that’s how we know it paid off.
But at the end of freshman year, I hit the ground hard. After two consecutive semesters of realizing my limitations in math and science, a relationship gone wrong and a back injury, I was falling apart. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, I was heartbroken and, though I had great friends who supported me, every morning I woke up in a state of crippling panic. Midway through the summer, I submitted a leave of absence form and registered for classes at my local university in Kentucky.
Taking a semester off was only marginally less frightening than returning to Rice, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. The first two weeks of fall semester, I cried constantly. I missed both my friends and Texas, and I felt like I had ruined my future. Yet, as time passed, I started to realize that not only had I done the right thing, but that it was also going to change my life for the better. When the semester was over and I returned to Rice a completely new and happy person, I knew I had to share my story.
To start, I want to address some of the fears that I had about deviating from the normal path. First, I was afraid my friends would forget about or replace me. This proved to be completely unwarranted. When I returned to Rice, my friends were ecstatic to see me, and I know that that was not exceptional because I’ve felt the same way when my friends have returned from studying abroad since then. Due to our months apart, we had hours of conversation material, and we were just as close as before. They did not replace me; they were happy I was back and to have another friend to hang with.
Second, I was worried I would be unhappy, lonely and bored. To be honest, I was all three of those things at some point, mostly toward the beginning of the semester. I found that I had less work and more free time, but no one to spend it with. Yet, I gradually realized that, though I missed my friends, I could enjoy time spent in solitude. In fact, it proved to be important and restorative. I developed a great sense of inner peace and was able to have fun doing activities like eating at my favorite restaurants or going to movies alone. I grew cognizant of how strong I am and that I can find happiness even in the temporary absence of those I love. I also got to spend a lot of time with my family, something that I value tremendously now that I see them for only a few weeks a year. Yes, I got lonely, but only through being lonely was I able to experience this tremendous personal growth.
Third, I was terrified that I had damaged my academic career. Again, I worried for nothing. When I returned to Rice, I quickly earned my leadership positions back. I realized one semester off had very little effect on my resume, especially since I made above a 4.0 GPA at the less competitive local school. I am not only scheduled to graduate on time, but perhaps even earlier. To my surprise, my absence did not prevent me from reaching my goals; in fact, it was actually instrumental in helping me achieve them. I had extra time to explore my options and figure out what I really wanted to study.
Taking time off is not for everyone. However, if you feel confused, anxious and unhappy like I did, it may be a life-changing decision. It distresses me to think about how differently my life might have been if I had kept pushing myself through Rice. If I had, I would not be the calm, happy and confident person I am now. College is hard, but it’s not supposed to be miserable. Take care of yourself, take time off, become the person you want to be.
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