Taking Time Off: Four Seniors’ Breaks From Amherst College
Issue   |   Wed, 09/20/2017 - 00:25
Justin Barry ‘18
From left to right: David Green ‘18 is currently touring London before starting work in Belgium. Frank Tavares ‘18 (far right) has been working at the NASA Ames Research Center since June. Alli Bennett ‘18 recently worked on the production of “The Scarlet Professor,” Brian Zayatz ’18 spent his summer working on a New Orleans farm (seen here with Mabel the Chicken).

As the class of 2018 came back to campus for their fourth and final year, people reunited with friends who had gone abroad during junior year. As the date of commencement looms over the horizon, seniors commiserate in a mix of relief and terror that college is soon to be over. While dauntingly close, the finish line also feels impossibly far with theses, comps and 400-level seminars staring down at us. The mantra of choice, “Well, we’ve made it this far,” reminds us that, at three-quarters of the way there, we may be exhausted but we have to push through.

But who says we have to push through in order to finish college in four years? The value of your degree does not change depending on the date of your graduation. Quite a few of my classmates have decided to take first semester of their senior year off for a variety of reasons. For most, this is their first time taking time off from college, and I was curious about their reasons behind this decision now that they’re “almost there.” I conducted an interview over email asking some of the people I knew were taking time off about how they came to this choice, what they’re doing during this time and how they think their experiences will shape their return to campus.

Frank Tavares ’18 is currently in the Silicon Valley living on NASA grounds as he continues the co-op internship program he started this summer working for the public affairs office at NASA’S Ames Research Center. While away from campus, he is still working closely with his favorite subjects.

FT: Communications for NASA is a really great combination of my two majors, English and astronomy, and is letting me live out a dream I’ve had for basically as long as I can remember! I decided to look into a co-op position, instead of just a summer internship, because I thought working for the same office over a long period (I’ll be returning next summer as well) will give me the chance to not only learn from my co-workers, but stick around long enough to use what I’ve learned to become an active part of the office, and getting the sense of what being a full-time employee here is like, which is hard to get in just 10 weeks. And when I leave, I’ll also have a better sense of whether this is a career path I want to continue…

It is strange being away from Amherst, but I think the distance is good, too. It’s been a good reminder that the stresses that feel so monumental and essential to our futures at Amherst (whether that’s grades, or finding success in our extracurricular activities) aren’t that big a deal, and we’ll all have lives after college that’ll be pretty great too. There are definitely things I miss — my friends and the convenience of Val being the most severely felt absences at the moment — but I’m glad I’m doing this, and was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating the school was with the decision. Though it wouldn’t have been a deal-breaking factor, the fact I can walk with my class a semester early means a lot. Small things like that show how taking a semester off really isn’t an interruption of your college career but just an interesting detour that can give you a lot of good along the way you may not have found otherwise.

Brian Zayatz ’18, meanwhile, has stayed in the area and is working for a farm called Simple Gifts.

BZ: This summer I felt less anxious and more like myself than I have in a few years. As I prepared to return to Amherst for my senior year, attempting to finalize fellowship applications and my thesis proposal, I felt a sense of dread and kept putting off this work until I realized that I just didn’t want to be in school. I realized that to jump back into an Amherst semester would completely overturn some of the mental equilibrium I had found over the previous months. I’m living in town now, working at a nearby farm, and I hope that I’ll be able to return in January with some strategies to more sustainably approach academics and other commitments and better articulated ideas of what I hope to gain from my final year of undergraduate studies (if nothing more than a degree).

Alli Bennett ’18 has also decided to stay close during her time off. She currently lives in town and has continued to participate in extracurricular activities here at Amherst, while trying on a new campus for size.

AB: This semester, I’m taking two classes at UMass in an effort to make myself excited about class again in a less overwhelming environment. It was important for me to be close to all the amazing friends I’ve at Amherst as I felt I would be too lonely if I stayed at home for the semester, while also being able to take space from the institution itself. At the end of junior year, I felt more burnt out than I ever had before. There was something going on, but I was unsure exactly what was affecting me so negatively. I’d been happy to leave during first semester of junior year to go abroad, but when I got back, I felt worse than ever. I couldn’t focus on work, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Eventually I realized that a semester off would hopefully be a solution to some of my problems. My mental health had taken quite a blow over the past three years, and I hoped that this time off could prevent a worse breakdown further down the road… For me, it was the difference between knowing I would be completely miserable for another nine months or taking the time I needed to hopefully not be miserable and being able to actually enjoy myself when I return.

David Green ’18 decided that he wanted to go abroad, but didn’t just want to study at another institution. Instead, he spent his junior year looking for jobs abroad and eventually landed a job working for a statistics professor at Ghent University in Belgium. Before Green starts his job in October, he’s traveling solo around the U.K. and has, unsurprisingly, made plenty of friends along the way.

DG: My journey thus far has taught me the immense value of leaning into every possible opportunity, even if it seems superfluous, and being boldly open to forming new friendships. I hear from many Americans studying abroad that they haven’t met any locals despite weeks spent here, and I am overjoyed that my circumstances have forced me to quickly reach out to strangers from all walks of life. What led me to temporarily remove myself from Amherst in this dramatic fashion was largely a feeling that my life had entered an unpleasant rut. Returning to campus semester after semester until senior year without many tangible changes was beginning to take a toll on me, and thus I developed the following philosophy: In life, we generally do school, we work, and then we die, so why not school, work, school, work, die instead? Variety is, after all, the spice of life. With this semester away from campus, I hope to see whether statistics would serve me as a viable career, give myself space to actually enjoy my senior year upon my return, figure out what aspects of life I actually find important (beyond the odd and often trivial microcosm of Amherst), and reassure myself that I can develop a supportive contingent of friends from scratch no matter where I find myself post-graduation.

I chose to present these students stories not to show how stressful Amherst is (although we do have a high percentage of students who take time off at some point in their four years due to stress issues), but to de-stigmatize the idea of not graduating in four years.

Bennett said, “If you’ve ever thought about taking time off, you’ve probably had similar thoughts: will it look bad to future employers? What will my parents say? It’s just a few months; I should just get it over with. Am I a failure because of this?”

As we strive to normalize mental health issues across campus, we should encourage students to continue taking time off not just as a last resort, but as a way to experience something other than college for a few months, whether that’s a job, traveling or taking classes somewhere else. Not only does it allow for students to return with renewed energy, but also it allows provides them with a different perspective to guide them when trying to figure out life after college.