Widgets Magazine


Not So Absent

You’ve all heard the line that these university years will be “the best of your lives.” If this is so, then we have a sadly short amount of time to enjoy ourselves. Is this what you’d imagined for your “best”?

Deciding what the university experience should and could be is a long, convoluted track that requires a lot of stumbling, and the drunkard’s walk is sometimes more beneficial than a whey-fueled sprint forward.

What I mean is, if you are unsure of what you want to gain from your time here, then take your damn time.

Rushing through these years will only stress, strain and strip your enthusiasm and morale. If you need time to choose, to breathe, to mull things over, take it.

Over and over again, I listen to recent graduates telling me they wish they had taken their time with a “leave of absence” to pursue a passion, try out life in a new city or simply to work from home and take a breather. They advise me to enjoy my time, but the truth of the matter is that the time does not necessarily have to be spent here.

Rather, it is this specific period in our lives that we should take advantage of, one that is youthful and detached from the weight of daily commuting, endless bills, household management, work tensions and so on.

There are countless opportunities to take advantage with some time away, and the leave can be beneficial to your academic/social life upon return. We are presented on a quarterly basis (at the least) with decisions that demand a goal (the “major”), a specific interest (the “minor”) or simple curiosity, and it is difficult to be fully assured in our decisions even with these. Why shoot into the dark hesitantly with your classes and with your self identity when you can actually try out your area of interest for some time?

Leave of absence is daunting to some due to the word “absence.” Some students say that you’ll lose your social circles, you’ll fall behind in classes or you’ll lose the drive, but none of these are actually true. I’ll avoid being grim with the thought that this may be beneficial as a filtering process but rather assure you that these suspicions are all false.

You will not “fall behind” or sublimate from Stanford’s mind– you will not be very absent at all. Young fresh minds don’t forget faces that quickly, nor will you lose your academic groove.

If anything, your experiences away will complement your studies, less directly than indirectly by virtue of a revamped drive and renewed curiosity.

And your friends? Think of it this way: after being tested by absence, you and your friends might value each other’s presence more than before (and the filter idea holds here you’ll lose some, but well, you get it).

Clearly not everybody needs a leave, but in no way should students be intimidated by the leave as a sign of resignation or because it could result in irrevocable absence.

Some truly have no desire or see no point to interrupting the four-year flow, and they can easily justify why they are marching through their prime time. Though I still think they could benefit from a step away from the always green and always trimmed lawns we wallow around in, to taste some other flavors beyond those of Coupa, I cannot say “should”.

But others may not quite understand where they stand within these four years, and they may feel swept beneath the torrent of the time moving over them.

These students should take a moment to get away holding lights on a film set, shuffling among the cubicles of a large corporation or among the tables of cafes, lugging a rucksack around the world or a briefcase on the daily commute, writing on chalkboards for a classroom of eager eyes or on the keyboards of some newsroom, working with an NGO or GO, digging in the fields of a WWOOF farm or in the pages of a library, mixing liquids in a lab or bar, hootin’ and hollerin’ in some band or at some activist demonstration or simply being with one’s family or alone with oneself to experience something other than the life that has been neatly presented to them, something that could all ameliorate these “best years.”

Besides all of this, well, you could take a breather and let these years last just a moment longer.


Contact Kevin Rouff at krouff@stanford.edu


  • step out – of an imposed life

    I agree with your basic message, but I see here two oft-repeated, damaging cliches that should be addressed.

    First, the assertion that these years are the best in one’s life (with “best” usually meant as something like “most enjoyable”, as your second sentence implies) puts needless pressure on us. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. They are intense years, and like any intense years, they probably have some really high points and some really low points. But as a basic example of how these years can be both simultaneously worthwhile and hardly the best (in any sense), simply consider the student who pushes herself, every day, to work as hard and learn as much as she can, spends her summers working hard in a lab (say), and spends her spring and winter breaks sleeping and recovering (early on) and working on her honors thesis (later on). Getting out of here will assuredly come as a great relief; yet her great effort will have helped her become a highly competent individual ready to do some exciting stuff in the world, and so she can hardly regret these hard years.

    Second, saying college is some sort of refuge in advance of “the weight of daily commuting, endless bills, household management, work tensions and so on” is simultaneously depressing and self-fulfilling. We are not cogs doomed to take up the lifestyle that a (biased) sample of our elders seems to put in front of us. There are too many problems in this world to solve to think that going through middle-class motions because it is some sort of destiny is in any way worthwhile.

  • kevin

    “Best” is whatever you deem it to be. Your best years could well be when you are most productive at working at what you believe to be best for your life or the world. The student you describe, I fully agree, shouldn’t be bothered by this word knowing the goal he/she works for. For that student, a “worthwhile” time is the “best”. “Most enjoyable” is not the message; this isn’t a call to go frolic. I fully agree that the cliche that these years should be the largest party of our lives is false. The question of the second line asks whether you have figured out what your best can refer to, which you seem to have.

    These words are for those who cannot formulate a concrete idea of what they are working towards as your student can. For those students (myself), working without an idea of why or for what purpose can seem painfully futile or counter-productive – essentially the opposite of the mentality your students pulls out of it. (obviously people never know what it is exactly that this all leads to, but even a faint spark of an idea can suffice)

    The refuge part though, I’m with you there, the phrasing was poor. That was my own pessimism (or a regurgitation of a generic belief), but not intended to reinforce the self-fulfillment of middle-class fate (why the class issue anyways? those issues are not restricted to one group). Go for it, step out of an imposed life and carpe your diems– but this is the same issue with the college years, as the same rigid frame is imposed on a formative moment of our lives. Go to college, study to build your life, and make a difference in your world. A nice frame but these steps aren’t made of their own accord or simply because you followed the recipe – it requires individual drive that is sometimes absent. Some other students besides yourself also wish to help the world, to make the best of their lives, and yet find themselves underneath a graduation cap without any steps left to take. Some may have curiosities here and there, but can’t choose – well take some time to try it out, find a reason to stay long hours in the library. If this is what it takes to figure out how to be your best (and have your best years), then I don’t see why the impositions of others nor their personal conceptions of a competent individual who solves the worlds problems should stop you.

  • thanks

    Well said. Yeah, I agree completely. Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest there’s only one way to be competent. Studying hard is just one way, and that really only applies to technical subjects. Thanks for spreading the message about taking a leave of absence. I agree completely that taking a leave (or at least knowing you can) can help a lot of students.