College is a time to discover your passions, prepare for a career, and transition to adulthood. Sound like a lot to do in four years? It is! College is typically represented as a four year undertaking, but according to U.S. News and World Report, only around 41% of students complete a bachelor’s degree within four years. When parents and counselors talk to high school students, the longer college timeline is rarely mentioned, but the reality is that today’s students are moving at their own pace.
Understandably, the idea of extending the college experience prompts mixed reactions. Many students are particularly (and legitimately) concerned about the financial burden of taking more than four years. Alternatively, students may feel pressure to enter the job market and begin “real life” as quickly as possible. In my experience, however, the benefits of taking more time can greatly outweigh the drawbacks. Taking extra time, or taking time off entirely, can be a powerful part of your education.
I myself took time off during college not once, but twice. My winding path through Wesleyan University actually began unexpectedly during my freshman year, when I had to take time off to treat a stomach condition. The experience was not glamorous: I spent a semester bored, sick, and resentfully slurping soft foods in front of my parents’ TV. While all my friends were at college, I felt that I had been thrown off track by my health. I had been in school since before I could remember, and the time off was jarring.
After I returned to campus, however, I quickly realized that there really was no “track” to be on. While many of my fellow freshman continued straight from high school, I wasn’t the only one who was taking a different path. Some of my classmates had served in the military, attended community college, or worked before beginning college. And as my studies continued, students all around me took time off to pursue internships, travel, or just take care of personal business, like I had to. Unlike high school, where everyone progresses at a strict speed, college is really about setting your own tempo.
So in my junior year, curious for a taste of the working world, I took a second term off and worked at a movie theater. Again, not a particularly chic sabbatical, but that was actually sort of the point: instead of sleep-walking through another semester, I challenged myself professionally by working full time and managing my finances. My job wasn’t always stimulating, and the general public is not always kind to folks in the service industry, but I learned how to get through it anyway. I served a lot of popcorn, cashed some very small paychecks, and began to understand the rhythms and responsibilities of full time employment.
That whole “transition to adulthood” thing I mentioned? Yep, this was about the time those wheels started turning.
In addition, my semester off gave me time to reflect on my education. Absence really did make my heart grow fonder, and after months of toiling away for just above minimum wage, I was incredibly motivated and grateful to return to my studies, and I appreciated the particular freedoms and challenges of college in a new way. During my final year of undergrad, at 23, I was a much more engaged and mature student than I might have been otherwise. My semester at the theater gave me what only time and distance can: perspective.
Today’s college graduates need skills that can be acquired in college classes, it’s true, but they also need independence and maturity. A college setting may encourage these strengths, but I believe that they are best honed by a combination of on-campus and “real world” experience. My formal education taught me a great deal about my passions, but my time off gave me the wisdom and practicality to carry those interests into my adult life. I encourage all students to be open to taking extra time. Step out of the classroom: you may be surprised how much you learn.