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Why I'm Glad I Took Time Off During the Pandemic

Laura Tobar

When I took a leave from classes for the fall quarter of my senior year, I didn’t expect to learn much. I decided to take time off in large part because I had struggled to balance school, work and home life while taking online classes in the spring of 2020 and felt that, for me personally, virtual college wasn’t conducive to learning the way in-person classes had been.

With so little of my undergraduate career left, I wanted to make the most of my remaining time in college. So, with the hope that I’d eventually get to return to campus for the full experience of lectures, projects and collaborative work I’d come to associate with rigorous education, I chose to put learning on hold for the time being…or so I thought.

Preoccupied with the idealized image of what my senior year could’ve been, what I mostly thought of was how I’d be missing out on the rewards of engaging in person with faculty and peers. What I didn’t consider was that learning happens in many more places than the classroom, and knowledge takes all kinds of surprising forms.

Though I was too disappointed to realize it right away, I was about to embark on an edifying journey — and what I learned last fall was as valuable to me as the wisdom I’ve acquired in traditional academic settings.

The thing about classroom learning is that it eats up a lot of time. When you aren’t in class, you have readings and homework, and even when you grind your way free of a given week’s assignments, exams and papers loom. For me, the easiest way to deal with this was to devote my free moments to pursuits I already liked or that weren’t too far out of my comfort zone; I figured, best not to waste the small amount of time I had for myself on things I might not even enjoy.

But in autumn 2020, liberated from the demands of coursework, I found myself with the gift of time to delve into new subjects and unfamiliar hobbies. This exploration taught me that I’m capable of seeking out knowledge on my own and that I can trust my intuition to guide me to learning that is worthwhile even if it isn’t conventionally academic.

I fell in love with the sport of Sumo, something I previously thought I could never be interested in. But when I started watching it because the pandemic had done away with many other televised sports, my initial assumption was disproved — in fact, I developed a lot of respect for the rikishi (wrestlers) and the cultural intricacies of the sport.

I tested the limits of my baking abilities, putting in the effort to recreate dishes I’d said goodbye to when I went vegan three years ago. My brother and one of my best friends introduced me to the anime world, which I had written off in the past. And I discovered a new favorite author, whose prolificacy had once discouraged me from picking up any of his novels (if someone wrote that many books, they couldn’t really be good!).

As I watched basho (Sumo tournaments) with my dad, made vegan croissants and tiramisu, lost myself in worthy anime plotlines (I highly recommend Haikyu!!), and began working my way through Stephen King’s bibliography, I learned a great deal about cultures, topics and pastimes that I never would have had I not taken a leave from my traditional, by-the-book education.

More than that, I came away with the understanding that, even when I return to my studies as normal, I shouldn’t devalue my free time by restricting it to subjects and activities I’m already accustomed to.

I realized that the worst that can result from an adventure outside of my comfort zone is to waste one break between term papers, or to have spent a bit of time on a hobby that I concede just isn’t for me. It’s worth the gamble because the alternative is discovering a whole new realm of interests — often in common with people I love.

The other, perhaps more pivotal, revelation I had was that, even after nearly a decade spent “enduring” schoolwork in high school and college, I still love learning. My academic hiatus reaffirmed my belief in the importance and joy of learning, and I’ll do my best to hold onto this appreciation in the future.

When I return to classes (I opted to take the winter and spring 2021 quarters off as well), I’ll try to remember not to sweat the small stuff like deadlines and difficult assignments but just be grateful for the opportunity to learn in a regulated environment. I’ll relish the challenge of my formal education and appreciate the privilege of completing it — a privilege I recognize more clearly now that I’m temporarily without it.

In the meantime, I may not have professors and exams, but thanks to the grand interruption of 2020–21 and all it is teaching me, I’m more determined than ever to continue learning all I can on my own.

Laura is a member of the Class of 2022 at Stanford University, where she studies Communication. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can find her experimenting with new vegan recipes, watching football, or expressing herself through art and poetry.
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