leave of absence
on re-focusing and pursuing interests outside school
Disclaimer: I am aware that I am privileged to be able to make this decision and to be able to experiment with my path, and in no way am I encouraging others to take a similar route. This is a personal reflection, and is a conclusion I came to that I don’t expect others to relate to, but would be more than happy to chat more about if you do.
“That’s all it is, Miles. A leap of faith.” — Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
I did it.
After months of deliberation in talking to others, I finally decided to take a leap of faith and take a leave of absence (gap semester/year).
No, I wasn’t failing my classes. No, I didn’t lose a family member. No, I don’t want to waste time binging Kdramas and scroll through Tiktok all day.
I’m taking this time off to have more time to create projects of my own to learn, rather than passively learn content or doing projects for a grade.
I’ve found much of what I wanted to learn already, but I just never had time to fully invest time into myself. For this reason, I started viewing class deadlines as an obstacle in my path that delays me from directly pursuing my interests.
Don’t get me wrong, I find the content taught in my classes very useful and I love my professors. Solving SQL queries and Java will definitely have a place in my life, but just not right now.
Specifically, I will be using this time to write more on this blog and for publications, read books that have been collecting dust on my shelf, and experiment with tech that I’ve always wanted to (Unity, three.js, North Star).
It’s crazy how much of the process was mental rather than physical (filling out a leave of absence form that took 3 minutes) to unbound from the system, and how flexible the policy is to do so. I still have access to the gym, on-campus tutoring services, bus, campus buildings, labs/studios, professors — the very resources I took for granted student here, and they’re still available even when I’m not taking classes.
In the past few months, I’ve told myself again and again I enjoyed the perks of being a student and just didn’t like the bureaucracy of school. My parents were completely on board, so they weren’t really an obstacle in my way. My friends know me as someone who’s become frustrated with the rigid structure of school. I’ve talked to countless friends (from CMU and not) that have told me their experiences and directed me to think about my plans and decision.
I do well in classes, even when I’ve not fully enjoyed the work done in them. My GPA is 3.87, which has opened so many doors but is a meaningless number for a designer. Instead, I want to work on projects that show for my interests and further my skills. I want to work on VR/AR type projects like those I’ve dabbled with at hackathons and not delay doing more projects by doing assigned projects in classes with teammates that aren’t as passion-motivated as grade-driven.
I’ve always been really good at self-learning, learning most of Photoshop and video editing on my own growing up through YouTube tutorials (I once dreamed of having a platform that online-taught better pre-COVID). I’ve noticed myself using skills that I’ve self-acquired much more than skills learned shallowly in classes. Even learning programming at CMU, I haven’t done as much project-related work to deeply understand when certain concepts and data structures should be applied to situations despite having a good grasp of solving leet-code style problems. I want to use this time to re-immerse myself into self-learning again and taking control of spending time to cultivate those interests.
What about meeting people from school?
I’ve met a lot of people I relate to most outside of school. Much of my friend group is decentralized, coming from around the world and across different states. In no way do I feel isolated from others when not in school.
I’m proactive about reaching out to people I want to chat with — and instead need to find a better balance in not talking to too many people and burning out.
Are you going to start a startup?
I’m very skeptical on starting a startup to start one. If there’s a project I want to work on for the long-term that I think solves a pressing problem, it’d naturally happen to start something up. However, I’m not actively thinking about raising funding and don’t want to fall into the trap of taking others’ money if I’m not creating value.
When will you come back?
I’m thinking next fall. However, I have had a fear that once I take a leave, I won’t want to come back because I could never get used to the school environment again. I don’t necessarily view this as a bad thing if I don’t feel a need to later on.
Why didn’t you take the leave at the beginning of the semester?
I decided to take a leave of absence a couple weeks into the semester because I felt a sense of longing to be back in classes in-person. I felt that it would be different than virtual and that being in-person would make me enjoy it more. However, I was wrong.
Powering through not enjoying school started taking its toll. I found myself prioritizing classes and assignments less than talking to interesting people and writing because coursework felt like a chore — going to office hours, asking questions about questions, optimizing for points over learning didn’t feel right to me. I found myself forgetting to do quizzes and finishing only the amount of the assignment needed to have a passing grade. I was on survival mode, and I knew that if I continued through the semester I wouldn’t be happy.
I knew that if I didn’t take a gap now, I’d regret it later.
I thought about the three paths that I could take to do what I enjoyed and assessed the risks.
Highest Risk — Going directly to freelancing to do what I wanted after college. Hard to sustain self and would likely have to live out of parents house. No thanks.
“Safer” — Going into startup/freelancing after a few years in industry, and having a safety net of a full-time. I feel that it’s very easy to get “comfortable” in industry and will feel more like jumping off a cliff when leaving. There’s no set timeline for when I’d feel right to leave and my insurance, housing, friends/coworkers, possible relationship would hinge on my decision. Also full-times are tiring and would be really hard to balance if I wanted to do projects alongside.
Least Risk— Taking a gap semester and trying things out. If things work out, great. If it doesn’t work out, there’s still going back to school (at least for CMU I can come back up to 7 years later from gapping). Safest route for reflecting and also not paying for tuition when not desiring to learn in the moment.
Generally I think school was a good all-size-fits choice until I found my interest, but after then it hasn’t really helped me further skills I’ve wanted to develop. Going to CMU really has opened so many doors for me, and I don’t regret having come here and don’t think I would’ve been able to take a gap earlier or later. This is the perfect time right in the middle, and I think coming back from my leave next year (if I do choose to) will help me re-focus and be more intentional about what I want with my education.
All in all, it’s been a week and it’s felt increasingly inevitable and right that I’ve made this decision. I’m really excited to see where this goes in leaving room for serendipity and will keep my journey updated through this blog 🌱
what i’ve been up to ✨
(doing a lot more things now that I have no class/deadlines)
really looking to move into a co-living house to be around others working on cool projects in la/sf/ny (please let me know if you have recs)
went to vGHC this past week (through a scholarship with my program) and spent a lot of time learning about cool XR projects at Disney through 5 different 1 on 1s
thought more deeply about studying abroad in oxford and will be applying to study philosophy classes there this coming spring (super excited!!)
portfolio workshop session i’m supposed to be hosting keeps getting pushed back so it is now in late-october (rip)
trying to code a new portfolio from scratch and dive deeper into good, creative web dev
trying to (finally) learn more about crypto and understand its implications
^ and naturally, being on twitter more (idk if this is good or bad)
helped assemble a cool truss system for VR sensor mounting with my lab
borrowed my friend’s heels and learned model walking with high heels for fun by a fashion show on campus
made 15 rolls of kimbap yesterday
went on a cool walk today under a bridge (courtesy of my neighbor chris, who I bumped into on twitter)
currently reading “the best interface is no interface” and probably one of the best design books i’ve read thus far
A special 💖 thank you to Ivan, Jasmine, Sean, Nick, Lucas, James, Kevin, and Mary for talking to me about taking a LOA and sharing your insights/experiences which really gave me the courage to make this decision. And thank you to my friends and family for being so supportive and spending countless hours listening to my ramblings and intricate thought processes behind my decisions.
Thank you to the following blog posts/podcasts, which really helped me in thinking about this route further:
“How to Drop out of College (With no Risk)” by Nat Eliason (CMU alum)
“Learning Anything One Project at a Time” by Nat Eliason with Adil Majid (both CMU alums)
“Advice for Ambitious 19-year-olds” by Sam Altman
“A Semester in the Library” by James Quiambao
Lastly, if you made it so far, thank you for reading through this! I’m really looking to be more active on this blog during my leave, and feel free to reach out with feedback or suggestions, I’d like to make this newsletter as helpful as possible 🙌