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Here’s to the Ungraduated Class of 2020: On Leaves of Absence

Story By| Marcus Chua, Guest Writer

Photo by| Marcus Chua

Hi, my name is Marcus, and I would have graduated earlier this May, if not for a Leave of Absence (LOA) that I took in 2018.

This article was a difficult one to write. Sometime in 2019, a Facebook group emerged with the title “Yale-NUS Class of 2020.5”. A group of us from the Class of 2020 realized that, in what should have been our third year of college, a sizable number of us had taken an LOA for a variety of reasons. While most of us are now considered as the Class of 2021, and therefore given the “’21” after our names, I will attribute, as a homage to our original and now graduating Class of 2020, the year of “‘20+” to all the students mentioned here.

This article is dedicated to the Class of 2020 students who took an LOA sometime in the past four years.

So why is this a difficult article to write? If there is one thing I learned upon returning to hear the stories of some of my classmates, it is that I should not seek to construct an archetype for the “Class of 2020 LOA student”. There simply isn’t one. An LOA is neither a program nor, in most times, a compulsorily accountable period of time. Students go on an LOA for the most disparate of reasons, and this article only captures the experiences of a handful of Kingfishers. If anything, this article proclaims that there is wisdom in taking time off to discover one’s self and be with themselves for their own sake. The article will show how many of these “20+”s LOAs have challenged what still at times is an unhealthy Singaporean narrative and perception — something they may have experienced at least one way or another — behind taking LOAs midway through their college careers: No, they did not all have mental breakdowns. No, they were neither weak nor unable to run at the pace that society set for the average undergraduate’s career, such that they needed a break. No, they were neither naively wasting their time nor bound to play catch-up down the road. 

The Class of 2020.5 has refuted the toxic idea that there needs to be a crisis (or jackpot) in order to take time off. One can take time off simply to do whatever they see fit for themselves, before proceeding with the remainder of their university stint. Whether it be an internship, working for some extra cash, extended time at home, self-improvement and discovery, or all those things together, every LOA builds people up. These students’ redemption of society’s stigma on LOAs have shown that the potential fears of LOAs, be it in relationships, time, or finances, can perhaps be ameliorated just a little bit more if there were a strong supportive community like the Class of 2020.5 standing behind their fellow member. In this class, there was a wisdom to not see a need to “graduate on time”; this deadline was but a construct of the iron-cage and rat-race faced by many in the working world. Eventually, each of these ‘20+ students would have returned over the past year to reunite with the rest of the college, and together create the very vibrancy and synergy that champions Yale-NUS College as a safe and exemplary place for students to chart their own paths. The Class of 2020.5 embraced each other’s LOA stories, and was ready to lobby for one another’s interests regarding all things LOA-related, and for the LOAs of classes to follow.

Here are some things I learned from some of my fellow ‘20+s — the Class of 2020’s LOA students. 

 

It Is Unplanned

“I never expected it, and it wasn’t a decision taken lightly, but it was not difficult to make once I had all the right reasons lined up. It was definitely the right choice!” – Angad ‘20+

Not one of us I spoke to had an LOA brewing in their original plans — at least not until circumstances welcomed the prospect of one. In fact, we all expected ourselves to graduate “on time” — in May 2020. Jasmine ‘20+ only entertained the idea of an LOA in the summer after sophomore year, when she realized that there surfaced interests which she felt compelled to explore before graduating. The catch: they were not pursuits that a regular semester at Yale-NUS, with its busy pace, would allow her to follow. It would prove to be an irony — the very interests born out of her experiences in college she could not embark on if she had remained in college.

Earlier on, her fellow Cendol, Andre ’20+, concluded that his time as a Kingfisher had reached its premature end, and he was ready to bid farewell to a college he saw no more purpose in. So off on an LOA he went. Over at Elm College, my suitemate, Gideon ‘20+, and I eventually signed the form that would have us stay home to be with family and recuperate, owing to unforeseen physical and mental health circumstances respectively. To others, such as Inez ‘20+, an opportunity sprang up that she just could not turn down — even if it meant having to put a pause on college to make time for the role. Overall, no one truly planned for an LOA to happen, and no one should feel that they did not prepare enough for an LOA to happen.

 

Rare Opportunities

Honestly no. I had never heard of an LOA prior to matriculating at Yale-NUS so I wasn’t aware of its existence. I only learnt of it much later and contemplated taking one in Year 3 Semester 2. It was not an easy decision to make; I was torn between graduating with my batchmates and taking up an internship I took a great interest in.”Anonymous ‘20+ 

Some of the best internship and work opportunities simply do not line up well enough to happen during the university vacation periods. For Andre, his initial farewell gave him a chance to intern at his local church, where he served in Christian outreach and social concerns, as well as the church’s youth and young adult ministries. Katherine ‘20+ had been interning the summer before with SAP. She then saw value in extending her internship deep into the semester, hoping it would give her more time to think about the professional paths she could commit to upon graduation. After some time of rest, Inez, Gideon, and I received off-cycle internship offers with places such as Temasek Holdings, Amazon, and the Prime Minister’s Office, which proved too good to pass up on. We spent a semester diving even deeper into lines of work that interested us, and built networks along the way. When it came to deciding on an extended semester’s worth of LOA, Inez recalled that so many of her peers were already on an LOA, which made her realize that she was not alone in the game and would not be either when she returned. To others, an LOA internship helped them substantiate their academic pursuits. A classmate found the “a-ha” moment regarding her specialisation only through an industrial research attachment; the placement required a semester off, out and away from college.

 

However, an LOA does not need to be ‘productive’ like the above cases.

 

Rest and Reflection 

“Do not be afraid to take it easy. Do not be afraid to push the reset button. Big things can grow from little things if you let them, and it’s when we’re rested that we can most make things grow.” – Andre ‘20+

The first two months of my LOA in Singapore felt uncomfortably directionless at first, and it was a discomfort I had to contend with, in order to learn the art of resting. I experimented with different sleep schedules, experimented with DIY works at home, and journaled a lot more about my widowed family’s journey, all while looking for work to put food on the table now that college dining halls were out of reach. Over in India, Angad spent most of his LOA working on two things. Firstly, he took time off to re-evaluate his health and fitness by studying nutrition and exercise physiology, and reflecting on his relationship with his body. With the time that remained, Angad focused on re-examining how he had gone through the first two years of his college life, and eventually saw a shift in how he conceived of his education — from a semester-to-semester journey to a lifelong pursuit that comprised personalised workflows to help him live better.

Andre also took time to appreciate the serenity of rest, when he headed to Melbourne to simply visit and spend time with old friends of his whom he had made in the military and high school. The serenity amid the LOA bred newfound wisdom in Andre, too, when he eventually decided to return to Yale-NUS and complete his liberal arts education.

Jasmine supplemented her liberal arts education back in East Asia, where she spent her days learning Japanese at a language school, as well as writing and reading random academic papers in fields which caught her eye. Back in Singapore, Katherine was mindful to ensure that she spent most of her work nights meeting up with classmates and fellow LOA-ers for meals. Rest and reflection would prove to play a major role in the LOAs of these students, as they set themselves up for a transformed attitude upon their return to Yale-NUS.

 

Stories of Personal Growth and Resilience

I learned the most from the friends I met while in China who helped me understand the lives of young Muslims (both Chinese and international) living in Northwestern China, and how they navigate their faith while living in a very sensitive area of China. In the end, I felt a lot more focused and refreshed after the LOA. It also helped me ingrain the fact that I don’t have to do what everybody else is doing or what is expected of me… I know it may sound cliché but the most important things are intangible and can’t be put on a résumé.” 

– Brianna ‘20+

Brianna ‘20+ was grateful for the advice she sought and received from faculty (requesting a shoutout to Professor Zachary Howlett here), and how the financial concerns arising from her LOA decision would serendipitously lead her to decide on a region in China where the cost of living and tuition was low. She found herself studying at a university in Northwestern China for a full year, and left with an invaluable experience living within the politically sensitive climate of the region. Her time in China confirmed her conviction to return and focus more on language courses, after realizing the value of communication.

At first glance, Katherine’s adventure seemed to take a turn for the worse — she thought the extended internship would give her some enlightenment about her career options, which it did not. But she came to realise that her disappointment was a lesson in itself too. She considered herself as having undergone a long continuous process of being moulded, such that she should not think only of one-off experiences to radically change or confirm her mind. 

For Jasmine, it was only by putting the books aside that she got to truly appreciate what was important and not. In college, she would busy herself with all sorts of student organizations, and admitted that there was a certain runner’s high in doing so. Stepping out of the Halcyon ecosystem proved a step out her comfort zone too — she recalled cultivating a certain proactiveness to filter away the things that once gave her decision fatigue, and she began saying “no” to opportunities. It turned out that life was not all about work. Her simple longing for a badminton posse like the one she had in college pushed her to prioritize looking for sparring partners online, and meeting new people along the way. 

“Having time away let me situate it in the overall scheme of how Yale-NUS is just four years of my life, and how it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I’m definitely more cynical now, but I think it’s a healthy dose of cynicism and reality.” – Angad ‘20+

As one of the first to return from an LOA, Andre recalled how his grades improved by leaps and bounds once he practiced being less concerned with the social pressures as he did in his first year. He found a place to belong in his service to the Christian Fellowship, and now cherishes it as being part of the best times of his life. Jasmine recalled returning to college in 2020 with a surprisingly less stressed state of mind, and a clearer head when it came to prioritizing the commitments and people around her. As for myself, I began to appreciate the “messiness” that was my transcript and résumé. I grew to become a connoisseur of experiences, exploring courses in faculties beyond Yale-NUS and taking part in a potpourri of internships and experiences in different disciplines. I learned from my various mentors about the silliness of a 5.0 CAP, and to aim for something like a 4.3, whilst expending the 0.7 shortfall on ‘resilience-building life experiences’, such as gig-work, community-building, and investing in people’s lives. I recently gained admission to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Concurrent Degree Programme with Yale-NUS, and one of the college’s directors had a look at my résumé before offering me a piece of advice:

“I would take a resilient applicant any day over a top-scoring student; one who demonstrates an ability to take calculated risks and ownership in their decisions, whatever they were. One whose LOA, if it was taken, simply strengthens the story of who they are and can be.”

 

So how does the Class of 2020.5 feel upon returning to Yale-NUS, even as the rest of their original class graduates?

“Shag la [on entering a post-2020 academic year]; I’m just glad I have ‘2020’ friends.”Katherine ‘20+

Angad expects his remaining time here to remain a strange one until he graduates. He imagines “ghosts in the hallways, seeing a hint of someone I knew turning a corner, or mistaking a voice for one I knew well and miss. I haven’t been terribly social since returning, and I do worry if I’m ever going to get to know the students well (because I do want to know who Yale-NUS is now), but I suppose we shall see.” Some of us, including Inez, have had a good taste of what awaits beyond the scroll, and cannot wait to go full steam ahead at the Capstone project and graduate.

The Class of 2020 saw around 10% of its students taking at least a half-year long LOA. Along with our friends in the Double Degree Programme in Law and other Concurrent Degree Programmes, any anxieties about entering 2021 alone are slightly alleviated. It also means that many stories are yet to be told. I know that the spirit of the Class of 2020 lives on as we enter the new academic year, and that we still have much to offer our younger classes in the months that remain. We are the valuable remnants of the student body making up the first “Full House” — some of us attended the college’s Open House in Residential College 4, and it was us who watched dinosaur bones raised to its position from the ceiling of our library. We understood the importance of town halls when a massive one was held at the multi-purpose hall, and we stood strong as the ones who took Quantitative Reasoning graded while being the pioneers of Scientific Inquiry 2.

To the Class of 2020.5, with your LOAs and stories of triumph, I applaud you all as one of the most resilient people I have had the honor of meeting. To me, it is only with the “LOA crop” of Yale-NUS students that the college can boast of being a greater place of learning and change-making, setting up its members to enter a very broken world, ready to play a part in redeeming its intrinsic beauty which I believe will eventually shine forth out of the brokenness.

 

A Community of Learning

“If you can, I’d definitely recommend taking an LOA. We probably don’t spend enough time taking stock of our time in Yale-NUS. Breaking out of the bubble forces you to do so — it gives you a good perspective on why Yale-NUS is such a unique opportunity, and what is really worth fighting for when you’re back on campus.” – Gideon ‘20+

To the younger classes, if this article is anything besides a homage to the Class of 2020 and 2020.5, I hope that this sharing would encourage our beloved Kingfishers to take heart should they ever find themselves on the way of the LOA. There is a community that stands with them. You will probably spot us by our “Full House” t-shirts, “Class of 2020” v-necks, or the “limited edition” Inter-Faculty Games shirt with a purple tone because the organizers for 2016 forgot the house colours of the newest kid on the block — who was this “NUS-Yale faculty/college” at the time, anyway?

There is a wellspring of adventure, beauty, and resilience, in the stories of those who go on an LOA. So the next time someone mentions that they have taken an LOA or are contemplating an LOA, do not merely start with, “what happened?” but let it emanate from your spirit that there is a community, with you in it, ready to support them on the unique journey that they were on, or are about to embark on.

Love,

Marcus ‘20+

P.S. I was heartened to know that everyone who offered their responses here remarked that they appreciated the opportunity to reflect on their LOA. Thank you for allowing me to share in this experience with you.

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