Junior Year Post-Mortem: How Veering Off Course Didn’t Ruin My Life

In the past year I: didn’t complete two courses, went home early from being abroad, lived through the three most bleak months of my life, made it so that I won’t be graduating with the class with which I entered Kenyon, and missed my chance to live in a house with my closest friends at college.

And yet.

I count last September to now as one of the most important, life-defining, and productive years of my life. I didn’t complete two courses, but I still learned a lot. I went home early, but I still had one of the most magical experiences of my life. I had a few tough months, but that only made the summer so much sweeter (and in the end, three months is really just a blip in the grand scheme of life). It’s true I’ll be graduating a little later, but Kenyon is so amazing I’m not too broken up about that. I did miss my chance to live with my friends, but now I have the chance to live with equally lovely people. Also to live very close to all my classes. I also discovered I can indeed live in the world and not go to school. I knew before that this was hypothetically possible, but it’s nice to be certain.

After months of digesting what happened and thinking about all the implications, I’ve made my peace with everything. I’ve thought a lot about what I could have done differently as well. The eventual outcome I wouldn’t change, but the way I got here could definitely have been less fraught with complications. In light of that, I’ve written this article for anyone who’s thinking about going abroad and/or taking time off.

Know your academic goals

When I got to college, I knew I was destined to be an English major. I’ve loved reading and writing my whole life, and the English program was one of the main draws of Kenyon. However, I also love history and really enjoyed each of the courses I took. It was tougher than I expected to choose between History and English as a major. Sometimes I still have a twinge of regret that I’m not doing more with History. I think if I had been more self-aware earlier, and had more of a four-year plan, I might have either been a double major or a History major / English minor instead of the other way around.

The prospect of going to Exeter did muddy that a bit in my mind. I’d heard about the program since my first year and had the impression that if I went I could only be an English major (this IS NOT true. There was more than one double-major in my group and everything will work out for them). I also loved the idea of living in England for the year, traveling, and seeing lots of plays. On the other hand, if I’d been invested in doing more with History, it would have been in my interest to stay at Kenyon for the year. This alternate course of action would have been just as valuable and exciting.

All of the above is a rambling way of introducing the idea that just because an abroad program sounds like a wonderful experience, it may actually conflict with your ultimate goals. It’s not necessarily worth leaving your home college just because you’ve always wanted to go to a certain place and aren’t really invested in the academics you’ll be involved in there. I suppose it is possible to plan things and get enough done before Junior year so that you are able to do this, but it requires a lot of foresight.

Understand the program you’re interested in

Before going to Exeter I’d gone to all the required meetings and heard from various people who’d been what their experience was like. I thought this second-hand knowledge would be preparation enough to go to a different school in a different country, but it turned out to only be a faint glimmer compared to actually being there. Knowing you’ll barely have any graded work during the term and then a huge paper or project at the end is different than actually trying to manage your time and keep yourself motivated without a lot of outside structure.

I am not the best at creating a schedule for myself and keeping myself working consistently. I didn’t really have a problem with this at Kenyon because most teachers have a steady stream of assignments and clear goals for longer papers. At Exeter, I fell into the trap of pushing work back until the last minute, enjoying the experience of being abroad rather than truly being committed to doing the best work I could do. It wasn’t a question of going to raging parties and blowing off school-work entirely. It was more not utilizing the abundant free time I had in a productive way. My failure to keep up with what I needed to do kind of blew up in my face towards the end as I found myself unable to think of a single thing to say in class, or in meetings for a group project (which I still feel bad about, because one person ended up doing the bulk of the work).

If Kenyon’s system of education works well for you, perhaps look for a program with a similar structure. Find people who’ve done what you want to do and ask them how they managed their schoolwork and extracurriculars. If you do decide to go somewhere like Exeter, understand that the onus is on YOU to get everything done. Be prepared for that, and actually do the non-required reading. It will help you in the long run, even if it doesn’t seem necessary at the time.

Brace yourself for emotional intensity

So, emotional, mental and physical health are real things that need to be taken care of. I had a vague idea before I went abroad that we’d be spending a lot of time with the same group of people, but I was somewhat unprepared for the extent to which that was true. On the Exeter program, even if you’re someone who socializes mostly outside the group, you spend A LOT of time with the same group of people. For the overwhelming majority of the time, I was absolutely on board with this arrangement. Some of my closest friends at Kenyon were on the trip with me, and I truly liked and enjoyed the company of the other Ken-Exers who were in my flat, and everyone on the trip. However, at points I felt like I just needed to get away from people—hard to do in a close living environment on a huge campus in a city. At other times I couldn’t imagine not being with people but I also desperately didn’t want to see anyone. Confusing.

My point here is that you need to consider how you react to stress and how you interact with others in stressful situations. For some, the possibility of spending a year with close friends or people they know is a welcome buffer against the utter differences of being abroad. Others might want time away from everything they know to branch out. In both cases it’s important to take time for yourself and recognize that you don’t have to be with your friends all the time. Be sure to know who and what your resources are if you need someone to talk to. Reach out to friends. Also, even if you go abroad you’re not totally cut off from Kenyon and the people here. I actually called the Peer Counselor Hotline once when I needed to pour my heart out to someone I didn’t know but could trust. People want to help!

It’s Okay to Change Course

I ended up leaving Exeter for a variety of reasons, but one of the underlying factors was that for five years I had been running on all cylinders. I was utterly invested in school as the one thing I knew I was good at, and yet in some ways I wasn’t truly motivated and I was extremely fed up with writing so many papers. Even before Exeter I sometimes fantasized about what I would do if I didn’t have to go to school. Maybe I would farm. Or get a job. Or, anything really, other than taking classes. I never truly considered other options though, because I was Katie Dembinski, Good Student. I thought that a Good Student would never leave college and NOT do something school related. I didn’t think I could take a break, partly because of societal pressures to stay in school (generally a good thing), partly because of the stress I put on myself to succeed, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was somehow failing or not good enough. I think if I’d recognized earlier that taking a break would be a good thing, not shameful, I could have made that transition much more smoothly and not struggled against the current so much.

Now, I know taking a semester or year off in the middle of your college career might sound unrealistic. It also might not be feasible for some people financially. I do think, though, that it’s worth thinking about taking time off if you feel yourself getting overly burned out by school work. You can be a Good Student and not be in school for a little bit. In fact, a break might actually give you valuable perspective on the world and give you energy for when you do go back. There are productive options for a gap year or semester such as WWOOFing (organic farming all over the country and the world), getting a job at home, or learning a skill like carpentry or welding.

Summing Up

In the end, the most valuable part of my experience was gaining confidence and happiness from sources that didn’t have anything to do with school. I can look back and think “I did good work at my jobs this summer.” Somehow I’m more relaxed socially as well and have more confidence about my place at Kenyon and ability to interact with people I don’t know as well. To be sure, there are things I wish I had done a lot differently, things I wish I’d said differently, but in the end I am very happy with where my life is at this point.


Image Credit: Katie Dembinski