Taking a semester off. Bad idea?
June 18, 2011 3:58 PM   Subscribe

Thinking of taking a semester off to volunteer abroad. Horrible idea?

My story is that I'm a junior, planning on going to graduate school. I've been considering taking a semester off for a little while on account of my apathy and the toll it's taking on my grades. Who knows if some time off would remedy that? What are the opinions o people who have done something similar (taking a break but using it in a structured way and with a definite end date)?

Some additional info:

I'm on a scholarship that allows me to take 5 years to graduate, so this wouldn't hurt me financially EXCEPT I would be putting the money for this trip ($3000) towards paying down the $12000 or so I'll have upon graduation if I were not to go.

I can study abroad but not for a year, so it would be another year of mediocre performance unless I can somehow turn things around before school resumes in a month. I still plan on studying abroad after I return. And to clarify I would be taking the second semester of next year off.

Embarrassing typos are due to the iPhone.
posted by tomtheblackbear to Education (13 answers total)
It would really help to know what you're studying and what your career ambitions are.
posted by rr at 4:17 PM on June 18, 2011

Response by poster: I'm studying chemistry and I used to be (up until fairly recently) interested in law school. I've since started thinking of medical school and volunteering in a clinic has reinforced that interest. But plans have been in fairly constant flux since I started college.
posted by tomtheblackbear at 4:24 PM on June 18, 2011

Where are you thinking of volunteering?
posted by 8k at 4:34 PM on June 18, 2011

Of course you should do this.

You have everything to gain and not a lot to loose.
posted by Murray M at 4:38 PM on June 18, 2011

Can you clarify the following:

What are "school resumes"?
If your performance is mediocre, what would be considered above average for you?

I still plan on studying abroad after I return.

So, do you plan on studying abroad before grad school, soon after graduation.

Personally, I have only studied abroad in terms of exchange programs,with the farthest being in California. I have not taken a structured break, BUT:

It seems to me that you are uncertain about the future and your career plans. You never mentioned your passion once in your post. Instead, you admitted to flip flopping between law school and medical school. Cal Newport, the blogger of Study Hacks, recently discussed David Brooks' contrarian advice for graduates.

To summarize, Brooks stated that not every graduate knows what he wants to pursue. Many of my friends, for example, have switched their majors from chemistry and biology to focus on global health, medicine in indigenous communities, and health law--their passions. However, most of us only discover our passion through experience. I urge you to study abroad the following semester and use the upcoming one to take a few easy classes that strike you interest. If you end up hating the volunteering abroad, you can at least eliminate one possible career choice.

In the meantime, can you:
-Research on modified majors in which you combine chemistry with something less rigorous (or more fun)?
-Conduct research with a faculty member, or job shadow a local doctor?
-Sign up for alternative spring and winter break trips that focus on medicine?
-Attend those (sometimes boring) public lectures where alumni discuss their current careers?
posted by nikayla_luv at 4:41 PM on June 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

A couple of points. One, $3000 won't take you as far in Europe as you think it might. Two, the kind of clinic gig you're looking for might be harder to arrange than you imagine; clinics in most EU countries are not analogous to the way you think of clinics in the US. Is there some reason you can't do an academic semester abroad through your university? It would give you a change of pace and not prolong your graduation date.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

You should take an internship and figure out what you want to do. You are hemorrhaging cash and need to work that out before running away for a semester.
posted by rr at 4:50 PM on June 18, 2011

I think by "before school resumes" he means "before school starts again"

Anyway, I say yes. Unequivocally yes. Money is the only reason this should be a consideration, but I think that taking time off and doing something else can only be a positive -- no grad schools will look on it poorly, no jobs will look on it poorly (especially if you are doing something that you can put on your resume, if not, then just put your graduation year and they'll never know that it took longer than 4 years -- plus, lots of people take longer than 4 years, and it's not an issue.

Just do it, seriously.
posted by brainmouse at 4:51 PM on June 18, 2011

Definitely go--sounds great.

Definitely DON'T go to law school--terrible. Med school might be better.

Good luck! Send us post cards.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:11 PM on June 18, 2011

If tomtheblackbear is thinking of taking the semester off to volunteer, I doubt he (?) is thinking of heading for Europe. If he is, he should put this whole idea on hold and do a lot more research about what kinds of opportunities are out there for volunteering abroad for the amount of time he's considering going.

That aside.

I agree with everyone else that of course you should do this. What do you have to lose? Especially if your passions for your field of study are flagging and you are facing a lack of direction. If you were fast-tracking directly for a specific kind of grad school experience, I would say that you should stay the course and do what you want to do. But you sound pretty passionless and generally undecided about what you're going to do post-college. Which makes volunteering abroad a great choice.

My only caveat is that you look at the numbers carefully and really do your research - $3000 sounds like not very much money to volunteer abroad for an entire semester. Keep in mind that, in addition to paying to get there and putting yourself up in country for 4-5 months, you typically have to pay either a placement agency or a nonprofit directly. $3000 could easily be the fee just to be placed into a position. Keep in mind, too, that you'll probably want to do at least a little traveling and sight-seeing while you're in whatever part of the world you plan to volunteer in, which will also cost money of course.
posted by Sara C. at 6:10 PM on June 18, 2011

Going to disagree with the bulk of the comments again.

It would be different if you were a little more ... settled. For people who are essentially atomic kites -- a huge upswing followed by a decline and change of direction, the one skill they need to work on is managing their expectations and honestly evaluating their feelings ... and sticking out a decision.

If one finds themselves repeatedly changing their passion, the most likely outcome of a semester avoiding one's most recent passion is an all new passion.

Otherwise, just repeat the last N years, over and over, forever.
posted by rr at 6:24 PM on June 18, 2011

I've just come back from three months volunteering in India, and I'd recommend something like it to anyone. But I designed the trip myself from scratch, which I think helped me get a lot more out of it. I made some Indian friends through the social networking site Orkut, and asked them about organizations there that were doing the sort of work I wanted to do. Then I phoned organizations directly, and persistently, till I found one that wanted volunteers and seemed set up to support them. It was a few months of work, but it really payed off for me. I've talked to people who just contact an organization that places volunteers abroad, and they don't seem to have had nearly as good experiences with it as I got through the DIY approach.

My trip blog should still be here if you happen to want tons of writing about what I did. But I think the key thing is to think about what kind of work you want to do, and then ask people on the ground which organizations are doing that kind of thing where they are. Then phone around. (The people who answer the phone may not speak English. The time zone may be really different, so you're getting up to do it at absurd hours. It's all really frustrating... and really worth it, if/when it finally works out.)
posted by Net Prophet at 6:51 PM on June 18, 2011

Hey there, Tom. First, I want to tell you that you've got a good heart for wanting to go volunteer somewhere. It's indicative of compassion and general good person-ness. All the more for even considering the living hell that is medical school.

Now I'm going to ask you to think about volunteering abroad in a different way. Please give this speech by Ivan Illich a read. Read also this comment from Metafilter's own Dee Xtrovert. I'm not saying that these folks are right or wrong, only that they've got a different perspective that I feel is valuable when considering volunteer opportunities in other countries.

So, when you go searching for programs, I'd like you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I speak the language? Will my limited proficiency get in the way of helping?
  • What skills am I bringing to the table? If none, what is the impact of an extra unskilled worker performing tasks in a country that might have an unemployment rate of >30%.
  • What is the transportation cost of putting myself in this country relative to the average yearly salary of its inhabitants?

    Now, with all that in mind, I'd like you to consider the scores of opportunities available to you, not only abroad but also stateside. I work in a couple clinics in North Philadelphia and I can tell you for a fact that poverty knows no borders

  • posted by The White Hat at 7:17 PM on June 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

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