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16 January 2013

Semesters off provide experience, perspective

Instead of sitting in a classroom every day last semester, sophomore Emma Garrison closely observed the red pandas at the Prospect Park Zoo in New York City. She studied their cognitive problem-solving skills and learned about the effects of environmental changes, such as the presence of a box or ball, on the pandas’ behavior.

“I was an intern zoo keeper,” she said. “So essentially, a zoo keeper without the keys to the exhibits.”

Garrison is one of many students who elect to take time away from their studies at the university for either a semester or a year. The university labels these cases “inactive” because the student is still registered with the university but not taking courses and has not yet finished the 120 credits required to graduate with a degree.

Choosing to become inactive is usually for “continuing undergraduate, degree-seeking students who intend, and qualify, to re-enroll at the University of Miami after leaving the university for a designated period of time,” according to the inactive status notification form that students must complete to begin the process.

“I took a semester off because I needed some grounding,” she said. “I wasn’t entirely sure that I was planning on returning at that point.”

Inactive students can return to UM after their time off with all university-based scholarships intact, a registration appointment time to select courses, and the eligibility to live on campus. Inactive students are required to pay a non-refundable $50 fee each semester they plan to be away to confirm their decision.

Garrison, who did not find the process troublesome, was glad that she could turn to her academic advisor for assistance.

“It’s not all that difficult,” she said. “I just met with my adviser and he helped me figure it out. In coming back, it was like I hadn’t left.”

Garrison’s ease during the application was a welcome change after the difficulties she faced during her first year away at college in Miami. She decided to leave for a semester after having trouble adjusting.

Other students, like sophomore Alyssa Jacobson, chose to take a semester off for “unforeseen circumstances.” Jacobson said that she felt there was no better course of action than becoming an inactive student.

“I considered what would make me happy,” she said. “I was slightly concerned about being behind by taking a semester off so early in my collegiate career.”

Despite their separate reasons for opting to become inactive, Jacobson and Garrison acquired  experiences that would not have been possible during a consecutive, eight-semester track.

The zoo offered Garrison a full-fledged job given her demonstrated commitment to the animals during her time as an intern.

Jacobson interned with Stitch Fix, a San Francisco-based company that develops fashion-related technology. Customers complete a style profile that a computer algorithm then sorts through, determining what merchandise to select for the user.

Jacobson wrote branding and style tags that were sent with each garment. The work showed her that she wants to continue studying advertising and eventually pursue a career in advertising management.

“Gaining this hands-on experience so early in my college studies was completely beneficial,” she said. “As many students realize during their sophomore and even junior years that they want to change majors, which can require extra classes, I was able to confirm that I actually enjoy what I plan to do for the rest of my life.”

Garrison’s time with the zoo confirmed her commitment to the study of biology and reminded her why she wanted to attend college.

“The semester off was definitely not a loss,” she said. “I think it was totally worth it, considering the experience and mental stability it gave me.”

Universities like Northeastern University have adopted Garrison and Jacobson’s situation as a formal aspect of their curricula. Named cooperative education or “co-op” for short, Northeastern, for example, has a century-long tradition that integrates a career-related experience and connects students to more than 2,200 companies in Boston and various international options.

For the 2010-2011 academic year, 6,788 Northeastern students participated in a co-op experience out of a total class size of 15,905 full-time undergraduates.

According to an article in Forbes, co-op programs in various schools pay students an average of $11,000 to $18,000 after six months of employment in a co-op. Garrison’s internship was not paid, while Jacobson signed a nondisclosure agreement with Stitch Fix and was unable to comment.

Frits Bingham, an assistant director at the Toppel Career Center, believes that this plan helps certain UM students, but the university’s curriculum is not designed with a co-op experience.

“For some students, it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “It’s somewhat of an interest for students, but employers know that the university is not a co-op school.”

While the university labeled Jacobson as inactive, she felt that she was anything but inactive.

“Interning allows students to access the real-world knowledge and experience that college classes can sometimes lack,” she said.