A Different Kind of Study Abroad

Some students (Prince William is a notable example) take time off from school before they even begin attending college. Amherst alums Ron Lieber ’93 and Colin Hall ’95 researched the benefits of taking time off before starting college and wrote “Taking Time Off: Inspiring Stories of Students Who Enjoyed Successful Breaks from College and How You Can Plan Your Own,” which suggests that an interim year between high school and college actually improves academic performance and helps with job-hunting later. Jennifer Kaufman ’03E and Blake Van Noy ’04 are only two students of many who have spent time away from Amherst to pursue another interest.

A Tale of Two Students

According to Lieber, he and best friend Hall grew up in Chicago together and attended the same school (Francis W. Parker) for 14 years. Although they seriously considered applying as a team to Amherst-the pair even applied early decision at the same time and were both admitted-only Lieber entered the following fall. Hall, instead, decided to take a couple years off to earn some money and travel in Africa.

“The fact that [Hall’s trip] was even possible and permissible was a big newsflash to me,” said Lieber. “But I was in a big hurry to get out of the house.” By the time Hall arrived at Amherst as a freshman, Lieber was a junior. “It was amazing to me to see how much more he was able to milk out of the place as a 20-year-old freshman than I had been able to at age 18,” said Lieber. “Like most teenagers who haven’t seen much of the world, I spent much of the first two years of college fine-tuning my personality and not so much time thinking about studying.”

Soon, another friend from high school, who was also attending Amherst, was considering taking time off. “He was complaining that, other than Colin, there was no resource out there for him to turn to for advice,” said Lieber. “And, all of the sudden, it occurred to us: we should write a book.”

Lieber and Hall took their idea seriously and, five years later in 1996, “Taking Time Off” was published by Noonday Press and became a bestseller. Currently, the pair are working with Random House and the Princeton Review to have “Taking Time Off” republished in the near future.

Last year, The New York Times ran a front page story on the book. According to Lieber, he knew the reporter socially. “She was working on this story and ran across the book [so] she called me up and said that she hadn’t realized I had written it-could it possibly be the same Ron Lieber? It was sort of funny,” Lieber said. “Anyway, we talked for a while and I tried to say as many brash, obnoxious, controversial things as possible, since that’s the best way to get quoted. I was completely psyched, and so was she, when they ran it on the front [page].”

Lieber told The Times, “You’ve got 50 resumes on your desk, 49 of them are from people who are 22 years old … The other one is from someone who is 24 and spent six months working construction and then went and became fluent in Swahili and spent six months traveling through Africa. I mean, who would you hire?”

Although Lieber, an American studies major, didn’t take time off himself, he plans to encourage his children to do so. “[Taking time off] is a good thing,” he said. “It’s hard to say now that I wish that things had turned out differently. I fell in with a great group of people my freshman year at Amherst-something like one-third of my hallmates from first floor James will be at my wedding this fall-and I wouldn’t trade the experience of knowing them for anything.

He advises anyone who is having trouble convincing their parents to let them take time off to talk to an admissions dean. “College administrators know better: they realize that time off is a good thing,” Lieber said. “Also, you might point out to your parents that people who take time off get better grades once they come back to school than people who don’t and then they go on to get better jobs afterwards. Given that most parents like the idea of better grades and better jobs, it’s a tough point to counter.”

Although Lieber wasn’t familiar with the practice of taking time off from school as an entering freshman in 1989, the practice is quite popular today. The following two students traveled across opposite oceans to find adventure away from Amherst.

A spiritual journey

Jennifer Kaufman was an ’02 sophomore in the fall of 1999. Although she felt Amherst had a lot to offer in the field of academics, she wanted to develop a stronger sense of spirituality and was very interested in communal living. “I was having kind of a hard time,” she admitted. Kaufman had written a term paper on the commune movement and found herself particularly intrigued by the concept of the Kibbutz. Kibbutzes are communes that were founded in Israel after the nation’s re-establishment as a Jewish state in 1948. “They were Zionists’ attempts to say ‘We’re here; we’re in a Jewish state,'” said Kaufman.

According to Kaufman, Jewish agency absorption programs sponsor Americans who wish to live and work in a kibbutz, in an effort to encourage dual American and Israeli citizenship as well as to promote the study of Hebrew. By January 2000, Kaufman was living in a commune with about 200 members about 15 minutes northwest of Jerusalem.

For six months, Kaufman studied Hebrew and worked odd jobs, including one in a tofu factory, to pay her way. “So I can make tofu,” she said proudly. Jobs rotated, so there was always someone to take care of the babies and make the food. “A commune is a really, really big deal,” Kaufman stressed. Although there was always a variety of work, some of it was “really, really disgusting manual labor.”

Kaufman shared a bedroom and small bathroom with another girl and a kitchen with another couple. “It wasn’t everything,” she conceded, although she had a better setup than most of the other students, who lived in communal houses. Computer time was hard to come by and something to be fought for; there was only one computer for the entire commune. The ten-hour time difference to her home in the L.A. area also made it difficult to call home. The easy-going Kaufman wasn’t fazed though. “I don’t get homesick,” she said. “I like to travel a lot. When you’re there you feel like that’s the center of the world.”

Although violence has plagued Israel for years, Kaufman did not live in fear. “I felt totally safe,” she said. “The six months I was there were the most peaceful in their history.” There was a time when the group thought they heard bombs, which, fortunately, turned out to be only fireworks.

When Kaufman wasn’t working or studying, she spent a lot of time up on a hill outside the top of Jerusalem, smoking cigarette after cigarette and talking, getting to know other commune members better. They helped each other out, trading jobs and filling in for each other. “My primary identity was not as a student. … There are a lot of different types of people there,” Kaufman said. When she first arrived, she was able to communicate in French with the French students and in English with some of the Western Europeans. “After that, we all learned Hebrew really quickly so that we could speak together.” Some of the Russians, however, didn’t feel the need to learn due to the large Russian population in Israel.

She learned a lot from her experience and may attempt to gain Israeli citizenship, which to her was a matter of “personal pride and politics.” She stresses, though, that “I would never renounce my American citizenship.” Kaufman returned to Amherst with a sense of renewal.

“I’m so glad I went,” she said. “I came back to school so enthusiastic about myself and other ways of living.” A double major in religion and WAGS, Kaufman may attend graduate school or teach high school. She currently serves as president of Hillel and is a proud ’03E.

A tropical escape

Blake Van Noy, who entered in the fall of 1999, was battling burnout at Amherst during the winter of his freshman year. The Los Angeles native and his friend Athmeya Jayaram, now an ’04, came up with the only logical remedy for their freshman year doldrums: take some time off and go to Hawaii. “[We were] sitting around wallowing in our inability to work, daydreaming about camping and reading books on our own time and not under the pressure of the academic world,” said Van Noy, now an ’04.

After researching the various locations the state had to offer, Van Noy eventually chose Kauai, the oldest of the chain’s major islands, as his destination. Van Noy found Kauai appealing because it was less touristy than the main island of Hawaii. He also was attracted to the lush vegetation, which has earned Kauai the nickname of “The Garden Island.”

During the summer after his freshman year, Van Noy worked in sales for Internet Wire in Los Angeles to earn money for the trip, and by September, he was living in a tent on the beach in Kauai. He had bought an ’83 Toyota, whose ignition could be started with a quarter, for $500. There was no way to drive straight across the island; instead, only a winding road linked destinations around the circumference of the island. Van Noy drove to some of Kauai’s many libraries to get books and to various markets for food. A 20 lb. bag of rice, which he bought for seven or eight dollars shortly after he arrived, lasted him until he left in December. He also enjoyed Ahi tuna from the fish market for only $3 per pound, as opposed to $23 per pound back in L.A. Van Noy, who referred to his budget as “starving small,” survived on cereal and had a big bag of Indian spices with which to flavor his rice. “A Snickers bar or a Subway sandwich was heaven,” he said.

While in Hawaii, Van Noy also found plenty of time for surfing, which he’s loved since his elementary school days. Van Noy noted that Kauai has a very visible hippie community. Hippies of all ages live in a valley on the island and share food. Van Noy said that there was constant friction between the hippies and the park rangers, who wanted to keep the area clear for the backpackers and other tourists. The rangers would actually perform raids on the commune. “My friend and I were hiking and just missed a huge raid,” said Van Noy. “They burned a camera and a 10 lb. bag of pancake mix.”

Jayaram visited Van Noy in Kauai but did not stay with him the whole time. When Jayaram was gone, Van Noy admitted it could get lonely, sitting out in the wilderness on an island he didn’t really know. Still, Van Noy believes the experience was vital and gave him a new appreciation for school. “I can actually work now,” he said.

After returning from Hawaii, Van Noy studied martial arts intensely in Los Angeles. He returned to Amherst this fall and is considering a major in political science. He plans to take more trips in the future, including ventures to India and Thailand. “There aren’t many places I don’t want to go,” he said.