Taking a break from school can prove beneficial

Annie Lewis, UW–Madison returning adult student

Maybe it happens right after high school — or maybe you’re midway through your career. You’ve enrolled in college and then suddenly, you’re faced with a circumstance or realization that you need to step away.

Autumn Sanchez, UW–Madison student advisor
Autumn Sanchez

There are many reasons students choose to take a break from college. While it can seem that life moves only one way, the reality is that people — and life — are dynamic.

Take Annie Lewis, who is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and health equity in the UW–Madison School of Education. She enrolled in college right after high school, only to be diagnosed with diabetes. Feeling overwhelmed — and unsure of what she wanted to study — she decided to leave college to focus on managing her disease and mental wellness. We can learn a lot from her experience about the value of taking a break.

What prompted you to take a break from your education?

AL: After high school, I went to college with the intention of becoming a nurse — and then a doctor, then a music teacher, PR representative, teacher, environmentalist. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. On top of that, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in my freshman year, so my physical and mental health took a heavy hit. For the first time in my life, I reached extreme burnout and felt like I hit rock bottom. This is what prompted me to leave university and take care of myself, focusing on the management of my disease and my mental wellness.

How did taking a break from your education benefit you academically and personally?

AL: When I left school, I started an entry-level management position with a large corporation. I wanted to gain experience in management and began climbing the ladder quickly. Within two years of starting, I had reached a corporate executive level with the company. The experience I gained through this process was invaluable, and I realized that I had a lot of potential to do whatever I wanted to do.

During this time I was able to focus on my health from a holistic lens — managing my disease was a struggle in the beginning, but it became normal and part of my everyday life. I was gaining and improving my skills and utilizing a wide range of my talents. Now, I’m about to open my own business! I will be utilizing my degree from UW to expand my wellness practice and to help others in ways I wouldn’t have initially thought I was capable of. I never knew what my “dream job” was and now: I’m creating it.

What tips would you offer to others considering a break in their education?

AL: Reaching that burnout point was a really clear indicator that I needed to step away and take a break. In retrospect, there were several red flags that appeared before I reached burnout that I ignored. Those red flags could have presented that rock-bottom low I experienced, yet I didn’t think they were valid. I thought I was being “weak” or that “pushing through” would get me to success on the other side. I was wrong. This taught me one of life’s most important lessons: It’s OK to need a break! It’s perfectly normal to need time to reevaluate your “why” and to care for your overall wellness.

My biggest piece of advice is to truly check in with yourself. Are you ignoring your red flags? They’re trying to tell you something. Additionally, I would always advise reaching out to trusted individuals. Advisors on campus who know you personally and academically can provide insight and support that can help you transition into a gap year with a plan for a successful return. Acknowledging your feelings around needing a break can help you identify what you really need and how you can use a gap to your biggest advantage, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.

How did you know the time was right to return to college and how did you go about it?

AL: The pandemic was truly a catalyst for my return to education. I was part of the population that was unemployed during the shutdown, and I felt like it was a perfect opportunity for me to finish my bachelor’s [degree]. I had my transcripts from my previous institution and I began reaching out to UW, starting with the admissions office. Because the gap in my education was about five years, I wasn’t considered a good applicant; I most likely would not have been accepted. Then I was connected to the Badger Ready program and everything changed. [Badger Ready is designed to help returning adult students complete their degrees.]

I applied to the 12-credit program within the Adult Career and Special Student Services and was accepted! I began taking classes at UW in fall 2020, officially became a transfer student in fall 2021 and now am proud to be a 4.00 Badger on track to graduate in spring 2023! There are so many resources available and wonderful people who want to help; start by reaching out. I had no idea about the Badger Ready program until I started emailing admissions and it ended up being exactly what I needed to be successful.

You get to decide how to prioritize your life. If taking a break in your education is the right choice for you, use that time to add to your knowledge base of lived experience. It’s never too late to return to college. We’ll be here to help when you do.

Autumn Sanchez, UW–Madison adult student advisor, can be reached at autumn.sanchez@wisc.edu. An edited version of this article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 13, 2022.