On January 31, the Orient received an email from Dr. Ilan Goldberg with an invitation. Almost two months after publishing an article concerning the politics, process and practice of medical leaves at Bowdoin, Goldberg reached out to let us know about his own program, Semester Off.
After learning more about Semester Off, based in Wellesley, MA, we decided to accept Dr. Goldberg’s invitation to visit. Semester Off is a nascent program, wrestling with many of the difficulties associated with taking time away that were uncovered in the December article.
Semester Off is a dual-educational enrichment and counseling program for high school and college students struggling to maintain their mental health in highly rigorous academic environments. The program is run on a 10-14 week, Monday-Friday schedule, each day structured with a mix of academic classes, meditation sessions, reflection periods and physical activity. Students complete the program full-time while taking time off from their respective institutions.
“I had the experience of seeing a lot of my fellow students who were amazingly bright, driven people, doing well, and others who were all bright but some were less driven and would fall into traps and struggled in various ways—including a few of my roommates—and took time away from college,” said Goldberg, who cites his undergraduate experience at Amherst as the inspiration for founding Semester Off.
“I remember thinking back then that these people were good people from good families, educated, it didn’t make sense to me why they were struggling and what made even less sense to me was why they came back to college a semester or year later almost completely unchanged from who they were,” he continued.
After graduating from Amherst, Goldberg went on to work as a teacher at a therapeutic boarding school, eventually returning to graduate school to study psychiatry. It wasn’t until he was a practicing psychiatrist, treating high school and college-aged young adults with similar struggles as those that troubled his classmates in college, when Goldberg began thinking about what a program like Semester Off would look like.
“There was need to address here with this specific population that included giving them a support group and some life skills and some academic skills and just general wellness that wasn’t in existence and straddled worlds of mental health and education and just growing up and becoming more mature and becoming adult,” he said.
The program, situated in the basement of an office building on Washington Street in Wellesley, boasts a meditation room, a kitchen where students learn to comfortably use household appliances and access to a green space across from a parking lot. Goldberg also teaches a general psychology course that can be taken for college credit through Farmington State University.
Goldberg stressed the academic rigor of his course, which was confirmed by Zoe Sweeney, a student at the program who is enrolled at Boston College.
“The classes here, particularly [Goldberg’s] class, have quite a bit of work and it’s interesting, it’s engaging, it does challenge [me in] all those aspects of what typical academic college looks like. And that’s been really good for me,” said Sweeney.
Semester Off accepts students with a wide array of academic capabilities and interests—one of the program’s challenges has been making an equally enriching experience possible for all. Sweeney believes that the program has been largely successful.
“It takes away some of that college pressure. There are some people here—college just isn’t for them, but they need time to figure [that] out,” she said.
Like many of the students featured in the Orient’s article on medical leaves, Sweeney also felt a push from the administration at her school to take time off.
“As soon as they get an inkling that something is wrong, they push you to take a leave … I was grateful for that later,” said Sweeney. “But I wish there had been more support initially so that the leave wasn’t the only option.”
As was true for several Bowdoin students who spoke with the Orient about their time-off decisions, many students dealing with mental health issues in college seek a middle ground between a regimented, full course-load schedule and a less strenuous one without sacrificing degree of academic pressure. In founding Semester Off, Goldberg recognized that many students across different institutions seek options beyond medical leaves.
“The goal for students is to create a path for them that feels right,” said Goldberg. “Many students go to college because that’s the thing to do, and we want them to be mindful and to understand themselves, what their talents are, what their passions are … It’s to help them learn about themselves, to give them skill so that they’re empowered.”
Because the program just began in January 2015, it does not yet have the foundation to offer financial aid. Currently, tuition is $14,860 per semester.
“I wouldn’t say that everybody’s paid the same amount. There have been times that families have demonstrated financial need [and we] were able to reduce the tuition,” said Goldberg.
“What we would like to see happen is that we are able to form a non-profit wing to our operations or to partner with an existing non-profit where scholarship moneys can be collected and philanthropists can give, and that would partially or fully subsidize students who couldn’t afford the tuition,” he continued.
The program currently supports about 10 students a semester, though Goldberg and his team tend to maintain relationships with their students after they graduate the program to ensure they remain stable and healthy.