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Self-Taught: What one student learned from taking a semester off

"I think taking a break was the best thing I could've done for myself"

I took the winter semester off and went into 2018 as a non-student for the first time in 21 years. I’m excited to be back at school now, but I think taking a break was the best thing I could’ve done for myself.

I wanted to be comfortable with uncertainty and expressing my emotions, to get to know myself better and be okay with who I am. I realized that I needed time to achieve those goals.

I went back to what I used to do when I had more free time. I would go grocery shopping and cook, play with my cat Pepper, or hang out with my friends. If I was having a rough night, I cooked stews, soups, and traditional Korean dishes from scratch to keep myself busy and calm. Cooking and baking were always my favourite activities, as I could kill stress and share what I made with people I cared about. One day, I made chicken stock from scratch; I walked to Save-On-Foods during a blizzard, broke a whole chicken with my knife, seared it, watched Pepper smell the vegetables, and let the stock do its own thing for seven hours.

Then I impulsively left for Korea. I planned on staying for three weeks to travel, eat, and see people I wanted to see. Instead, I spontaneously decided to get Laser Epithelial Keratomileusis (LASEK) surgery and ended up staying there for three months.

I decided to work at an international school in Korea, creating my own curriculum to teach students in junior high and high school. I helped with administrative work and helped teachers in classrooms. I absolutely loved the liveliness of the school. But after three weeks, I quit. Working wasn’t what I wanted to do that summer. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the work; during the three weeks I worked there, I learned so much more than I had in the past four months.  

I quit because of what one of the teachers at the school said. I spoke to her about how uncertain I felt about my future. She told me that I need to value myself more, not the responsibilities that I had taken on or were given to me. She told me that I give so much love to the students and the work I do, but not enough to myself. Since I’m young, she said, it makes sense that I’m overwhelmed and uncertain about my future, about what I want to do. I can’t distract myself by keeping myself busy. She told me self-love would be a crucial step towards being comfortable with uncertainty. I needed to know who I was, I needed to have new experiences and do things I was hesitant to do before. Once again, I needed free time.

After I quit teaching, I didn’t rest. Instead, I spent my time having unique experiences I could only have in Korea. I went to traditional tea houses to have Korean teas and desserts, to breweries to learn about the history of alcohol in the country, and I went out for food every single day, either by myself or with my close friends.

I impulsively went on a day trip to Gangneung. It was a hot day, but the wind by the ocean was cool. The waves were powerful, the water was clean, and the sand was dense but so soft under my feet. I walked along the shore, my skirt soaked from the waves, and sat on the beach, staring into the horizon for hours.

I bought a book on a hot Wednesday and went to the Han River in Seoul. I rented a tent, ordered Korean fried chicken, grabbed some cold beer, and read. I went early in the day, so there weren’t many people there, and the strong winds by the river blew into my tent, keeping me cool.

I’m back in Edmonton now and starting school again. I realized I do want to continue with my goals to become an academic and a mentor. Even though I’m unsure what path I’ll take to get there, I’ve grown comfortable with that uncertainty. I’m glad that I’ve truly started to learn who I am and what it means to know that, and that taking time to figure things out is an option.

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