FREEDOM AND time to explore are a few of the greatest expectations held by students for their college experiences. However, balancing between school, work, relationships, job prospects, and one’s personal interests has proven to be a difficult task for many university students. Overwhelmed by social expectations and a limited time frame, many students require more than the compulsory four years of university to fully prepare for graduation and go out into the world. As a result, South Korean university students are taking leaves of absence at an exponential rate, but often for reasons beyond personal exploration.
The trend of taking a leave of absence
The concept of a “gap year” was first established in the United Kingdom during the 1960s, traditionally reserved for a period of break between high school graduation and university entrance. With its initial intention to encourage students to follow their passion, a gap year offers fresh high school graduates a chance to reflect on their life choices, travel, do volunteer work, or try working in fields that spark their interests. In Korean universities, the system of taking a leave of absence (hyu-hak) was originally established for male students to fulfill their mandatory two-year military service. However, now it has widely developed into a phase of university that many students go through to take time off school for various purposes.
Globally, more universities are accepting and supporting gap years through permittance of deferrals after acceptance or even provision of financial aid for gap year programs, which has contributed to the tendency of more students taking time off before, after, or during university. For example, Princeton University offers a “Bridge Year Program,” in which students are allocated to international locations for nine months to engage in university sponsored services*.
Particularly, in South Korea, the choice of taking a leave of absence within the four years before graduating university is becoming popular. According to Statistics Korea, in 2017, 43.3% of student graduates responded that they had taken a leave of absence for an average of 2 years and 7 months for males, and 1 year and 4 months for females**. The difference in length can be attributed to the mandatory army conscription for male students.
However, in contrast to Western universities that support gap years prior to university experience, Korean universities don’t usually allow students to take leaves of absence in their first semester. Students may choose to defer their acceptance, and the two valid reasons for taking time off before officially starting school are military service and serious medical conditions. Additionally, permission and signatures of a parent or legal guardian are also mandatory for taking a general leave of absence in Korea.
Why are students in Korea taking leaves of absence?
Initially, the concept of taking a gap year was popularly criticized by the middle class as an option only for students of wealthier backgrounds. During this time, individuals travel, study abroad, and pursue personal hobbies, which are unfeasible for many students who do not possess excess funds or leisure time. Due to common financial restrictions and the looming competition within the Korean job market, this concept is considered a luxury.
According to a survey conducted in 2019 by part-time job portal, Al-ba-mon, out of 1,276 students currently enrolled in a four-year university, 40.8% of the respondents expressed the willingness to take a leave of absence. The primary reason for taking a leave of absence was financial burdens (43.6%), and other reasons included gaining experience in society for employment advantages (26.7), studying abroad (19.6%), and taking time to consider future career paths (18.8%)***. Evidently, the survey demonstrates that taking a leave of absence is often not a voluntary choice, but an inevitable decision made in order to afford the expensive tuition fees as a result of economic and social pressure. Additionally, after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, Korean students have demonstrated a trend of delaying graduation to increase the possibility of finding jobs****, maintain the status of a student includes many benefits, such as career opportunities and access to school resources.
In contrast to the working-class assumption that students undertake experiences for self-exploration to aid their understanding of the world, the responses to the survey illustrate the reality of South Korean students. The majority of Korean students seem to make choices based on self-interest to improve their competence, commonly known as spec*****, and prospects of employment. According to the Financial Times, Kwon Tae-hee, a researcher at Korea Employment Information Services, voiced, “The social bias in favor of academic credentials is so strong that it will take a long time for merit-based hiring to become a mainstream practice.” In a society that evaluates individuals based on their specs, students are socially pressured to acquire higher education and qualifications for job employment. Consequently, the 75% graduate employment rate of 25-34-year-old Koreans in 2014, compared to the average 82% of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries******, shows the constant competition among students striving to “get ahead” and the resulting anxiety about their future.
The impact of a leave of absence
When searching for the advantages and disadvantages of a leave of absence, most online forums demonstrate opposition based on the fear that students cannot return to the life of academic rigor once they have adapted to a lifestyle of relaxation and comfort. In spite of this belief, the impact of taking a leave of absence from school is determined by the way students utilize their time. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Gown Suh (Sr., UIC, Comparative Lit. & Culture), who decided to take a leave of absence halfway through her first semester of her junior year, expressed, “After working continuously through all of my vacations during my first two years of university, I realized I wanted to take time for myself, and needed a break from school.” Two weeks after Suh had taken a leave of absence, she became a full-time employee working for a sports marketing agency under the parent company MBC Plus. Through her experience, she stated, “Not only was I able to build a broader network, but also learn to cooperate with different types of people. Unlike schoolwork, I was able to gain a practical glimpse into the sports industry, which I was always interested in.”
One of the main risks of taking a leave of absence is the aggravated anxiety associated with being left behind in a society that is rapidly moving forward, losing momentum, or easily forgetting academic concepts that have been painstakingly learned. Although a leave of absence can be invaluably worthwhile, those that are lazily spent without enriching or eye-opening experiences may backfire and worsen students’ mental states.
However, in contrast to the popular belief that spending a semester off “unproductively” leaves a student with regret, many students reported that doing “nothing” also yields good dividend. Outside the limited confinement of college campuses, taking a leave of absence allows students to improve their communication skills, reignite their motivation for studying, improve self-confidence, and ultimately, take a much-deserved break from the academic and social stress associated with university. According to Kim Hyo-jin (Class of ’14, Dept. of Food and Resource Economics, Korea Univ.), “I chose to take a leave of absence during my sophomore year after feeling exhausted from the stressful final exam period the previous semester. I read, went to cross fit, watched movies at the cinema every day, and worked as a part-time employee at A Twosome Place. After graduating and getting employed, I realized that a semester of relaxation and focusing on hobbies did not make me less productive, but rather recharged me to sustain another semester of hard work.”
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Contrary to the social expectation in Korea that time should be spent “efficiently” at all times, a leave of absence alleviates the constant pressure of moving “forward.” Regardless of how an individual chooses to spend his or her time, every leave of absence is capable of fostering growth and allow students to engage in introspection. The decreasing stigmatization about taking a leave of absence and the acknowledgement of differences in individual development in our society will promote better mental health and improvement in social wellbeing.
****Korea Joongang Daily
*****Spec: The shortened Korean version of “specification” that refers to academic ability, grades, and certification that improve employment prospects.