My Semester Off

I'm reaching the end of a leave of absence from Bowdoin college for the fall 2020 semester. Bowdoin was not having most students on campus this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I wanted to maximize my in-person time at Bowdoin by hopefully tacking on an additional in-person semester after when I would have graduated initially. It seems like I'll succeed in doing so because Bowdoin is letting students return to campus this spring.

I almost continued classes online instead of going on leave. I was afraid that I wouldn't have anything to do, or that I would fail at whatever I planned to do. A metaphor that I used with my parents when discussing the decision was that taking a leave was like getting off at the next train stop as opposed to staying in the train. I would be diverging from the easy path, and it was impossible to know what it would be like outside once I got off. But after lots of discussion and several pros-and-cons lists, I decided to get off the train. So how the heck did I spend the last 4 months?

Computer Science

I wanted to devote some time to learning computer science topics that I might not have been exposed to in my college classes. I ended up learning about:

My learning consisted of a combination of classes and projects. I spent a lot of time researching my classes because I didn't want to spend a month on a class before realizing it wasn't what I was looking for. In terms of web development, I worked through this React course on Udemy, as well as Wes Bos' Javascript30 and CSS Grid courses, which were both smaller. I used what I learned to build some projects, including this very website. I'm satisfied by how much I learned; I went from not knowing any HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to having a sense of which React framework to use in what scenario.

On the more mathy side, I took EDX's CS50 AI with Python and Coursera's Machine Learning.

While I don't really have a deliverable from these courses, I am, again, pleasantly surprised by how much I learned.

One concern I had about the semester was time management. I figured it might be tough to motivate myself to work for several hours a day with no external forces acting on me. In terms of motivation, all I really had to push me was my own desire to learn. Here, again, I surprised myself with my focus and diligence. I arranged some projects in my task manager that would alternate between math days and web days, and tried to hold myself to working five days per week.

One day of work consisted of different things throughout the semester, but one example web day could mean 15-30 minutes on JavaScript30, 15-30 minutes on CSS Grid, and 1-2 hours on a React project (which, recently, has been this website). A math day might consist of 1 hour of algorithms / data structures problems, 1 hour on the Machine Learning course, and 30 minutes on something data-science related (e.g. learning Pandas or SQL). One thing I tried to hold myself to was not becoming annoyed with myself if I didn't finish an entire "day" of tasks. I knew that if I didn't give myself a little wiggle room, my inevitable frustration would make me less productive. So I tried to stick to this schedule, but if I found myself fighting an internal urge to go on a walk, I'd go on the walk.

This system worked out well for me, and I was generally able to stick to this plan. My brother James also pointed me toward a concept called SMART goals (it's an acronym), which was helpful for keeping myself more accountable. Some of the goals I set ended up being too lofty, and some too easy, but that's okay. I did my best to adjust in real-time, and whether or not I have a portfolio full of hundreds of profitable projects, I know a lot more about both the web and machine learning than I did before this leave of absence, and that's enough for me to consider it a success.

Written: December 20, 2020
Last edited: April 23, 2024