So that’s how we find ourselves here. Welcome to this blog post on fall break, a thing that sometimes exists at colleges, and sometimes does not.
Not every college gets a fall break. For example, my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia, does not. There is also not one at the University of Maryland, in College Park, though perhaps this post will change all that. (Or not. “There’s a big difference in flexibility, as it relates to public and private institutions,” said Katie Lawson, a U-Md. spokeswoman. “And public institutions have strict policies that stipulate how many academic days we have in a specific calendar year.” You can read the fancy policy stuff here, if you’re so inclined.)
George Washington University, in the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, does have a fall break, which this year occurred Monday and Tuesday. American University, in Northwest Washington, gets one, too. It happens today, and follows midterm exams at the school. Earlier this week, the university registrar at American, Doug McKenna, chatted with me about fall breaks, how students use them, and why they aren’t just another example of the coddled youth lollygagging their way through life, or whatever you are currently muttering to yourself.
The Q&A, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Can you explain why you felt like students needed fall break?
I think that students take their midterms seriously. They’ve done a lot in the early half of the semester. Having a little bit of a lift to come back refreshed for the second part of the semester is important.
Notre Dame does a full week, a midsemester break in the fall. But they start classes a week earlier than we do. And so there’s sort of a delicate balance in the creation of the academic calendar, about when we start, when we end, and then making sure that we meet all the requirements for the contact hours for the credits that we’re awarding throughout.
Students really appreciate the day off. I would say that many faculty also appreciate the day off as well. Because all of those exams that have been taken that week still have to be graded by somebody. That’s usually the faculty member’s job. So it’s not just for students; there’s a faculty component as well. But I think students appreciate it more.
How do most students use their fall break time?
A lot of them go home. We draw students from all 50 states and many, many countries. I don’t have the exact number of international students enrolled this year. But many of them take the opportunity to get out of town, and to relax, refresh, even for just a long weekend.
The dorms stay open, though, so people aren’t required to leave. But many of them do. It’s a very quiet day on campus.
Do you have an estimate as to how many colleges and universities give students a fall break period?
I would not be able to make an educated guess. I’ve worked at four institutions. Three of them provide some official fall break, whether it be a day, two days, or, as I said, at Notre Dame, it’s a full week.
A lot of that has to do with institutional culture, mission, the student makeup, and other related concerns.
How does fall break differ for faculty, staff and students, from spring break? It feels like it has a much different vibe.
It’s more of a release valve than an actual break, I would say. Spring break is — if you leave that Friday, you’re not coming back until the Monday following. So that’s nine days to get away and be gone and do something.
And many of our students do alternative spring break, so they go do service projects for five or six of those days, which is great. It’s another way to enrich their experience here at American. But for many students, also, they just go home, or they go on a trip. Some of them, unfortunately, go to South Beach. But that’s fine, too. Now’s the time.
It’s like a power nap versus an overnight rest, is fall break to spring break.
What would you say to people who say, college students are preparing for the real world, they’re preparing for the workplace. In real life, you don’t get to take a fall break.
I think those are legitimate questions. I think a couple of things about that. First is that a college student’s job right now is to be a college student. And within the university that the student selects to attend, and if they’re fortunate enough to attend a university that gives a fall break, why is that a problem for anyone? The student is paying tuition, they’re engaging in their education. The institution that provides that break, provides that break.
I would also say to people in real life, the federal government provides holidays, in real life. For real people. And that’s a decision that collectively, we as a society, acknowledge and observe. This is the culture that students are in, right now, they’re students in college, and it’s totally appropriate that after spending half of the semester studying diligently and then taking exams, they get a little break.
You’re such a defender for students.
I’m an advocate for students. I really believe in higher education. I believe what we’re doing is positive for the community and for these individuals who are here studying.
So, I will defend students’ right to have a fall break. Which seems like a crazy thing to say. But, yes. Doug McKenna, university registrar. I will defend students’ right for fall break.