Semester Off offers options for graduating high schoolers

A program for students who can be overwhelmed by college.

Semester Off gives struggling college students another option. — Ilan Goldberg

Update: Aug. 23, 9:50 am

 Dr.Goldberg’s talk scheduled for Aug. 24 at the Oak Bluffs Public Library entitled “When Higher Education Fails — What Every Parent Should Know About Mental Health in College Students” has been postponed until further notice because of a family emergency. If you are interested in Dr. Goldberg rescheduling this talk, then please contact him at or (781) 318-3223 x101.

You’re a high school senior. Every day you nervously await the mail, and then finally there it is: The fat envelope from your first-choice college.

You got in!

But the feeling of euphoria is soon replaced by pangs of apprehension as you ask yourself, “Am I really ready for this?”

Every year students head off to college who may have earned the grades to be admitted but who don’t have the study skills or the emotional maturity to succeed. Even at the best schools — the ones with highest student retention and graduation rates — the four-year graduation rate is about 85 percent, and at most schools this figure is more like 55 to 75 percent.

Semester Off in Wellesley is an innovative program founded by Dr. Ilan Goldberg that gives students a place to pause, contemplate, and learn valuable skills either before entering college or between semesters. The program integrates community service, wellness practices — yoga, meditation, and cardiovascular exercise — career counseling, and group team-building.

Taking a year off from college, or before enrolling, is hardly a new idea, but it’s gaining traction. Malia Obama, a very public figure, announced that she will take a gap year between her senior year of high school and freshman year of college.

“There are many reasons why people take time off from college, or don’t finish,” said Mike McCarthy, guidance director at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. “It could be family-related, a money issue, mental health — there are so many reasons.”

One of these people was Leigh Pompeo of Medford. She said, “College was an expected thing. My parents said if you take a year off, you won’t go back. Looking back on it now, I wish I had [taken time off] earlier.” Ms. Pompeo is going to return to Bridgewater State University in spring 2017 after spending 14 weeks at Semester Off. She said that she had issues throughout her academic career, but after four years in college, she said, “I didn’t know what I was doing, and I don’t know where I would be now without Semester Off.”

“There are kids who are stretching themselves when going to college,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Here at the high school, we put a big emphasis on having a good fit, but you always want the kid to have a fallback position where they can build or relearn skills.”

Semester Off is a different kind of fallback. Rather than taking a gap year and working or traveling, or doing a postgrad year of high school, Semester Off strikes a balance. The day-to-day routine varies, but Semester Off can help detect why a student was struggling in college (or is not ready for college) and give them the tools to be successful. Semester Off also devotes a large part of their curriculum to emotional support and mental health.

Dr. Goldberg said, “I think colleges are making valiant efforts in terms of mental health. They’re doing more, expanding their mission, and teaching students to care about their social well-being, but it’s not widespread enough. Some of these support services need to come from the outside community. This is a bigger problem than the colleges can deal with.”

With mental health, however, getting help can carry a stigma. Social pressure can lead to pushing away the feelings that are causing the person pain and lead to isolation.

Students may not know that there is support out there, or feel comfortable reaching out and taking it. This is why a program like Semester Off is important. It closes the gap between the student and the community. After completing Semester Off, Ms. Pompeo said, “I didn’t feel alone anymore.”