As a senior, I'll be leaving Olin soon. Though this change is always scary, I'm heartened by the fact that this isn't the first time I've left Olin, because I took yearlong Leave of Absence (**Note: Back to back semester leaves of absence must be separately approved). A huge portion of my post-graduate planning is informed by lessons that I learned during my LOA, so I'm devoting this blog post to laying out what happened and how it affected me. In honor of Candidate's Weekend, I'll give the answers to some of the most common questions that I've been asked about LOA:
Q: Why did you take a Leave of Absence?
I took a LOA almost by accident. One of my friends had been raving about her experiences during a Study Abroad in the Galapagos Islands, and I was inspired to study abroad there myself. However, because I was concentrating in Entrepreneurship, the credits that I would have received would not have been extremely beneficial towards my degree. Olin is busy enough when you can spread your classes between 8 terms- I didn't want to try doing almost all of it in 7.
Apparently, even tortoises are excited to be in the Galapagos
But I did want to go to the Galapagos, so I decided to do it in the second half of a gap year after my sophomore year. To keep my scheduling simple, I decided to also take the first half off, and get an advantage in the internship application process by telling employers that they could re-hire me for an additional few months if they liked me. That was enough to get me a dream job at GreenMountain Engineering, allowing me to do mechanical engineering, work in sustainability and bike to work every day!
Q: How did it work out for you?
Not very well. GreenMountain liked me, but their consulting practice was slow for the second half of the summer, so they couldn't justify re-hiring me when the summer ended.
Q: Well, I'm sure that left you plenty of time to sit around and play video games.
Actually, I got some good luck along with the bad. While I was finishing up one of my last projects at GreenMountain, I got a call from an entrepreneur who'd mentored me during my first summer with the Vehicle Design Summit. The conversation went something like this:
Mentor: "Matt, I'm working on the MIT Solar House team, and the grad student who was supposed to handle the indoor temperature and humidity control was too busy to complete the task. It's a two year competition, and we're in the final months- we really need some help to get this task done"
Me: "I'd love to help, but I have absolutely no experience with the sensors that we're talking about here. I don't know if I could pick this up in a just a few months"
Mentor: "Look, I know you're not an electronics person, but you weren't a car person before VDS, either. I have confidence that you'll manage to figure out the technology, but what we really need is someone who can be part of a project that is coming down the wire."
Solar Decathlon Opening Day
(waking hour 24 of 36- the project did come down to the wire)
I was explicitly chosen for my project experience. I didn't know, at the time, how much employers value project and entrepreneurship experience. In fact, one of my friends was recently offered a Project Manager position at a major software company, despite being a mechanical engineer who had started a company that designed high-end coffee equipment. He'd done enough programming that they knew he could learn, but what really excited them was his track record of taking an idea and making it reality.
Q: Solar House, then the Galapagos? That sounds like a great year!
I actually had so much fun with the solar house, and other projects, that I decided to just keep going. I didn't even have a specific plan- I just knew that I'd found a place that was full of opportunities, and had faith that something awesome would come up if I gave it time.
Q: Did anything come up?
Three things did! The first was a consulting job at a startup founded by a software entrepreneur and MIT Neuroscience PhD, whose details are still under wraps. The second was an internship at the MIT Media Lab's LifeLong Kindergarten group. I'd worked with one of the grad students there on a personal project, and he ended up following a similar path for his research a few months later. After some hoop jumping (because I'm not an MIT student), I was hired as a research assistant. That was an amazing experience- I consider him just about the nicest person who I've ever worked for or with (narrowly beating out the Babson MBA behind Canditto, who I worked for in the first half of the year).
Finally, I ended up working full time at a startup company called RawSolar. Because most of my collaborators were grad students, I was responsible for most of the hands-on fabrication. Again, my project experience was absolutely invaluable. Though I did engineering calculations, and was able to extensively use the Computer Aided Design software that we learn in our first year at Olin, those skills weren't what made me worth bringing on. Any good engineering student could have figured out how to do those things in approximately the same amount of time that I did. What really made the project possible was the lessons that Olin taught me about organizing a team, getting help from experts, and prototyping as much as possible.
The Completed Solar Concentrator
Olin's emphasis on learning how to effectively present your work also came in handy when the press started noticing the 12'x12' dish on the Charles River. I often got to be the person explaining the technology in front of the camera, a responsibility that friends assure me I didn't screw up too badly.
Q: So, are you ever going to the Galapagos?
I'd love to, but there's so many fun things going on here at Olin! Many of the opportunities may continue through graduation, so I can't say for sure when I'll make it down there. Fortunately, tortoises can live more than 100 years, so I'm confident that I'll get the chance to ask Mr. Smiley what's so exciting
Q: So, what are you doing now?
The answer to that question could fill an entire additional blog post. In fact, it probably will!