Leaves of absence and leaps of faith

June 20, 2024, 12:59 p.m.

“It wasn’t even really a decision,” said Cyris Kissane ’24. “There was a tipping point, sometime during my junior year, where I found that I couldn’t focus. Three weeks into the quarter, I realized my 20% project had become 100%, and it became hard to justify school work and ignore what my brain was telling me to do.”

Stanford feels like it should be hard to walk away from: the education, the friendships, the constant chugging along of classes and work that seem to keep this place going. There’s often a fear that stepping away from the safety of a four-year plan will compromise the life Stanford sets up for you. Yet, when speaking to students who have chosen to take a leave of absence, it seems to be almost the only option.

Kissane, who is currently a year into their leave of absence, has spent their time away from working on a startup, Crystal Computing Corporation, which builds highly efficient artificial intelligence language models.

“I had had a couple of ideas for startups before even coming to Stanford. Around five years ago, I had started thinking about AI and operating systems, and with the advent of DALL-E, Chat GPT and advancements in machine learning, it felt like now, the ideas that I’ve been playing with — it felt like it was time.” It was now or never.

For Emily Zhang ’26, who took this winter quarter off to work as a software engineer at Scale AI in San Francisco, the changing landscape of AI and machine learning was a draw to taking a leave of absence, but not the main factor of her decision.

“Before, I had already thought of taking a gap quarter,” said Zhang. “I didn’t feel a strong sense of self at Stanford. There are so many forces and pressures and voices to follow what everyone else is doing, and freshman year I was sucked into that.”

As she works over the course of this winter and gains exposure to the industry, Zhang is also taking time to invest in her other passions that she felt she had lost during her time at Stanford.

“Working has kind of made me realize that I’m capable of more than what I was doing at Stanford, and I let it be an excuse to stop making art, which is something I’ve always loved and have been spending more time on now.”

Zhang, who is a double major in art practice and computer science, has won numerous awards for her paintings, which often focus on portraits and speak to her Asian American heritage. Since coming to college, however, she said she has lost some of the passion and energy she used to put toward art creation.

“I’m hoping to find a sustainable way to work and live,” she shared. “I noticed that freshman spring and sophomore fall, I was experiencing a lot of social anxiety, which I’d never had before.” Thus far, the leave of absence has felt like release from a pressure cooker.

Diamond Thlang ’25 returned this year from his gap quarter in the fall, which was motivated by feelings similar to Zhang’s. Thlang, who says he struggled socially in high school, said that although he found a safe haven at Stanford his freshman year, he was burnt out and in pain by the end of his sophomore year last spring.

“I knew something was wrong when my mom looked at me and told me she couldn’t recognize me anymore,” Thlang said.

When he had first arrived at Stanford, Thlang was ecstatic to have found friends who shared his passions and “were passionate about learning for the sake of learning and maximizing life.” He participated in the Stanford Summer Engineering Academy (SSEA) and developed strong relationships with his peers, something he hadn’t experienced at his previous school. However, these relationships degraded over time and left Thlang in a place of solitude and numbness.

“I took so much emotional damage and didn’t realize that me feeling these emotions so intensely wasn’t normal,” he said. “My ADHD had kicked in and put my brain on autopilot.” In this state of devastation and reclusiveness, Thlang started his summer wanting to drop out of Stanford entirely. The turning point, he says, was this summer spent in New York for a machine learning internship.

“I was finally so far removed from campus that I found myself in the conditions I needed to start recovering and unpacking,” said Thlang, a mathematical and computational science major. In this time, he reconnected with his faith and grew spiritually. “I continued to tightrope the line between pain and newfound appreciation of self, one built on a firm, renewed wisdom,” he shared.

When fall came around, rather than returning to Stanford, Thlang made the decision to take a leave of absence to live at home in Minnesota and mend his relationship with his family, which had become fraught at Stanford. Since his return this winter, Thlang shares that he is in a much better place both personally and with his loved ones. “I call my mom and dad every day without fail now and tell them I love them and appreciate them every living moment I get.”

Sofie Roux ’26 is another returner this winter, having spent this past fall quarter away from Stanford to work on Bloombox Design Labs, a public benefit corporation that she founded to support girls’ education initiatives.

Roux, who studies architecture and design, was inspired by other Stanford students she’d met who had taken time off to pursue passion projects. “Here, it feels like if you have an idea, you should pursue it at the highest possible level, and in business, climate-related work, there’s a push to do things in the real world, which I admire.”

Despite having a great freshman year, Roux felt pulled in two directions when the idea of a leave came up. She had started Bloombox while still in high school, the first one having been built from a solar panel roof in her backyard. The initiative grew, with Roux getting a patent for her solar roof system and traveling with her team to Malawi to build more Bloomboxes to support girls’ STEAM education. The project came to a pause when Roux started her freshman year at Stanford, in part due to a lack of funding. She picked it back up this past summer, with the goal of bringing accessible education to more students through sustainable design.

Ultimately, while at a refugee camp this summer in Malawi for a build, Roux decided to “run with it, not do both things halfway,” and chose to take a leave of absence to work on the project full-time. She knew that she would come back to Stanford when she was ready.

When asked about if they would return to Stanford, Kissane took a moment to pause. “I don’t know … the journey that I felt compelled to do has yet to be finished.” In their time working on Crystal, they built up a team of Stanford alumni and fellow students who took a leave with them. Their vision for the product has changed over time with the deeper investment of working on the startup full time.

“Being fully immersed in the problem that you’re focusing on has been valuable,” Kissane shared. While working full time on Crystal, they realigned their focus from building deeply personal AI driven operating systems, to making large AI models to focus on extreme efficiency, something that felt lacking the space, but critical to their original goal of sustainable, and private use of AI in personal devices. The impact of Crystal’s language models will hopefully be useful on many fronts: for the original goal of private on-device AI, but also from the environmental standpoint of using less energy to generate output, and from the economic view of efficiency and affordability.

Having had an online first year of college and a sophomore year that still felt lacking in community, Kissane didn’t make their closest friends until junior year, which was when they felt like they were able to “jump off the fence” and take their leave. They’re based in Palo Alto and have continued to stay connected to Stanford’s campus, conceding that “it’s hard to find a community like Stanford” outside of the proclaimed “bubble.” There are pros to this, they say, such as being able to be more “experimental in how I interact with people,” referring to the broader set of contexts in which people interact, far beyond dorm or class scenarios. However, the occasional visit on campus has been important for remaining connected with the people and communities they developed during their time as a student.

During her leave of absence, where she worked from home in Vancouver, Roux was able to stay connected to Stanford through her continued involvement as a PEAK fellow and with Solar Car Club. She was especially touched by the efforts of her friends on campus to stay connected with her.

“It was beautiful to see that a lot of my close friends really made an effort to stay friends. Stepping away was really healthy for me too, being able to not be completely attached to campus,” she said. Zhang also plans to stay connected to Stanford during her leave of absence; she recently came back to campus for a weekend visit and will be attending a trip to Tahoe with the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity. “Distance,” she said, “makes the heart grow fonder.”

What does one take away from a leave of absence, and how do you decide whether to take one or not? For Thlang, knowing that there were people back at Stanford supporting his choice made his time away possible. “Even as I experienced a dark period in my life, I still had a lively community of people supporting me, and to those people I say, ‘Thank you for waiting for me with open arms and an open heart.’” He now feels that his leave of absence had been necessary to come back to Stanford with healed wounds and a stronger sense of self and purpose.

To those considering taking a leave of absence, Kissane poses the following question: “Instead of enumerating the reasons why you should take an LOA, just really think about why you are not taking it.” Leaves of absence are a big enough decision that if there is enough force to make you consider taking one, the chances are high that the same force will push you in that direction.

Kissane, a math and computer science major, says while at Stanford they learned the most in their interdisciplinary classes, like dance and geophysics, but never felt compelled to study hard for an exam or do homework. To them, working on Crystal has exemplified the difference that a sense of purpose can make in one’s workflow. “I’m investing an absurd amount of time; startups are not a 9-5. It’s like a 16 hour a day kind of thing, and balance is harder to achieve when there’s something you really want to go after.”

While working 100% on Bloombox in the fall, Roux was able to bring visions she’d had in the past to life with all of her newfound time. She continued her mission of constructing sustainable educational infrastructures in under-resourced communities in addition to new ventures that would bolster it. Bloombox established a North American revenue line, launched an app called Superbloom connecting students around the world, and installed starlink satellites in all of the existing educational spaces that have been built in Malawi.

The Stanford experience is no doubt a special opportunity that shapes the lives of all its students, but in our time connected to it, the school itself is not meant to be all-consuming. The people we meet at Stanford and the things we learn are supposed to enrich our lives as whole, whether we are here or away.

When asked about her return to campus this winter and whether she sees herself taking another leave of absence, Roux says she’s not sure yet. “I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that the deeper you go into something, the more opportunities open up. At Stanford, now that I know what I want to do, there are so many cool resources and mentors for me. It really reminds you that every day you spend here is a gift, being around so many intelligent, cool, and special people.”

Zhang returned to Stanford this spring with a fresh perspective on school and what it means to be fulfilled by one’s work.

“When I get back, I really want to do more research, especially after experiencing industry, to gain a better perspective on what my options are after graduation.” She also wants to take more classes that excite her, such as the painting and blockchain classes she took her frosh winter. “I want to take inspiring classes, not just a lighter course load, and meet more inspiring people.”

Meanwhile, Kissane is in no rush to return to Stanford – their focus remains on Crystal. “Every year I wait, there’s more pressure to just finish your degree, but I feel more and more excited to do what I want to do.”

Erin Ye '26 is the Managing Editor for The Grind. She also writes in Sports and Arts & Life. Erin enjoys black coffee, exploring the Stanford experience, and live music.

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