Taking a Leave of Absence (LOA) from Olin- Matt's Story

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. 

Happy Turtle in the Galapagos (3).jpg

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?

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

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

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

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


Stay tuned...

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