Have you spent the last week sitting on the beach, sipping drinks with umbrellas in them? If you’re at the University, the answer is probably no.

Jessica Boullion
A snow plow drives in front of the Chemistry Building in 2002. University students often return from break to face the brunt of winter weather while their friends at other schools enjoy the beach. (FILE PHOTO)

While the University’s holiday break ends just after New Year’s, many other schools have breaks that stretch well into January.

Yale University starts its second semester Jan. 16, and students at the University of Virginia won’t be back from their vacations until Wednesday, giving students at both schools a couple extra weeks to relax.

Why is it that students at the University must work while their peers play?

It’s a result of how the University divides the year, said Gretchen Weir, assistant vice provost for academic affairs. In the early 1970s, the University moved from a standard semester system to a trimester system, designed to let students go abroad or take courses during the summer.

Evenly dividing the year gave students more flexibility to persue their education outside the classroom in the summer, Weir said.

Switching to the trimester system made the University’s Winter Break short because it forced the University to fit 67 to 70 class days into each trimester while still operating within a few calendar restraints.

In the fall, the University usually starts classes after Labor Day and ends by Christmas. Then the University needs to start classes early enough in January to ensure 14 or 15 weeks of instruction before commencement in late April – leaving enough time for a 15 week summer term before classes resume in the fall.

The schedule became tighter a few years ago after students successfully lobbied for a fall break. The University then had to start the academic year a day earlier to compensate for the lost instruction time.

Weir said there are always complaints when breaks are short, but the trimester system remains too popular and useful to abandon for a couple extra days on the slopes or at the beach.


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