It is August 11, 2013, and Madeline McCallum (C ‘17) is celebrating her 19th birthday from a hospital in North Carolina.
Nine months earlier in November 2012, Madeline was severely underweight. Struggling with an eating disorder that lasted all throughout high school, Madeline was in a dark spiral, depressed and anxious. In the middle of the night that November, Madeline called her parents, packed her bags and caught the next flight back to her home in South Carolina. Shortly after, Madeline found herself in a hospital in a treatment facility for eating disorders. Before her second semester at Penn even began, Madeline was officially on a leave of absence.
Madeline’s journey and ultimate decision to take a leave of absence from Penn is not all that unusual. While many students take leaves for mental health reasons like Madeline, others find they need an academic break, and others do so to pursue unique opportunities. Yet despite these wide–ranging experiences, the prevailing attitude towards leaves of absence among Penn students is one of misinformed stigma. Why are we so reluctant to normalize leaves of absence, and what does this reluctance reveal about our student body?
“It’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around, to think of college as different than the archetypal structure we have where it’s four years, bang, bang, bang. I had to realize that that’s maybe not going to work for me, and that’s going to be fine,” explains Madeline.
Madeline is not the only student who didn’t find the standard four–year timeline conducive to a successful college experience. Penn has several processes in place to help students who are thinking of taking a leave or otherwise facing educational difficulties to ultimately take that step. Typically, that process begins with Academic Advising.
“Rarely does it begin with a student coming in and asking about taking a leave. Often it is a student coming in and presenting some kind of complication, problem, confusion that’s going on,” tells Dr. Janet Tighe, Director of Academic Advising in the College.
Oftentimes, students’ obstacles can be solved by trying solutions like withdrawing from a course, changing a grading system or rearranging a schedule. If a student is still struggling with his or her academic or personal challenges despite new supports put in place, advisors may suggest that the student consider a leave.
This was the case for Nick Moncy (C ‘17), a student who chose to address his academic challenges by taking a leave of absence after his junior year. Nick’s academic troubles began as a sophomore when he built a rigorous class schedule and tried to balance it with a loaded plate of extracurricular activities.
Though he failed two classes that sophomore year and was placed on academic probation, Nick again filled up his schedule as a junior with challenging courses. It eventually became too much to handle. He had started skipping class and sleeping excessively when his advisor strongly recommended that he take a leave.
“I guess part of it is everyone around you is working super hard,” admits Nick. “I felt compelled to do everything.”
Once Nick and his support at Academic Advising agreed that a leave of absence would be the best course of action, Nick took the next steps. “As far as process, it’s pretty straightforward,” Dr. Tighe explains. “I can’t think of a time when the committee did not approve a leave.”
While on leave, Nick went home to Miami to finish his junior year courses. He picked up a job at a Forever 21, worked on his art, taught himself how to code and interned at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
But despite the myriad opportunities Nick pursued in his time away from Penn and the extensive skills he gained, Penn students are still reluctant to accept any alternative to the traditional trajectory of college.
“There’s more to life than college. College is not the end–all to everything...I realized that not only am I capable of getting through the rest of Penn and making something of myself, but I also learned when to ask for help and use my resources,” explained Nick.
Academic Advising, though, is not the only place where students turn to start the leave–taking process. Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS) frequently encounters students considering a leave not for academic reasons like Nick, but for mental health ones like Madeline. In a given year, CAPS sees 450 to 470 students take a leave of absence for mental health reasons. Approximately 5 percent of students take a leave of absence in each graduating class.
“What happens is someone in the community becomes aware that a student could benefit from a leave of absence. A lot of times that involves CAPS when it has something to do with some sort of psychological distress,” explains Dr. Bill Alexander, director of CAPS.
Although leaves of absence must be officially granted by each student’s individual college, CAPS can help recognize when students may need to approach their college to get the formal steps moving. It can communicate with students or their clinicians while they are on leave, tracking progress. CAPS can even help find treatment or suggest clinicians in students’ home cities or in Philadelphia.
Though often still kept under the radar by the general Penn community, some students students request a leave of absence for reasons other than academic difficulty or mental health—often to capitalize on a passion outside of Penn.
“Some students are taking a leave, and this is where the conversation may come in, which is, ‘I want to take a leave, I want to do something which I know is going to take up a lot of my time and I don’t think I can do that as well as go to class and do as well as I want to,’” Dr. Tighe shares.
Dr. Tighe recalls a student, for example, whose family underwent severe damage from Hurricane Sandy and wanted to go home to help.
Common cases for taking a leave are students who work on political campaigns, continuing a summer internship, or attempting a business venture like working on a startup. Other students choose to spend their time off traveling.
Tyler Altenhofen (E ‘17) was one such student who took a year off from school when his freshman year ended to see the world. During what Tyler considers his “gap year,” he spent nine months traveling, hitting Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Australia, New Zealand and different countries in Europe.
“I’m so glad I did it. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was undeclared, I was taking random classes,” Tyler said. "So when I got back I focused a little more.”
Penn often faces criticism for making the process of taking a leave unnecessarily difficult—perhaps due to a lack of dialogue on campus about leaves. “We rarely even hear leave of absence talked about, so I think when we do, it’s like in the instances of after something horrible happens,” Madeline admits. “I wish that as a freshman coming in I had known those [options] to begin with.”
Despite the perception that taking a leave is a process riddled with obstacles, Tyler is emblematic of the majority of Penn students who have actually taken leaves and found this not to be the case. “It was so incredibly easy,” Tyler said. “I said I wanted to travel, and they were like, ‘Alright, cool...tell us when you want to come back.”’
Rumors have swirled nationally for years about universities pressuring students with mental health issues to take leaves of absence out of fear of liability or the reputation of being labeled a “suicide school.” The Harvard Crimson reported several students—as well as medical and legal experts—supporting this notion. Articles in 2014 in the New Yorker and Newsweek documented similar sentiments at Princeton, UC Santa Barbara and Sarah Lawrence. However, campus administrators dispute these rumors and affirm the university’s commitment to students’ wellbeing.
Even Dr. Alexander is aware of the negative perceptions Penn students have towards taking a leave, often viewing it as a punishment or an otherwise adverse outcome instead of a productive, worthwhile step.
“The biggest problem in past years has been letting students know that leaves are very helpful sometimes to your academic career,” Dr. Alexander explains. “If you’re going to struggle through with some anxiety or depression… really you can just take a semester away and you’ll be much better off. Letting students know that this is not some kind of punitive thing, but that it’s actually going to help you in the long run.”
“Look at how many wonderful, hardworking, committed, dedicated people exist on this campus to help people work through trouble,” Dr. Tighe notes. “I mean everyone from Counseling and Psychological Services, to the school advising offices, to cultural centers. These aren’t people who are trying to get rid of students. They just aren’t.”
While the process process of requesting a leave may be easy, that’s not to say all parts of students’ leave experiences always go so smoothly. Many find the decision to take time off to be a complicated one, in part because of Penn’s financial policies surrounding leaves.
Penn’s policy states that a student can get 100 percent of tuition refunded if he or she requests to take a leave within the first two weeks of class. If a student requests a leave in the third or fourth week of class, he or she can get a 50 percent refund. After the fourth week of class, students cannot get tuition refunded. Penn also asks that all students reapply for their aid packages, scholarships and grants. This presents barriers to students who fear they may end up paying for semesters that don’t get completed, in essence paying for an extra semester of college.
Other schools’ policies are less restrictive. The Daily Pennsylvanian podcast reported that Cornell University has eight different windows of time in which a student is eligible for a refund, instead of just two.
Financial burdens, though, aren’t the only downside to taking a leave of absence. Several students found the transition back to school difficult.
“I think no one knew how to respond to it, so they didn’t,” Madeline said. “No one asked me where I went…I came back and would see those people and see that for the rest of my three years, and just would be reminded, I guess, of that awkwardness stage. That was hard.”
“Just because you press pause or took time off,” continues Madeline, “doesn't mean that you're less capable...that is something that I still struggle with.”
Yet, obstacles facing leaves aside, nearly all students who chose to take a leave do not regret doing so.
Despite his challenges, like many students Nick is ultimately glad he took the step to take time off. “I think the sacrifice of missing out on things and being displaced for a while is really tough, but it is worth it,” he said. “You definitely don’t have to rush through Penn.”
For many students, taking a leave at Penn can be the choice that saves their college experience, that opens up their point of view. For this reason, it’s not only a choice that more students should consider, but a conversation that should be more openly and widely discussed.
“I openly lied about me taking a leave until a year and a half ago, which is crazy,” Madeline reflected. “That really speaks to the stigma of it all.”
Still, Madeline doesn’t regret her leave. “Taking time off and removing yourself doesn’t mean you’re any ‘less than’ or not able to handle it,” Madeline continues. “Take all of the time that you need. Penn gives it to you.”