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What I Learned on Leave

About a year ago, I was in my grandparents’ apartment in Suzhou, China. This was before the pandemic started, and I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with my aging relatives. However, from the school administration’s standpoint, this time away was meant to be recuperative in both a personal and an academic sense. A few weeks before the spring semester was to start, over break, I received an email requesting my presence at a hearing overseen by the Committee on Student Standing and Programs (CSSP)—a hearing regarding my own status at the college. Following the hearing, where my academic fate lay in the hands of people I did not know well, judging me mainly on the basis of the available paperwork, a decision was made that I could not return to Haverford for at least a year.

Many students take gap years, either before or in the middle of the four years, as part of a normal college experience. The limitations on campus life imposed by COVID have also prompted a wave of student leave-taking. Marcos Yoc Bautista ’24 made this choice, saying “The pandemic really just neutered the learning experience.” Isabel Russak ‘23 expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that she felt “very restricted” while on campus. “I wanted to take a pause so that when I come back… I feel like I’m getting a true college experience instead of being stuck inside my dorm and on a screen all day,” she said. While these students made the choice to leave, I had to take a leave for the sake of my well-being.

However, this article is not meant to be a means of “performing trauma” but of evaluating the impact my leave had on me. I would argue that administrative support, although at times sporadic and awkward, was overall a hallmark of the exceptionality of the Haverford experience, rather than a weakness. Recent pledges of reform by the CSSP have been a reflection of the willingness on the part of the administration to make amends and support BIPOC and first-generation/low-income (FGLI) students. In the semester prior to taking my academic leave, I was on academic warning and had been having weekly check-up meetings with my dean, Mike Elias. Prior to the start of my sophomore year, I had never met my dean. Although these meetings were generally pleasant and casual, I mainly regarded them as a nuisance, part of the cumbersome bureaucratic process. Perhaps I was wrong to do so, because after I was placed on leave, Dean Elias served as my one essential link to school goings-on.

As a first-year student, there are many checks and balances woven into the social fabric of life at Haverford. First-years have ready access to a variety of supports including their Customs team, the various deans, and at times their professors and TAs. Through all of these interlocking parts, the school hopes students are able to find a happy medium where they are academically challenged, but not unreasonably overwhelmed. While I was grateful for these supports, and I enjoyed talking with my dean, I reached the limits of their efficacy. Sometimes it can be impossible to translate your learning process and the social dynamics of life to another person, even in a supportive setting.

As a sophomore, that support structure was less prevalent, and since I had my warning, I felt like I had been placed on the “bad-list” by the college, even though everyone assured me it was supposed to be non-punitive. The result was isolating; when I was put on leave, it came as a shock to most people who knew me, because I hadn’t told them about the weekly meetings with my dean or any of the other measures I had to go through.

As I waited outside the country and later at home, I felt like I was watching from a distance as my friends took classes, went on break, took finals, dealt with the pandemic and organized the strike. It was also just a challenging year overall, for many students: Marcos said, “So many things happened in my personal life, academically, and in the country overall all at once.” I felt as if I had entered an administrative wormhole; I related to the feeling of being “lost and frozen in time.”

While I am ultimately glad I took a gap year—it transformed me mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, and gave me a chance to renew my commitments to the school and my academic interests—it was jarring to be kept from a student status for such an extended period. I was reviewing academic subjects, especially a computer science class, to compensate for the previous semester, reconnecting with family, and taking care of my health, but I felt powerless to expedite my return to the College because of the locks and levers that held me in place. The leave contract stipulated at least a year. If I had a major complaint about the leave system, it would be this obligatory length of time—it doesn’t take into account the student’s growth, which could occur in bursts, and instead forces students to conform to seemingly arbitrary lengths of time away from school.

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