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April 10, 2019

"A Really Interesting Confidence Thing: What It's Like to Take a Leave of Absence

Each student had a different experience with their leave of absence.

Each student had a different experience with their leave of absence.

Alvin Shi / The Chicago Maroon

Why do UChicago students take leaves of absence? 

Campus conversations on campus surrounding leaves of absence have swelled up in recent years. The College’s website states, “a leave of absence might be voluntary or involuntary, might occur while a student is in good standing or on academic probation, and might be associated with a medical condition.” 

It turns out that many different experiences with leaves of absence are possible within that description. The Maroon spoke to five current students and one alum about why they chose to take time off and what it’s like to be away from school. 

Some of their stories matched the leave-of-absence narrative currently dominant on campus. But some didn’t fit that mold. 

I. Before

Third-year Ronen Schatsky’s decision to take a leave of absence was not the first time he had decided to take time off from school. 

Schatsky, an economics major, took a gap year before coming to UChicago, for similar reasons to those that led him to take a leave during autumn quarter of 2018. 

“At any given time, I want to look at what I’m doing and I want to say: Is this actually what I want to be doing?” Schatsky said. “Or is this what I’m doing because it’s just the inertia of what people have told me to do?”

Keeping with that principle, around February 2018, Schatsky looked to see what competitive Congressional races were going on in the area. He decided to get involved with Kelly Mazeski’s campaign in Illinois’s Sixth Congressional District, which covers much of Chicago’s western suburbs. 

There was just one problem: During the Democratic primary election in March, another candidate, Sean Casten, defeated Mazeski. Schatsky was disappointed, but he was still interested in doing campaign work in a competitive House district for the November general election.

So he called the Casten team. 

“I was like, ‘Hey, I just spent the last couple months trying to defeat you guys, but I would really, really like you to give me a job, especially one that pays, if you wouldn’t mind,’” Schatsky recalled. “They said, ‘Sure, we'll give you one that pays.’ It was ridiculous!”

Schatsky originally planned to work for the Casten campaign while taking “the easiest quarter [of classes] you could possibly construct.” However, he later realized that because of the time commitment, he could only become an organizer for the campaign if he wasn’t a full-time student. 

That summer, Schatsky told his parents he had made up his mind to take autumn quarter 2018 off. 

Kaesha Freyaldenhoven, a joint A.B./A.M. student studying art history and cultural policy, took two leaves during her time at UChicago: one in autumn quarter 2016 and winter quarter 2017, and again in spring quarter 2018. 

Freyaldenhoven decided to take time off after learning that her grandfather had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that occurs when lung tissue is scarred.  

“He was gonna move out [to California] with my family and the idea of him being there with them without me was really tragic,” she said. “And so I decided I wanted to spend time with him…. I actually didn’t have any hesitation [about taking a leave]. I knew that my family was really important to me, and I could come back and things would just continue moving on, and that was OK with me.” 

She recalled that the process to get her leave approved was “very simple.” 

“Everyone I talked to…was just very, very supportive…. I scheduled a meeting with [my counselor]…. She was like, ‘OK, here’s the paperwork. Just sign this and get it back to me.’ And so it was like a very short piece of paper that said like, here’s your name, here’s what year you are, what major you are, write like a paragraph about why you want to take time off and then submit it,” Freyaldenhoven said. 

Jade Cool, a psychology major entering their tenth quarter of classes, took a leave starting in autumn quarter of 2014 for a very different reason than Schatsky and Freyaldenhoven. Cool returned to campus in autumn quarter of 2015.

During the summer before their first year at college, Cool underwent treatment for an eating disorder and other conditions. Their treatment team reached out to the University’s Student Health and Counseling Services to ask them to look after Cool’s case. 

To Cool’s surprise, at their first appointment with Student Health in their first month of college, they were told that although Student Health had approved Cool before they arrived at UChicago, the University had decided they were not ready to be at school. 

“I don’t think that I was going to have a choice about whether I was going to leave,” they said.

“I was put in an exam room with the door closed, by myself and with…voluntary leave of absence forms, with the understanding that if I didn’t sign those then I would be put on a forced leave.” 

According to Cool, it would be “a little easier” to get back to school from voluntary rather than involuntary leave, and that perhaps the administration prefers to put students on voluntary leave for optics.

“Maybe it just makes them look better,” Cool said. 

However, Cool made clear that their leave in 2014 was “voluntary” in name only. 

Rachel, a fourth-year majoring in comparative human development, recalled hearing stories from her friends about “voluntary” leaves like Cool’s. Because of those stories, her friends cautioned her not to get too comfortable with Student Counseling Services (SCS), even though Rachel had had problems with suicidal thoughts. [Rachel asked for her name to be changed to protect her privacy.]

“I told people like, ‘Hey look, do you know anything about student counseling? Are they good?’ And they were like, ‘make sure…[you] don’t tell them that you’re suicidal because if you…do tell them that, you’re going to get forced to leave,’” Rachel said. “And I was like, ‘well, I can’t do that because I’ll lose my scholarship.’”

Rachel, a QuestBridge scholar, had been awarded a full ride for four years, but her award package was contingent on maintaining a certain GPA and remaining in good academic standing.  

During autumn quarter 2017, she began to have a difficult time with her mental health and felt that her academics were suffering as a result.

“I didn’t know that [leaves] were…a possibility at all until like, my friend who was going through a lot of very tough personal struggles and contemplating…other options that she could take and she was like…‘I could do this thing a called leave of absence’ and I was like, ‘What? I didn’t know it was a thing.’”

Rachel felt that taking time off was definitely the best option for her.

“I was like, well, I definitely can’t keep going in this quarter. I’m either going to fail all my classes, and then ruin my GPA, lose my scholarship, all of that.”

Though she felt it was necessary for her to take a leave in order to not burn out academically, Rachel worried about the financial repercussions that would occur if she did so.

She contacted her academic adviser, who was part of the Center for College Student Success (CCSS), to try and figure out what would happen to her financial aid package if she took a leave. She expected that someone who was part of the CCSS would know about working with first-generation, low-income students. 

But that was not the case.  

“He didn’t know anything and could not direct me anywhere to get information about financial details about taking a leave,” Rachel said.  

Rachel then went to the Office of Financial Aid, and was told that she would only be notified if there was an amount she had to pay the University after her leave was processed. This, she said, was shocking.

“It’s like, what? You think I’m just gonna make a decision and then just pay whatever? Like it doesn’t matter? That’s not a thing! That’s not a thing that I can afford to do,” she said.

After repeated visits to the Office of Financial Aid and many e-mail exchanges, Rachel says she was eventually told that there would be no financial consequences for her taking a leave.

With her financial situation seemingly settled, Rachel began her leave in autumn 2017, intending to return to campus winter 2018.

Responding to a request for comment, a University spokesperson said that the University could not comment on individual cases.

Emily, a current student majoring in East Asian languages and civilization, also took a leave of absence in autumn quarter of 2018 in order to focus on her mental health. [Emily’s name has also been changed.]

“My parents got sick, and I suspected I was developing clinical depression as a result of that and some other events that were happening in my family,” she wrote in a message to The Maroon. “This mix prompted me to take some time off to see a therapist, focus on my personal issues and spend more time with my family,” she said. 

Emily decided she wanted to take a leave after the add/drop deadline, which is at the end of third week. Although the official registration policyof the College would have left her with no choice but to withdraw from all her classes that quarter, she benefited from an unexpected kindness from an administrator who handled her leave request. 

“The dean was super nice and changed it so that all of my classes were ‘dropped,’ considering I informed the University on Tuesday of week four, and she just changed the drop date to last day of week three,” Emily said.   

Students taking leaves from the College to focus on their mental health is not a new phenomenon. Soren Dayton (A.B. ’99), who studied math and anthropology, took a leave starting the autumn quarter of 1995 and returned to campus the autumn quarter of 1996. 

As a second-year, Dayton moved alone into an apartment off campus. His social isolation and his living situation contributed to the beginning of his depression, and he stopped attending classes for the last five weeks of fall quarter. Dayton said he ignored his situation at first.

“After a period of time…I started not ignoring it and then went…and visited [campus mental health resources],” he said. “They helped me negotiate withdrawing from some classes, taking incompletes in others…and just checking out until I got my stuff in order.” 

Dayton said he knew others at the time who took leave to take care of their depression, and that people on campus were aware of the concept of mental health. Dayton’s mother is a licensed clinical psychologist, so he was familiar with discussions of mental health prior to starting college. 

Despite this, he remembers, “We just didn’t have the language to think about things in those [mental health] terms as applied to myself.” 

There were campus counseling resources,” Dayton told The Maroon. “At the time it was, I think, next to what is now the Seminary Co-Op…. I don’t know where it is now. It would actually be an interesting point because people probably physically don’t know where it is.” [Student Counseling Services are now located in Alumni House, at 5555 South Woodlawn Avenue.]

II. During 

Dayton’s decision to take a leave turned out to be a good one: he was able to improve his housing situation by moving into a co-op, and he began working downtown as a systems administrator for a software start-up. 

“It felt like great money at the time,” Dayton said. 

His time as a systems administrator also helped him realize that he wasn’t as interested in math and physics as he had thought, and that he was looking forward to taking philosophy and anthropology classes when he returned. 

“[My leave] gave me some space to think about what I wanted to do. It gave me some confidence that school wasn’t the end-all-be-all. And so in those two ways it was an enormously positive thing for me,” he said.

Schatsky’s experience of leave was also positive overall. Work as an organizer kept him busy—he canvassed, phone banked, led trainings for volunteers, and was in charge of recruiting volunteers—but he enjoyed it. He also relished the job’s challenges.

“I really liked trying to get people to sign up to volunteer,” Schatsky said. “That’s a challenge for me. I am very good at giving a performance kind of thing, like a training, but when it comes to sitting down someone and really, really persuading them of a thing, that’s like next level.”

The work paid off, it seemed: Casten defeated his opponent, Peter Roskam, by six points, even though the latter had won the district by 18 points in 2016. But Schatsky’s leave didn’t end with the elections, so he found himself adjusting to a post-campaign, classes-free life.

Schatsky seized his chance to eat real food again, after subsisting on Jimmy John’s and Domino’s during his campaigning days. He hosted Friday dinners for his friends, spent time on hobbies like gardening and playing piano, and drove home to New York for Thanksgiving break.

During his last few weeks off, Schatsky also solidified his choice of major. 

“I looked through the entire course catalog of the University of Chicago…and found any possible class that I could have a conceivable interest in taking, and investigated those and met with teachers who taught those classes to try to figure out things…. I also sliced off one of my majors [by getting] rid of pub pol,” he said. 

Freyaldenhoven’s time off was also eventful: She spent autumn quarter 2017 with her grandfather and made a documentary about his experience as an immigrant.  

“Our entire family is based now in the U.S. because of him. And so I got to learn a lot about my family history,” she said.

She spent winter quarter 2018 doing marine biology research about lionfish in Belize, after finding out about the opportunity following her first year. 

“I was on a family vacation [in Hawaii] and I was diving, and then we met some people who had been doing research with this organization that’s based in the U.K. named Blue Ventures,” Freyaldenhoven said. “I worked at an aquarium in high school and I’m from the beach area. And so I was like, ‘this sounds like an interesting experience.’” 

Emily also found her time off served its purpose. 

“[I did] exactly what I wanted to—I spent time with my parents, traveled with them, and saw a therapist on a regular basis…. I also found the time to revisit many of my old hobbies—I took up French again, made significant progress on my reading list, and started to learn the piano. These experiences reminded me that I have an identity that is independent of my accomplishments or who I am in college.” Fortunately, her parents’ conditions also stabilized during her time off.  

During ninth week of that quarter, when she felt she had a “better grip on [her] mental health,” Emily notified the University that she would be returning. The College’s leave of absence policies state a student must notify the Dean of Students in the College “at least six weeks prior to the start of the quarter in which the student intends to return.” Ninth week of autumn quarter was around six weeks before winter quarter was due to begin. 

However, that very policy, along with other College policies, caused Rachel to have a difficult time during her leave. She originally intended to take only autumn 2017 off, but made the decision to take winter 2018 off as well after realizing that she wasn’t ready to commit to returning to campus.

“I [had] just started taking care of myself, being in my leave, and really doing things. And then two seconds later you have to notify the University that you’re coming back, and it’s hard to know six weeks in advance like, ‘hey, what’s my mental health going to look like?’”

That wasn’t the only difficulty Rachel ran into during the leave. Though she’d been told that she wouldn’t face negative financial consequences, she received a call while she was on her leave from a financial aid officer, saying that her leave had been processed and that a balance of two thousand dollars had been incurred.

“I e-mailed back and was like, ‘where did this number come from? What is the thing I’m supposedly having to pay for? I’ve removed myself from the University. I’m not using any resources from the University. I’m not taking any courses, like I am not a cost to the University anymore. So…what am I being told to pay for?’”

After many e-mail exchanges with the Office of Financial Aid, Rachel was told that she needed to make up the cost of a Pell Grant, a federal source of funding.

Withdrawal and taking a leave of absence are different things at UChicago: A withdrawing student has decided to take their names off of the University’s roll book, while a student on leave remains enrolled. But according to Rachel, because the federal government only categorizes a student as one who is currently enrolled in an institution, she was not a University student while on leave. As a result, she was responsible for paying the balance incurred by the lack of federal funding that her leave caused. 

Despite all the setbacks she faced during her leave of absence, Rachel said that the process of filling out all the leave-related forms was very simple.  

“It’s not the process itself that’s difficult. It’s all the consequences that it has for particular subsets of students.”  

There were positive parts of her time off as well: Rachel went to therapy, biked all the time, wrote and read creatively, and “got really, really good at curating my Instagram.”

“That was a really great outlet for me creatively and also for solidarity, because I had posted on my social media about my leave and people knew that I was taking this time and they were just voicing support or if I had issues with the University I’d ask for help. And even if people didn’t know how to deal with a leave of absence because it’s something that’s not like crazy common, that solidarity or just reaching out to people and keeping in touch was important.”

Eventually, she felt that her personal mental health had improved enough for her to return to the University again, and she did so in spring 2018.  

During their leave of absence, Cool attended an intensive outpatient program to treat their eating disorder and mental health issues. 

When asked what the University could do to better support its students, Cool responded: “One of the most important things that’s feasible is for the University to trust that students are telling the truth when they’re talking about their experiences with mental health…. I don’t know if it’s really ethical for them to assume that you’re lying rather than giving the benefit of the doubt and trusting that what you’re saying is the truth.” 

III. After 

Since their return to campus, Cool has raised awareness regarding the issue of students being pressured to take “voluntary” leaves. In 2015, they were interviewed for an MSNBC investigation into forced leaves at colleges around the country.They also told The Maroon that in their view, campus has more mental health resources than when they took their first leave in autumn 2014. (Cool took two leaves in total: the second one was in March 2016. According to them, the second leave was “a little bit more like actually voluntary,” since they were relapsing and were hospitalized before finals week.)  

Rachel is preparing to graduate on time, this June. She had taken four classes every quarter while at the University, since she had been interested in a five-year A.B./A.M. program with the School of Social Service Administration, which would have required her to complete most of her undergraduate requirements in the first three years. She reflected that taking four classes each quarter contributed to her burning out, but will also allow her to graduate on time.

 “The thing that caused me the most harm ended up kind of helping.”

She acknowledged that it’s not possible for all students to graduate on time after taking leaves.

“If I had not taken so many courses and I had just gone through the college experience like an average student, taking a quarter [off] would have implied that I couldn’t graduate on time. I think it’s also important to note that supposedly every student at the University can take a leave. But, like many other things, not every student has the same ability to do so.”

For example, Rachel noted, it’s impossible for some international students to take leaves because they might lose their visa if they’re not full-time students (visa requirements stipulate that the holder must take a minimum course load to retain their student status).

Since returning to campus, Rachel has encouraged people she’s talked to on campus to be more vocal about their mental health and willing to seek help.

“There’s definitely groups on campus that are trying to cultivate a more positive mental health culture, which is good. But I think individuals also have to take that up because organizations like RSOs and stuff can’t always reach everybody.”  

She also believes that the University ought to provide more resources to support students through their entire college experience, such as culturally competent therapists at SCS as well as grief support groups.  

Although Rachel and Cool were dissatisfied with the support they received from the University before and after their returns to campus, Emily felt that her return went smoothly and that she was supported. She also believes that the University cannot be expected to set up its support system to cater to every individual case. 
“Students take time off for many different reasons and the University cannot be expected to cater for all of their individual needs through one-size-fits-all programs,” Emily elaborated. “The current adviser system (so long as you have a caring adviser) is pretty efficient at directing individuals to the resources that would be most helpful for them individually. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Freyaldenhoven also felt that her return went well. 

“I can’t speak to anybody else’s experience, but for me the University played exactly the role that I needed,” she said. “They directed me to the information that I needed. They approved my leave and let me come back in the times that I wanted and I could reach them while I was on leave.”  

Freyaldenhoven’s time off also helped her realize that she wasn’t studying what she really wanted to study. 

“I went from econ to pub pol and then only after taking time off did I decide [to major in] art history,” she said, explaining that her time off allowed her “to reflect and realize that I really love looking at paintings and learning about like the culture from which that painting…came from.” 

Freyaldenhoven also says that her leave hasn’t been an issue in situations where she’s applied to competitive opportunities. 

I worked at Goldman Sachs and they were very understanding of taking a leave. I’ve applied for grants and they’ve also been very understanding,”she said.

Dayton also told The Maroon that he hasn’t felt judged by potential employers for taking time off. His resume states only the year he graduated from college and not when he entered, meaning that his leave makes no appearance on his resume. Even the institution that would have the most access to his transcripts was uninterested in Dayton’s time off. 

“I got into a Ph.D. program [in anthropology] at Chicago, and they can look at the whole thing and they clearly didn’t care,” he said. 

Dayton ended up dropping out of the anthropology program and starting a software company. Today he’s the communications director of Protect Democracy, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. 

Four weeks after the election, Schatsky was eager to get back to school. He ended up taking a “mind-blowing” class (American Grand Strategy, taught by Professor John Mearsheimer) that he would never have learned about if he hadn’t sifted through the course catalog. 

Schatsky also discovered a connection to his campaign life on campus: Peter Roskam, the former Congressman whom he helped to oust from public office, was a Winter Quarter Fellowat the Institute of Politics.  

“I went there [to meet him], having totally destroyed his ass,” Schatsky said, smiling. 

 

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