Gantz ‘17.5: Mid-year graduation ignores medical leave-takers

op-ed contributor
Tuesday, December 6, 2016

For two consecutive years, the mid-year graduation ceremony has ignored — and thus invalidated — the experiences of medical leave-takers who comprise a substantial number of the mid-year graduating class.

According to the Office of Student Life website, there were 85 medical leaves of absence in the 2015-2016 academic year. The Curricular Resource Center reports that every year about 200 Brown students take a leave of absence. This means that medical leave-takers comprised approximately 42.5 percent of leave-takers this past academic year. It was difficult to find the exact percentage of students who are out on medical leave currently or the percentage of mid-year graduates who took a medical leave, but it is still reasonable to suggest that the ceremony ignored the experiences of a significant number of students in the audience.

At the 2016 mid-year graduation ceremony, both President Christina Paxson P’19 and Dean of the College Maud Mandel used the ceremony to congratulate Brown on its open curriculum and apparent flexibility, rather than appreciate the variety of experiences of the students the ceremony supposedly celebrates. Importantly, both Paxson and Mandel ignored the experiences of medical leave-takers. The administrators maintained the narrative that point-fivers represent the traditional Brown experience because apparently point-fivers are the embodiment of students who embrace the freedom to craft their own educations. They failed to recognize that many students who are graduating mid-semester did not intend  to graduate late or have any interest in doing so, but did so as a result of medical issues, financial hardships or other unpreventable circumstances.

Students graduate mid-semester for a variety of reasons, Mandel said, whether it be due to transferring from a different institution, deciding to take time off or experiencing a “bump in the road” in their education. The notion of a traditional educational “road” is ableist and classist. The experiences of hundreds of students were carelessly dismissed in this one sentence by the dean as simply a “bump.” Why is it that the experiences of mentally ill or financially burdened students cannot also be considered normal and acceptable educational experiences?

The student speakers spoke brilliantly this year and last. But for two consecutive years, the mid-year graduation ceremony has refrained from highlighting (or even acknowledging) the experiences of medical leave-takers. Instead, only students who decided to take time off to enrich their Brown experience are featured at the ceremony. This would be fine if only the event acknowledged in some other way that this is not the experience of every student.

Some graduating students in that audience did not spend their time off enriching their Brown experience or pursuing professional goals. In fact, many did not do anything related to their experience at Brown. Many went home, worked in coffee shops or went to therapy, and many spent as much time away from Brown as they needed to regain their health. Though this narrative is evidently perceived as less glamorous — as evidenced by the refusal to acknowledge it at the ceremony — it is the reality for many students and should be celebrated, supported and validated in the same way.

No component of the ceremony acknowledged that medical leave-takers often do not want to take time off, and some are forced to take a leave involuntarily. Many medical leave-takers do not see their experience away from Brown as a time of growth or understanding, though the administrators implied this is true for every mid-year graduate.

The structure and content of the past two mid-year ceremonies has encouraged an ableist, neuronormative mindset that ignores the realities of a large number of students who take time off. By failing to acknowledge the experiences of many point-fivers, Brown is essentially affirming that individuals who are mentally and physically ill do not conform to the vision of what it means to be successful at Brown.

Historically, Brown’s policies on leave-taking and readmission have burdened students who have needed to take time off for medical reasons. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Brown continues to devalue such students even at a ceremony that exists to celebrate their accomplishments. When I graduate next December, I would like to see the mid-year ceremony be more representative of the true experiences of my ’17.5 class.

Lindsay Gantz ’17.5 can be reached at lindsay_gantz@brown.edu. Please send responses to this op-ed to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds toopinions@browndailyherald.com.