Op-eds, Opinions

Kim ’19, Schuetz ’19.5: Reflecting on leavetaking at Brown

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Friday, December 7, 2018

The first Halloweekend of 2018, we — leavetaking coordinators at the Curricular Resource Center — traveled to Duke University to participate in the Returning Students Conference with Associate Deans of the College Peggy Chang and Mary Greineder. The conference brought together deans of student and academic affairs from across the country to discuss support and share resources for students returning from leaves of absence. As students ourselves, we were privileged to have the opportunity to share our stories with representatives from 30 different colleges and universities. Two undergrads among a sea of deans and college staff, we caught a glimpse of how student leavetaking experiences, philosophies, cultures and policies differ across campuses. Despite these differences, all these schools are coming to embrace  a shared understanding of the importance of centering student voices — which will hopefully manifest in more opportunities for us to make leavetaking more accessible and less prohibitive here at Brown.

We write and reflect here to share how, behind the scenes, deans, staff and student advocates work to make managing and navigating university resources around leavetaking more accessible and transparent. We want to share our experience to demystify leavetaking for students and reiterate the fact that deans and students like us are here to provide support throughout the process — and that we’re here to encourage, rather than discourage, students to make the choices right for them.

At Brown, while taking a leave of absence is certainly not a norm, leavetaking is far from unheard of. According to our conversations with staff in the Dean of the College, an average of 200 undergraduates take time off from Brown every year, and reasons to take leave vary as widely as the human experience does. Students at Brown can take off for one semester, two, eight or even more than 50 years and still return to complete their degrees. For students at Brown, taking leave can be as simple as meeting with one of us, talking with any Academic and Advising Dean or communicating with a Dean from the Office of Student Support Services to coordinate a plan of care before, during and after leave. Some students may plan their leaves several semesters in advance, incorporating a leave of absence into a clear and determined path. Others may take a leave unexpectedly right before or during the semester and have to navigate other complicating factors, which may include stigma, family support, family obligations, cultural values and expectations, citizenship status and varying definitions of success.

Taking a leave of absence is a prime example of charting one’s own education. Conceptions of leavetaking as a legitimate option are shaped in part by being at place like Brown. The prestige of having been admitted to such an elite institution can compound the normative myth that college is a simple four-year journey. But the narratives and lived experiences of leavetakers, past and present, attest to the validity and power of these alternative paths. As Attayah Douglass ’18.5 shared in her Mid-Year Completion speech, she is proud of the ways in which her peers “are all reclaiming what it means to have a quintessential college experience.”

The challenges faced by students who take leave are not often well-understood by their peers. Near the conference’s close, we got a chance to speak on the “Student Voices” panel. We shared our experiences upon returning and the general transition back to campus. When someone asks you how your semester — or year, three years, even more — away from Brown was, or why you took leave, or how it feels to be back, how are you supposed to respond? The answer has never been quite clear to us, but we did get a chance to respond on our panel.

Our moderator, a fellow student, put it best when she shared how she felt that the process of leave was never quite over even when she returned to campus. She described how we never really shed the time we’ve spent away, as it is inextricably part of who we are now. Though we may be considered “returned leavetakers,” we are as much molded by the time we have spent away from school, as we are being students at our respective institutions. Our audience at the conference treated the panel as a holding space — a challenging platform to recall difficult moments, but also a place to find healing by sharing experiences. Through these intimations, it almost felt as if we were participating in some collective uplift and validation of what we’d gone through, albeit with the differences between our individual experiences.

As leavetaking coordinators, we work to motivate that kind of radical acceptance of our own personal journeys. This is the environment we seek to cultivate at the CRC. Leavetaking can seem like an overwhelming process with lots of complicated policies to navigate on your own, but it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, taking leave is about self-care and restoration — about coming to terms with yourself, what you need and how those around you can help. In this vein, we offer a range of services and support for students considering taking leave. We offer peer-advising open hours, provide online information clarifying all stages of the leavetaking process, compile resources for students to plan their time away, liaise between students and Brown administrative offices and create platforms for students to share their leavetaking stories — both in-person and through various media — to be shared with future generations of leavetakers.

As we disembarked from the plane and drove back to campus after the conference, a swell of emotions overswept us. There are so many people, including college staff, who are doing significant work on behalf of students — who are advocating for us, making historically gated communities (like private universities) easier to maneuver. With them, we can build on this work together to aspire and manifest the changes we seek. Leavetaking at Brown is still far from perfect, so we’re still looking ahead to fill the gaps. We’ve been in conversation with the Undergraduate Council of Students Wellness committee to introduce a care-package program to forge stronger bonds between current undergrads and leavetakers, and are currently working to waive the $70 re-admission fee that is not widely advertised for returning students.

Above all else, this conference gave us an opportunity to look back to our experiences as leavetakers ourselves, remember the feelings that led up to our decisions to take a break from Brown and dig back into how we took care of ourselves in the ways we knew best at the time. In the work we do today, we’re glad that we can intentionally empathize with our peers and do what sometimes goes ignored in building relationships and forging human connections: Just be there for each other. It’s the least we can do — and we’re glad that we can do it together.

Soyoon Kim ’19 can be reached at soyoon_kim@brown.edu. She’s working through it, as we all are. Addy Schuetz ’19.5 can be reached at addy_schuetz@brown.edu. They believe that time, love and stories are the most valuable things we have. As leavetaking coordinators at the Curricular Resource Center, Soyoon and Addy can be reached at leavetakers@gmail.com. Soyoon and Addy want to extend a special thanks to Dean Chang and Dean Greineder from Brown for their unfaltering love and support, and Duke University’s Dean Sabrina Thomas and the Office of Student Returns Ambassadors there for their hospitality, generosity and care.