Just weeks before the end of spring semester my freshman year, I decided to take a leave of absence from the College. The actual decision to leave wasn’t hard; I knew it was necessary. The toughest part of the whole process was having to explain and defend myself to everyone else.
“There are only four or five weeks left in the semester!”
“Just talk to your professors. You can fix things.”
“Are you sure?”
For some reason, there is a stigma against taking time off from college – be it a personal, medical or psychological leave of absence. The underlying mentality of Williams students is to ride out the storm and forget yourself personally for the sake of academia. Be a student first. If you have time after, deal with yourself. The day’s energy should be targeted toward being a Williams student, towards that reading response, essay or exam. But sometimes, that reading response, essay or exam feels so incredibly minimal and unimportant compared to the other overwhelming aspects of your life.
Even though my leave of absence was a medical, psychological leave, I hate having to explain that every time a person asks me why my WSO profile says class of 2013 when I’m a junior. This is such a personal decision, and I don’t see the need to explain to that random person in my Spanish class the reasons behind my necessity to leave. However, if I don’t, my academic character is questioned. I am perceived as lazy or not as smart as the student who took the allotted four years to finish their degree. Of course, that may be my own insecurity of people’s perceptions, but I feel that insecurity is warranted.
I remember a conversation I had with a small group of acquaintances in Paresky late one night during finals last spring. In the middle of our procrastination, the lighthearted conversation somehow veered into more serious ground when someone mentioned another student’s decision to leave for a year. The mocking tone of the comment created notable tension because the person who brought it up did not know I had made the same decision the year before. The others did, however, and immediately began trying to ease the tension and save face.
“No, no, no, but your case was different.”
Why was my situation any more valid than any other student who made the same decision I had? Was it for the sole reason that they knew my background story, and it’d be harsher to judge, unlike someone more removed from their frame of reference? Or did they actually not believe in the validity of my situation?
Despite how they truly felt about my decision and whether they judged me, they did not apply that same standard to others they did not know. Instead they assume that those who take time off cannot handle life at Williams and criticized them for it. There is a notion of blaming the person who decides to leave, not taking into account the reasons that drove them to make that choice.
The thought process is often “Oh, what did they do?” instead of “Oh, what happened?”
To add to that, leaving is not the only problem; coming back to campus presents a whole new set of issues. There is a sense of feeling unwelcome in the community after being away for a certain amount of time. It hints at the inability to reclaim the space that you once shared with the very community that chastises you after you come back from a leave of absence. The mere fact of belonging to a different class year accentuates this feeling, but the community at Williams does not help to ease this sentiment. Even off-handed jokes about that person’s age illustrate the judgmental culture surrounding the decision to take time off. The effects of this often go unnoticed.
No student should ever feel apprehensive about taking time off because of a judgmental environment, especially because that decision is often both difficult and stressful in itself. As a community, we have to work on embracing diversity. This means recognizing the space of the students who don’t fit the norm, and this includes students who take more than four years to graduate.