About 25 people milled about Goodrich Hall on Saturday evening, talking, mingling and drinking hot chocolate. But this was not an ordinary night in Goodrich – it was the Taking Time Off Meet and Greet, a new event organized by Sally Waters ’17. Many students who attended the informal event were returning from time away from the College, but others were simply present to build community and show solidarity with friends and peers who have made the decision to take time off.
The event is part of ongoing efforts this school year by Waters, a member of the Mental Health Committee (MHC) who has also taken time off, to destigmatize the decision to take time away from the College, help students throughout the process and create a community around students who are graduating after their original class year. This event came a few days after the Taking Time Off panel on Claiming Williams Day, but proved to be much more personal.
Shanti Hossain ’19 was one event attendee who is just returning this semester after a year away from the College. She emphasized the importance of destigmatizing taking time off and added that it is integral that the community and the institution provide resources to ease the transition for students, both when they choose to take time away and when they return.
“When I took time off, I wish that I knew students who had taken time off that I could talk to,” Hossain said.
Waters is working to facilitate this process in several major ways, including compiling a list of advisors, which so far consists of 28 current students and alumni who have taken time off from the College for diverse reasons. The deans of the College are aware of the list but do not directly hold it; instead, they can advise students considering time off to contact Waters.
The list is part of several institutional changes that Waters is encouraging. “I’d like there to be more oversight of the reapplication process,” she said. Possible changes to the process include increased student involvement and the evolution of the role of advisors, who would no longer just provide emotional support to students but advocate for them as well.
“I wish that when I was really distraught and leaving the College, I had someone who could attend meetings with me and know to ask the questions I didn’t know,” Waters said.
These measures and more could also alleviate the stigma and shame students can feel in these situations. “When I took time off, I felt it was this secret thing I had to keep hidden, this path I was diverging from, whereas it’s a very legitimate thing,” Hossain said. Greater community awareness could also help normalize some of the uncomfortable aspects of readjusting to the College. As Hossain put it, “I’m in this weird state where I’m not really a sophomore, but I’m not living in an entry and I’m not really a freshman, either.”
Waters also pointed out that shame pushes many students to only talk about “the story aspect,” often an adventure that was a shorter portion of a period away that was mostly spent recovering. “It’s really just okay to go home and work a service job and just think about what you want,” she said. “That’s what I did for eight months, and then I went on a nice adventure thing, but both are as important to recovery.”
In order for the crucial support Waters is developing to be institutionalized and to outlast her own time at the College, she has created the new 4+ Club, an organization of students who have taken time off. “No one else on the MHC has taken time off, so it was definitely my little guinea pig project,” Waters said. “But ideally, going forward, I would like someone on MHC to always be on the board of the 4+ Club, so then I know that it will always have a foot in the College Council arena, [that] sort of thing. MHC is part of the establishment. I want to know that this is institutionalized in that it will continue to exist, but I want to make sure that it’s not going to become part of the bureaucracy. That’s why we don’t have a lot of resources, because it’s just so hard to deal with the bureaucracy.”
Waters envisions two complementary purposes for the new club: “One is just to be a purely social committee. It’s just really nice to socialize with people who get it,” she said. “But then we also have an organizational component of making sure these changes stick around.”
The club will especially work to support students who have recently returned to the College in ways such as reorientation services.
Waters was excited by the turnout at Saturday’s Meet and Greet, and surprised to meet new people who had taken time off, which highlights the lack of awareness relative to the prevalence of the experience. “I meet a new person who has taken time off every day,” she said. “I was expecting to know most of the people that came through the door, and I ended up meeting like 10 new people [who had taken time away].”
The biggest issue that Waters is addressing is awareness, “so that nobody feels isolated because of that decision, but also so that anybody who’s considering it makes an informed decision.” Her projects are fostering a community that will be more supportive to students before, during and after they spend time away from the College.
While readjusting to the College can be challenging, especially given the circumstances that tend to push students to take time off, the new changes and community will help make the experience a positive one. After all, taking time off can radically improve one’s subsequent time at the College. Hossain’s mental health problems in her first-year fall “kept me closeted off,” she said. “I didn’t get involved. It’s a lot easier for me to do that now because of taking time off. Before, it would’ve been terrifying for me to go to a meeting and act like I belong there, but now it feels very natural.”