On campus, the prevailing mentality is “work hard, play hard.” Work as hard as you can. Maximize your fun on the weekends. Maybe get some sleep; maybe not. Then back to work again.
Penn is an Ivy League school widely known for its preprofessionalism and overly competitive atmosphere. Taking a break can often seem like a fantasy. Freshmen arrive in the rush of New Student Orientation and the Activities Fair and immediately start joining clubs, teams and other organizations. From then on until Commencement, students experience a nonstop whirlwind of triumphs and challenges.
It’s often hard for most of us to take a break — or even admit that we need one — because we are worried we might fall behind our peers. And that desire to “avoid showing weakness” is a huge issue because it can prevent students from doing what’s best for them out of fear of others looking down on them. This mentality has created a stigma around taking leaves of absence.
Most students don’t realize that going on a leave of absence — a formal break from the University — can be extremely beneficial and, for some students, even an integral part of their learning experience at Penn. In fact, as former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Katiera Sordjan noted in a column about her year on leave, taking a leave could be the best decision students makes in their college career.
Being on leave gives students an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done at Penn and whether they are working toward goals that make them happy. It gives them time to handle any problems they might have, away from the often toxic, over-stressed culture that Penn students foster on campus. Going on leave also opens up opportunities for professional growth — giving them time to volunteer or work for an organization or issue that matters to them. When students return from leave, they can come back to campus with more clearly defined goals and can be more prepared for the work and stress that comes with being at Penn. Prior research has shown that students who take a leave of absence for mental health reasons perform better in school after they return from their time off.
At several colleges, taking time away from campus is practically required for all students. At Northeastern University, 92 percent of graduates take at least one semester off from traditional coursework to participate in a co-op — an educational, internship-like experience in the private sector. At Goucher College, all students are required to study abroad at least once during their four years on campus.
At Penn, 5 percent of students in every graduating class take a leave of absence — about 125 students each year. Some students go on leave to work on startups or political campaigns. Others go on leave because of a physical illness or other incapacitation. And others take time off for their own mental health.
No matter one’s reason for going on leave, there’s nothing wrong with taking time away from campus to decide what’s best for one’s future. Thankfully, Penn doesn’t have different categories of leave, so a student facing both academic and mental health struggles doesn’t need to decide which one is the driving reason for their need to leave campus. That student just needs to tell their advisor that it’s time for a break, and then they can take it. This is a simple way that Penn makes it easy to go on leave while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with doing so.
That being said, the process of taking a leave of absence can be a confusing and difficult one, and there’s more that the administration can do to help students taking leaves of absence. Because each student on leave has specific requirements they must fulfill in order to return to campus, it’s important that advisors continue to check in with students over the course of their leave about the progress they have made toward their goals. Penn should also ask students who have previously gone on leave whether they would like to serve as resources for students considering taking a break from coursework, and then provide their contact information to students who are contemplating taking a leave.
While Penn can improve how it deals with leaves of absence, there’s even more that we as students can do to create an environment welcoming of taking a leave. It starts with a collective effort to dial down the intensity on campus. Students need to stop implicitly and explicitly creating an environment overly focused on work and narrow views of what defines success — as if those are the only two things that matter in life. We need to stop competing over how much work we have, and start taking breaks more often. We can be anxious about the future, but we can’t let that anxiety consume us and let it fester into a toxic culture of competitiveness.
We need to create a culture where taking a break is seen as a positive — because for many people it is. That starts with accepting this fact: A leave of absence is not a failure; it is a step toward success. And it’s time for us to create a community where this message is crystal-clear.
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