Students and administrators came together on Friday to discuss the process, experience and often misinformation surrounding leaves of absence at Penn.
Two students sat on the panel. One was Blake Mergler, who took a leave due to anxiety after she separated from her twin sister, who attended a different college, and is now a student at the Perelman School of Medicine. The other was Engineering sophomore Gerdin Falconi, who took time off to get treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The rest of the panel was composed of various administrators involved in the leave of absence process.
An academic leave is mandatory, in which a student who is struggling academically is required to take two semesters off from Penn. A voluntary leave is where a student chooses to take time off for any number of reasons.
The panelists discussed reasons why many students are reluctant to take a leave of absence.
"We recognize this is not an instantaneous decision for the vast majority of students — that it is often thought of as the last resort and the least desirable option," said Katrina Glanzer, assistant director of Advising Services and Academic Support
Many of concerns are financial. Students who take time off sometimes do not get credit for uncompleted classes, and the tuition from that semester might not be refunded, panelists said.
"For the most part, we're extremely generous, but we consider a lot of different things before we consider whether or not a student gets a refund," said Sonya Gwak, the director of Student Life in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Falconi said she didn't lose any money by taking a leave. But Mergler said that because she decided to take a leave later in the semester, she only got a partial refund, but the rest of the costs of a lost semester still put a strain on her family.
But there are other concerns as well — students may worry that they will lose their place in the Penn community if they take time off.
"You're a student leaving and taking time away … you’re thinking that you’re leaving that part of you," Sharon Smith, who works at Student Intervention Services, said. "But Penn is still here, and you’re still a Penn student a year from now. You’re still one of us."
Glanzer pointed out that students still have access to academic advisors while on leave, which can help connect them with resources like Counseling and Psychological Services, the Weingarten Learning Center and Student Health Service when they return.
Both students said they had a more positive academic and social experience after returning from a leave of absence.
"Ever since I came back I feel like I can see the colors of Penn," Falconi said.
Mergler said her experience with her psychologist during her leave sparked an interest in psychology. She ended up becoming pre-med and is now a medical student.
"Socially, I think I was just more prepared to be an independent person," Mergler said. "I met friends in a healthy way; I didn't rely on others to be healthy."
Glanzer said that the majority of students who take a leave of absence graduate within one semester of the typical four-year trajectory.
But not everyone's experience with leaves has been positive — one student asked about a friend who went on medical leave and did not receive any class credits or refunds from the lost semester. She said his experience discouraged people he knew from seeking help for mental health problems.
Gwak responded that the situation described was unusual.
"Every situation is different. That person’s situation is in my perspective very rare. That is an anomaly," Gwak said. "It is an array of choice that you have … we really really want to work with you."
Smith emphasized that any student who is at risk should still seek help.
"We would absolutely, absolutely encourage that … it saddens me to hear that one would think they have thoughts of harming themselves and they're afraid because their first thought is we're going to send them home," Smith said. "Obviously the University's not a business, it's an educational institution … we're not in the business of sending students home without their degrees."
President of Active Minds and College junior Kathryn Dewitt organized and moderated the event. She took a leave of absence as well, and she said she was initially reluctant when the option was first presented to her. When she ultimately decided to take time off, she tried to come back after only one semester but was denied.
However, she now feels that taking a full year off was the best thing for her mental health. She wanted the panel to address the stigma and misinformation surrounding leaves of absence at Penn.
"Getting the administrator and students talking in the same room with other administrators and students asking questions was the way to debunk the myths," Dewitt said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Blake Mergler did not receive a refund from Penn during a leave of absence. Mergler actually reported getting a partial refund from Penn. The DP regrets the error.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.