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S i tt ing in the College offi ce over a year ago after a week of hospitalization was uncomfortable at best. I could begin to feel the weight of the terrible situation I was in. Missing the last week of classes meant that half of my courses could not be completed because finals had to be in on time, no excuses. But I could always withdraw, right? Surely, I could fix this one.

What I was told afterwards still seems like a nightmarish blur in my head, but the message was clear: I would have to leave Penn. By the time I was being told how this wasn’t meant to be a punishment, that it should help me come back to school more successful, I was no longer fully listening. How would I face my family’s disappointment? How could I have gotten to my dream school only to fail so miserably?

The hardest part of being on leave was dealing with the shame of what felt like such a heavy failure. To me, every day I wasn’t in class was another day that I was being idle. It didn’t matter how much I helped my family out around the house, how much I volunteered or how many doctor’s appointments I went to. If I wasn’t a student, if I wasn’t employed, I wasn’t a productive member of society — end of story.

However, being away from Penn gave me the unique opportunity to examine my problematic habits as a student. I slept odd hours, skipped meals and took little care of my mental health. When the cushion of living at home was gone, being a full-time student felt like a monstrosity. It wasn’t that my classes were overwhelmingly hard, but being a successful, healthy adult was something I had absolutely no idea how to do.

So much of our well-being can be sacrificed to succeed at school. I began seeing clinicians at home, changing my lifestyle patterns and volunteering for college groups. I blogged for the Leila Grace Foundation, a non-profit that educates college students on sexual assault prevention, and volunteered for Art With Impact, a group that tackles the stigma of mental illness and connects college students to mental health resources. Overall, I tried to cultivate a healthy, happy outlook before my return.

We underestimate how difficult it can be to be set on a vigorous school-to-career path since we were young teens. Everything we do in high school is to get us into a good college, and everything in college is to get us to a good graduate school or job. In that competitive, exhausting process, what often gets lost is self-awareness and understanding. What will make you truly happy? What are your real goals and aspirations, dreams and desires? What experiences are out there for you, what opportunities have you not yet seized? Taking a leave gave me the chance to begin to reflect on these questions.

I would hope that anyone considering a leave of absence is doing so on their own terms. But for those who find themselves in a stickier situation as I did, it is most important to find self-forgiveness. Accept what has happened, and make it your mission to not only prevent such a situation from recurring, but also learn from your mistakes and work to be the best version of you that you can be.

Now I’m back at Penn, and I feel that much more determined to reach my goals and perform at the caliber of which I know I am capable. I’m excited to learn from professors and peers alike, to be a true part of an academic as well as a social community. I even mustered up the courage to apply for this column. In a world that moves at a dizzying pace, taking a leave can feel like an uncomfortable pause, and if not your choice, a mark of shame. I’m here to tell you that it is not the end. In fact, you may find it to be the best decision of y our college career.

Katiera Sordjan is a College junior from New York. Her email address “The Melting Pot”  appears every Thursday.

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