While there has long been a history of students taking leaves of absence, the discussion around the option to do so has largely been taboo. Now, student groups are working with the University to make the process of leaving and returning to campus more seamless and transparent.
As of now, the standard leave of absence is one year. Students can request to return after one semester but this request is handled by the student’s respective undergraduate school, which may deny their request for re-entry.
Executive Director for Education and Academic Planning Rob Nelson said the curricula of some schools such as the School of Nursing, make it more difficult for students to return before a year is up. He added that Penn does not categorize leaves of absence because students often need them for a combination of reasons. This is also why the policies surrounding them are standardized.
The Undergraduate Assembly is making a concerted effort to ensure that the process of re-entry is handled on a more individual basis.
“There might be some discrepancies between the schools' evaluative measures and the student’s actual readiness to come back,” Speaker of the UA and College junior Michael Krone said. “We just want to make sure that students who want to and are ready to come back after six months have the opportunity to do so.”
The UA is working with various departments across campus, such as Dining Services, Penn Transit and the academic advising offices to create a centralized website that would answer all questions regarding leaves of absence.
College senior Kathryn Dewitt, chair of Penn Wellness and former president of Active Minds, took a leave of absence and was denied re-entry after six months. However, she added that for her, this decision was likely the right one. Dewitt, like Krone, said all students’ experiences with mental health are unique and should be treated as such.
“The six-month leave of absence makes it more appealing for students to take leaves and that in and of itself should be a reason why administrators should be open to it,” Dewitt said.
“I think it’s more of an image issue," she added. "People don’t know that you can take a six month leave because it’s not done very often.”
Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Bill Alexander said CAPS works as a consultant to the four undergraduate schools when a student takes a leave of absence for mental health reasons, but that CAPS almost always supports the recommendations of the student's doctor, regardless of when the student requests to come back.
In an effort to make the transition back from leaves of absence more seamless, Penn Wellness hosted the first Returning Students Orientation on Sept. 8 in collaboration with the Vice Provost of University Life, CAPS, Weingarten Learning Resources Center, Student Intervention Services and Active Minds.
College junior Sam Kook who took two separate leaves of absence, the first for six months and the second for a year, attended the Returning Students Orientation.
"I can say I’m a junior, but it’s weird because I’m 23 years old," Kook said. "The things that I expect of people socially are different than what they’re expecting of me. It’s hard to know what to tell people.”
Kook added that initiatives like the Returning Students Orientation are examples of Penn's efforts to make the transition as easy as possible.
Nelson said the University is working hard to de-stigmatize leaves of absence.
“Often times, students understand the leave process as punitive or as something that is interrupting their study," Nelson said. "And while that might be true in the sense that it is interruption, the whole purpose of a leave of absence is to put students on a path to success.”