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Taking a Leave: The Hidden Hardships

With only ten dollars a week for food, John, whose name has been changed for privacy, ate beans and rice nearly every night. This was a reality he never considered possible. Just months prior, he had been enrolled at Yale University. Now, he was working three jobs in order to pay for rent and tuition at a local university, where he attended two classes each day.

John found himself in this situation after taking a leave from Yale University in mid-October of his second year, due to a combination of physical and mental health reasons.

“I was falling behind in everything,” he remembered in an interview with The Politic.

Students like John who are seeking to take extended time off from Yale have two options: a leave of absence or a withdrawal from Yale. The key difference between these two choices is that, according to the Yale College Program of Study 2018-19, the petition for a leave of absence must be “received on or before the fifteenth day of the term in the fall…[or] of the term in the spring.”  After this deadline, a student has the ability to only withdraw from Yale. After their time on leave, the student must apply for reinstatement. “During the time that a student who has withdrawn is away from Yale College, the Committee on Reinstatement expects him or her to have been constructively occupied and to have maintained a satisfactory standard of conduct.”

John’s decision to withdraw from Yale came with immediate difficulties. “One of the things about taking time off is that you have to take two classes,” John explained. “It was kind of an awkward situation for me. Being in a rural area, I wasn’t by any major university.”

Not only was the search for an appropriate institution challenging, enrolling in classes posed its own difficulties. John remembers not being able to enroll in classes until he gained Yale approval, which is necessary for academic work to count toward reinstatement. The approval usually came only three to four days before the enrollment deadline. By then, most classes were full.

Earning two term credits while on leave is an integral part of Yale’s policy. In John’s view, it comes with both benefits and unnecessary challenges.  “It makes a couple of assumptions, and mainly those assumptions are that first of all, you will be able to afford to fulfill those requirements,” he said.

For John, who was unable to rely on his family for financial support, the class requirement meant working three jobs. Yet there was an alarming distinction between working, and making enough money for John to support himself. Because the jobs for which he was qualified were typical student jobs—waiting tables or retail work—John found that he could work only ten hours a week. It was an income ill-fit to cover his tuition, Yale-mandated medical treatment, and rent.

The other assumption that Yale’s policy makes is that students can complete the reinstatement process without financial support from the university. Because he was technically no longer an enrolled student at Yale, and because he was a part of the continued studies program at his state university, John did not qualify for Yale financial aid, loans, or work studies. This only exacerbated his already bleak financial situation.

John was also without direct support from resources that enrolled students are afforded. “It would almost be like a prospective student trying to ask administrators for help,” he told The Politic. “They don’t see you in the database so they can’t do anything.”

John would like to see this changed. “There is a way to get financial aid from a university if you are not a full-time student, but it requires that the university that you are enrolled in full-time participate in a tuition exchange policy,” he said. Yale is one of few universities that do not. While John recognized that such a change may be difficult, he would like to see a way for individuals to be legally recognized as students at Yale even when they have to medically withdraw. This would not only help pay for the two required classes but also help expand employment opportunities.

“It took a mental toll on [me] when I was probably supposed to be recovering,” John said.

John’s difficulty navigating his time on leave from Yale is not an isolated occurrence. Jane, whose name has also been changed for privacy, left for personal reasons. When she spoke with The Politic, she voiced similar frustrations with Yale’s policy.

“The whole process is absolutely outrageous,” she said. “You have to request your transcript from the Registrar’s office and get it mailed to the Yale Dean’s office. There’s no need to go through the Registrar’s office to send in my grades. It was probably a four-week process just to get my transcript.”

In an attempt to remedy these procedural delays, Yale has since trialled digital applications for leave. Jane feels this change will  improve the leave application process, which she compared to other applications. “It’s frankly a little bit more intense than applying to any college because there are a lot more moving parts,” she said.

Once Jane was able to leave Yale, she, like John, also faced the difficulty of finding a job. “I had to get a job pretty quickly, whatever was available,” she remembered. “Personally, where I live, jobs that people our age get, like in the food industry for example, are really competitive.”

The expectation of getting a job can be even more difficult for someone who is trying to recover. “If you are sick, whether it be physically or mentally, it is a lot to take on,” Jane said, “including the application process [for reinstatement] and worrying about getting denied, which happens more often than people realize.”

Dean Risa Sodi, who chairs Yale’s Committee on Reinstatement, maintained in interview with The Politic that Yale’s current policy is effective. “Yale has developed policies and practices that are best for our students,” she told me. “Yale would like to see all students return, and return ready to pursue their education to the fullest.”

Dean Sodi does, however, recognize that in its current state, the application process for reinstatement is ambiguous. “I’d like the nuances of the application process to be better known so that students have the clearest possible idea how the reinstatement process runs and what they can expect each step of the way,” she said. “That will happen shortly, once the current cycle of applications has come to a close, with the publication of extensive FAQs on a dedicated reinstatement page on the Yale College Website.”

While John and Jane’s challenges came from their time away from Yale University, others have others have pointed out difficulties within the process.

In 2015, a sophomore at Yale College took her own life. According to The Atlantic, her final letter expressed fear of not being re-admitted to Yale if she sought mental health treatment. “I needed time to work things out and to wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted,” she wrote.

Her suicide prompted students to call on administration to enact a more lenient leave of absence policy. The university responded by extending the deadline by which a student can request a leave of absence. The distinction between leave of absence and withdrawal is one that was especially pertinent to John’s story. Had he been able to get a leave of absence, he would still have been enrolled at Yale and retained his undergraduate credentials, mitigating many of his grievances with the current withdrawal policy.

Now, three years later, Yale is once again in hot water. An alumna, named in court documents as Z.P., is suing Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital, alleging that she was unlawfully discriminated against. Her grievances stem from being placed on mandatory medical leave in 2016 after seeking treatment at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Z.P.’s complaint to the U.S. District Court of New Jersey reveals that she attempted to reverse her leave in 2016, citing her ability to recover more effectively at Yale. Despite her appeal, she was forced to miss the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters. Z.P. is accusing Yale of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by involuntarily removing her from the university.

Yale is not unique for disputes over its mental health policy. Earlier this year, Stanford University faced a similar discrimination case. Three students alleged that Stanford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they were pressured into taking leaves of absence.

These cases come at a time when, according to a 2018 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, roughly 35 percent of first-year college students self-reported that they suffer from some form of mental illness.

Yet despite the prevalence of mental illness, students may become increasingly afraid to vocalize their struggles out of fear of jeopardizing their enrollment.

It is this sentiment that Jane saw as especially relevant. She sees her experiences as part of a larger and perhaps more intractable issue surrounding mental health on campus.

“The way that anything from physical and mental health is discussed within Yale’s walls is quite repressive and negative,” Jane said. “We are expected to repress how we are feeling in order to function within the Yale community.”