Voluntary Leave Numbers Spike

By Emily Singer

An unusually high number of students at the College have decided to take a voluntary leave of absence this semester, leaving administrators with more questions than answers about the significant change.

59 sophomores, juniors and seniors are currently taking a voluntary leave of absence. The number does not include students who declared a leave of absence after the start of the fall semester for medical, family-related or other personal reasons. The data, compiled by the five Commons Deans, notes the reason for a student’s leave of absence, but does not display any noticeable trend in terms of reasons or motivations for taking time off.

“There is no pattern, and that’s what’s so interesting,” said Dean of Students Katy Smith Abbott, who has been working with Commons Deans and fellow administrators to analyze the data. “We thought we might see a lot of students citing academic stress, needing time away, or financial pressures, or needing to work. I don’t know what we thought we’d see exactly, but we thought we’d seem more of a trend and it’s really all over the place.”

While the specific information about voluntary leaves of absence is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Smith Abbott cited training with an Olympic team, extending a study abroad program, international students spending time with family in a home country, medical withdrawal for surgery and working on a farm in an unusual location as among the reasons why students have chosen to take time off.

The administration believes that further investigation into the spike is necessary for a better understanding of the change. The majority of instances of students taking time off, however, can be divided into two groups: a need for personal recuperation due to academic pressures, and a desire to pursue opportunities related to post-graduate plans.

Both President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz and Dean of the College Shirley Collado cited burnout as possibly influencing the spike.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some ways, what we’re seeing is a reaction to how difficult it is to get here,” Liebowitz said. “Another thing is that we’d like to look into what the reasons are. Is the workload excessive? Is the atmosphere in some way not what students thought? We want to be open-minded about what the causes are.”

After taking a leave of absence last spring to work in Burlington, Lucy Whipps, admitted to the class of 2014, decided to extend her leave of absence into the fall semester.

“I needed a break to get my bearings about what I’m doing in college in the first place, and I was feeling less and less like Middlebury is a place where I want to be in general,” Whipps said, noting that she is unsure whether she will re-enroll in February.

While Smith Abbott acknowledged that academic pressure can contribute to a student’s decision to take time off, she cited the College’s recent emphasis on experiential learning and entrepreneurship through programs such as MiddCORE and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship as additional influencing factors.

“As our language as an institution becomes more about student innovation, students charting their own course and developing ways of mapping their education [in a way] that really resonates with them and supports who they want to become … is there something about that ethos that we’re creating at Middlebury that means we’re going to see more of this?” Smith Abbott mused, citing the unlikelihood of a school adhering to a more traditional definition of the liberal arts as experiencing a similar spike.

Collado echoed Smith Abbott’s feelings, citing students’ diverse ideas and desires as pushing them to explore relevant work and life experiences before returning to the College.

“The thing about college is that you’re kind of just going along this course and trying to figure things out, and sometimes students need space to figure things out,” Collado said. “I see that as a life skill.”

Unresolved medical issues led Madie Hubbell ’14.5 to take a leave of absence in the middle of her Junior fall semester, and while she wasn’t initially planning to take time off, she has returned to campus with a different outlook on her college experience.

“Coming here, I actually think I have learned more about myself … than I have academically. The environment at Middlebury is like nothing else I have ever experienced. It’s intense academically, socially and athletically, and it’s filled with really intense people,” Hubbell wrote in an email, adding that time off allowed her to realize that “there is life outside of college, and while school is important, so is your health and your well-being.”

Smith Abbott went so far as to call the sudden spike a “new version of the gap year,” allowing students to take the time to enrich their college experience, take ownership of their education and chart new territory with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

“I think Middlebury is a place that encourages students to think creatively and expansively about how they’re putting their education together, and I think we’re just starting to get better at that,” Smith Abbott said, citing the College as being especially encouraging and accommodating in such situations.

Lander Karath ’14.5 took a leave of absence during the fall semester of his Junior year to work on the Obama presidential campaign, but his decision was not without hesitation and a fear of missing out on life at the College.

“I had felt extremely bogged down with academia in my first two years here and I was craving hands-on, practical experience,” Karath said. “The campaign work provided that for me and more. Even though I had moved from one high-stress environment to another, I felt like I was doing something that enriched my life, which was a feeling I never had at Middlebury,” adding that the campaign led him to realize the career path he wants to pursue.

The College’s openness with regard to individualized experience is reflected in the Feb program and rising number of admitted first-years taking gap years.

“We have an entire Feb class, we have the term super senior, which students use affectionately and with pride,” Collado said. “It’s something you don’t usually see at top liberal arts colleges. Usually there’s a pathology associated with taking extra time, taking a semester off or starting college late. But for us, it’s something that we generally celebrate. I’m proud of the fact that we have the room, and even a language and a culture, around people coming in later.”

A student’s decision to take a leave of absence is collaborative and requires meetings with the student’s Commons Dean and academic advisor, along with family members. However, there exist possible negative implications of taking a voluntary leave of absence, particularly regarding financial aid.

If a student who has been granted aid takes a voluntary leave of absence, he or she remains entitled to eight semesters of aid. Problems arise, however, if a student takes more than eight semesters to graduate or if the decision to withdraw is made after the official start of the semester. In such situations, students must petition the College for a ninth semester of financial aid approval, as outlined in the Student Handbook. Financial aid is very rarely granted to a student for more than nine semesters.

With regard to a student’s ninth semester, however, Director of Financial Aid Operations Michael McLaughlin said that, upon being approved, the College will meet 100 percent of a students’ demonstrated need.

Smith Abbott, who views the voluntary leave of absence spike in a mostly favorable light, noted that if this semester’s spike continues and becomes a noticeable trend, the College will need to change planning for housing, enrollment and other facets of student and academic life.

“I think we can manage it and I think understanding it is important, but that’s going to be a matter of looking at the numbers over a number of years,” she said.