On Academic Leave, Left in the Dark

Students on academic leave are often those in need of the most support, but the University fails to prioritize their needs.

By Jordan Cooper

The interests of students on medical leaves, for mental or physical health reasons, need to be included in the campus-wide discussion about improving health resources. As a student on a leave of absence (LOA) due to depression and anxiety, I know firsthand that the University fails us just as often as they fail other students struggling with health issues. My interviews with three other students who have taken LOAs have confirmed that the University’s unfair treatment of me was not out of the ordinary. For any change to take place, it is essential that our experiences be considered.

My biggest gripe with the University as a student on leave is how unclear and uncommunicative the school has been. Throughout this entire process, I have felt extremely discouraged, as if I am dealing with a faceless corporation that isn’t truly invested in me as a human being. My parents and I have been provided with inaccurate information regarding the University’s procedures on several occasions. For example, someone in academic advising wrongly informed my father that I might be placed on academic probation upon my return (despite my leave being voluntary and unrelated to academic performance).  Another representative incorrectly implied that the University had discretion to refuse my application to return despite medical clearance from my psychiatrist. The University has treated students on leave this unfairly in several cases, as documented in previous Maroon articles. Amid all the conflicting messages from University representatives, I also found exceptionally little information on University websites. Although these may seem like minute issues in the grand scheme of things, as someone already going through a mentally challenging time it was all the more difficult to not know for sure how the process would work.

On top of these problems, I have frequently felt like the University is unconcerned with making a student’s return from leave as smooth as possible. Indeed, I often feel like I’m not even a student (I do in fact go here!). For example, I was unable to participate in preregistration for next fall or the housing lottery for the next academic year. I wasn’t initially aware of my inability to participate in preregistration, until my adviser informed me I could not register because I wasn’t an “active student” in the spring quarter. Because the return approvals for autumn quarter are completed after school ends, my enrollment in summer quarter classes couldn’t change my designation as a non-active student. Consequently I cannot currently participate in add/drop, either. At a time when I more than ever want to just be treated like any other student, I’ve been moved to the back of the line.

As a result of my mental health struggles, I was granted housing accommodations by Student Disability Services (SDS). Unfortunately, after first not being able to participate in the housing lottery, I just found out from Housing that, due to “welcoming a record number of first-year students in the 2018–19 academic year,” “necessary changes” were being made to the housing admittance process. Consequently, Housing informed me that I would not receive my housing assignment until after all of the incoming first years had been given theirs.

This, unfortunately, was not the end of that process. In a later conversation I had with SDS about the disability accommodations I was being provided with respect to housing, I was informed that, due to UChicago’s housing office being overbooked, I—and by extension other students returning from leave—would not be guaranteed housing for the upcoming year. Apparently, the University’s supposed guarantee of housing for all four years doesn’t apply to those students returning from leave, a policy I’d never been informed of. SDS told me then that I should probably begin looking for off-campus housing, as the only possibility of receiving a housing assignment was dependent on enough incoming first-years deciding to go to another school. So that left me blindsided again, and needing to look for an apartment.

I was also on UChicago’s student health insurance plan. As of March 25 (a day before the start of the spring quarter) my plan was apparently canceled. The only notice of this was in a form attached as a P.S. to the e-mail approving my leave; I was not contacted up to the date of cancellation, and I found out about this at a doctor’s appointment. When my father called he was told that this could be because I didn’t check a box on the leave request form to indicate that I would still require the University’s insurance plan. It is true that I did not check this box, as there was none in the first place.

I’m not the only person to have experienced such treatment. I talked with rising third-year Charlotte Scott about her experience after a broken ankle suffered during the first week of her winter-quarter study abroad program forced her to take medical leave. She said to me, “I encountered so many University policies while on leave that seemed designed to make my transition back to school harder, not easier.” For instance, she was not allowed to enroll in summer classes while on leave, though she is "trying desperately to graduate on time."

Scott also faced difficulty with Housing—an application to move into a vacant single in her house was turned down because of her leave status. This particularly hurt because she had thought Housing would be sympathetic to her desire to live in a comfortable, physically accessible place. Even more unfortunately, Scott’s struggles with the University’s policies did not end upon her return to campus: during this year’s preregistration she was denied placement into a class for third- and fourth-years despite being a rising third-year, as her unenrolled status from one quarter changed her graduating class status.

Moreover, a fellow rising second-year, who is currently on a leave for reasons similar to my own, told me that his adviser was extremely unhelpful (he has requested that his name be kept anonymous). When he e-mailed to ask for advice on classes, his adviser simply told him, “I’m going to hold off on talking to you until you come back.”

Rising second-year Olivia Morales also experienced communication issues during her LOA. Her clinician struggled to get in contact with Student Counseling Service (SCS), and when contact was made, SCS psychiatrist David Berrier told her to instead send information to the dean of students. When she did, the dean informed her that this information should be sent to SCS instead. Morales described this as, “frustrating, because the lack of communication makes me question if I’ll even be able to attend the University autumn quarter.” As an Odyssey Scholar, Morales also thought she was guaranteed funding for a summer internship, but she was denied that funding for the summer after her leave. Although she was told that this funding is allotted on a case-by-case basis with academic leaves, the sole reason given for the withdrawal of her funding was, ultimately, her leave.

She also experienced issues with the Bursar’s Office and the Financial Aid Office pertaining to her financial aid, as she was initially double charged for winter quarter due to a reduction in her aid as a consequence of her leave. This was attributed to the Financial Aid Office having sent back her federal aid since she hadn’t finished her classes. However, the Bursar’s Office explained her situation differently, saying that that the Financial Aid Office had instead decreased her scholarships. This process took her over a month to resolve and resulted in her student account being temporarily shut off. She concluded that “the lack of communication between offices is where most of the issues stem from.”

I know that taking a leave was the right decision for me: I don’t think I was going to recover had I remained on campus. The other students I spoke to said the same. Scott said that having time to prioritize her health was extremely useful, and that she is a “better student now because of it.” Yet I also have to agree with her view that she would encourage those in similar situations to take a leave “if it weren’t for the bureaucratic policies that burden students.” Similarly, Morales said that, “every time I came to terms with [leave], another curveball would be thrown my way and set me back.”

More students are going to require LOAs, and they need to be treated better by the University. That means better communication, more information, and fewer obstructive and opaque policies. The policies surrounding leaves need to prioritize an easier, more successful return. Students on leave shouldn’t be put behind their peers in preregistration or the housing lottery. We shouldn’t feel dehumanized through our interactions with the University. We shouldn’t be left wondering if the University actually wants us to recover. Being on leave shouldn’t be stressful or difficult; rather, it needs to be about students prioritizing themselves and their recovery. We need to keep talking about this issue, and we need the University to do better for the sake of the students it claims to be committed to.

Jordan Cooper is a rising second-year in the College majoring in biological sciences.