Returning from time off, students readjust

Photo by Z.L. Zhou

Swarthmore’s freshman retention rate is the stuff of college-rankings legends. A whopping 96 percent of students return to the school after their freshman year, a number which, according to publications such as the US News and World Report, is “an indicator of student satisfaction.” But is it really?

Like many of the clunky metrics used to formulate college rankings, the freshman retention rate fails to account for a number of factors. Though most students return to the college after their freshman year, only 88 percent complete their Swarthmore education within four years, according to the college’s website. What about the other 12 percent, who take time off?

Students may choose to take time away from Swarthmore for any number of reasons, including physical or mental health. In these cases, students such as Mark Gardiner* ’15 and Adan Leon ’17 said, returning was a relatively simple process.

Gardiner, originally a member of the class of 2014, returned to Swarthmore for the fall of his sophomore year despite orders from his doctor to stay home due to a severe case of mononucleosis. He only made it through a month of the fall semester before he grew so ill that he was hospitalized for several months. When he recovered, Gardiner got a job at a solar lobbying firm in California.

Enjoying his job and using his time off to begin a startup with a friend from another college, Gardiner extended his break from a semester to a year. When he did return, the process was smooth, he said: he told the school what he had been up to in his time off, and was accepted back easily. Swarthmore, Gardiner said, simply wanted to ensure that he could keep up with academic demands upon his return, which was easy to demonstrate since he had been so busy during his time away.

Leon, meanwhile, elected to take the spring of 2015 off from Swarthmore due to a series of academic struggles caused by health issues. Leon felt he was not taking care of himself, either physically or mentally. By the end of the fall semester, he had taken two incompletes and dropped one of his classes.

“I was just dying,” Leon said. “I was just like, I need to figure this out, it’s affecting me badly and I can’t get my life together…I had a really rough fall semester trying to figure out a bunch of stuff out and I realized that you can’t really figure out your life and be at Swarthmore at the same time.”

Leon believes that his return process — which he said was simply a matter of speaking to Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson and completing a series of steps demonstrating that he was ready to meet the college’s academic requirements — was made easier by the fact that he had taken the time off before he could be placed on academic probation.

Other students — such as Frank Rizzo ’17, who was asked to leave by the college after failing to meet academic requirements — may have a more difficult time returning. Rizzo intended to return after one semester, but ended up spending a year away from the college.

During his sophomore year, Rizzo failed to complete several of his classes.  After the spring semester, the school asked him to turn in his missing work by July 1. When he did not meet the deadline, Rizzo received an email from Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Liz Derickson ’01 on behalf of the Committee on Academic Requirements. (The committee of faculty members meets at the end of each semester to review the records of students who have been struggling academically, and issues warnings, places students on academic probation, or requires students to “stay away for a semester or longer and engage in meaningful activity: classes, work, or volunteer activities,” according to the college handbook and Derickson.)

The email informed Rizzo that he would be required to take the semester off.

“That came as a shock because I hadn’t realized it was going to escalate that quickly,” Rizzo said, though he added that if he had been in more constant contact with Derickson, rather than simply ignoring the one or two warning emails he had received beforehand, the letter’s shock value would have decreased.

Rizzo said that the college then informed him of what he had to do in order to return for the spring semester and told him to contact his professors. But Rizzo had difficulty, he said, getting himself to begin the return process.

“It wasn’t like the Dean’s Office was checking in to see how I was doing or anything,” he said. “They left the door open, but it’s kind of hard to step into that door when you’re feeling bad about how you’ve handled things and you’re unsure about how to proceed.”

During his first semester away, Rizzo took several classes in his hometown of Los Angeles, and he worked on his incomplete papers until he was offered an internship at a publishing company in New York. Completing his work, however, was difficult outside of an academic environment. Rizzo’s experience highlights the alienating aspect of forced time off, and how being asked to stay away from Swarthmore might create more obstacles to a successful return.

Rizzo says he initially cut off all contact with Swarthmore students, deleted his Facebook, and stopped checking his Swatmail.

“I wanted to remove myself from it entirely. I didn’t want to know what was going on at school.” These feelings of isolation made it easier for Rizzo to put his academic work out of his head, and that winter he missed the second deadline the school set for him.  After a few months living “quote-unquote in the real world,” Rizzo did gain enough focus to meet the third deadline, enabling his return this fall.

Regardless of whether they left the college voluntarily or were asked to do so, students can have a difficult time coming to terms with the idea of taking time off.

Gardiner, for instance, worked so hard to remain at Swarthmore that he lost almost seventy pounds due to his illness, despite clearly being too sick to continue taking classes.

“I was driving myself crazy, telling myself I should stay, when I really needed to go,” Gardiner said. Only when he was unable to leave bed to attend classes and extremely serious medical complications began did he admit that he needed time to rest and recover.

“I thought, ‘Once you’re in college, you’re in college,’” Gardiner said. “You think, four years, not five. It felt like I was derailing a bit.”

Fortunately, Gardiner found support when he came back in the form of others’ stories.

“I’ve never met more people in my life that have been okay with the idea of pausing and taking time off,” Gardiner said. “It was kind of a culture shock to me… but when I talked to people who had been in similar situations with health issues… there were so many examples, it was kind of crazy, and so it made me feel a lot less bad about leaving.”

Students interviewed for this article also said that, in their experience, the college does its best to support those who are struggling academically or otherwise, and to smooth the process of return for those who wish to come back.

When students are struggling in classes, Derickson said, professors will sometimes refer them to class deans, academic deans, or other members of the deans’ staff.

“We work with students to try to figure out the root of their academic struggles and to help them connect to various resources on campus,” Derickson said. These resources, she said, include Student Academic Mentors, the Office of Learning Resources, professors, tutors, Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Writing Associate Program, among others.

Rizzo, for instance, met with Derickson and Coordinator of Student Disability Services Leslie Hempling before his academic problems even began, in his sophomore fall. But though Rizzo acknowledges that the deans were supportive, he found it difficult to take advantage of this support, which he attributed in part to the competitive environment at the college. Struggling academically was, for Rizzo, characterized by shame, as all of his classmates appeared to be enjoying great academic success.

“What would have made it a little bit better was if people talked about having trouble with their work more,” Rizzo said. “When you’re drowning in work, you feel alone, and when you feel alone you don’t want to talk about it with anyone. You feel like you’re the only one who might have to take time off… you don’t want to tell people how you’re doing, so that’s kind of how I approached the dean’s office, which wasn’t fair to them.”

Upon returning to Swarthmore, students can face both social and academic challenges.

For Gardiner, transitioning back was easy academically, especially because he had been working in his time off. His re-entrance was more difficult socially, he said, as it seemed his graduating class had moved on without him.

For his part, Rizzo is both worried and excited about the prospect of returning.

“I’m really nervous — I haven’t been in school in a year. Working a nine-to-five job is very challenging, but in a different way… there’s a lot of pressure but it’s not the same thing as at school. I’m kind of glad to be done with it and looking forward to the more steady pressure of being at school.”

Rizzo noted that he was unsure about how he would deal with the issues of attitude and anxiety which had affected his academic performance in the past upon his return.

“I wrote in my readmission letter that I would try to see a counselor when I came back, but I don’t know how realistic that is,” he said. “The chances that I will have the motivation to do that are actually not that great.”

Derickson emphasized that her office works hard to help students who return from time off. “We work with returning students to develop promising academic plans and solid plans to tend to their well-being,” she said. She added that students who return from time off are encouraged to meet regularly with a dean and take advantage of the college’s other resources, and that there are organized meals and discussions among students who have returned from leaves of absence so that they can meet one another and share reflections with others considering time off.

Other students may decide, after time off, that in fact they do not want to return, such as Rafi Ellenson, who began as a member of the class of 2016. Ellenson took his spring semester of freshman year off, returned for the following fall, and then took that spring off as well. This fall, he formally withdrew and enrolled at City College of New York. Ellenson felt that his mental health issues prohibited him from continuing his Swarthmore education, but that the problems he had would have taken place anywhere, not just at the college. Similarly to other students, Ellenson emphasized that Anderson and the rest of the college’s administration and faculty were helpful and supportive throughout his experience.

Across the board, students interviewed for this article were ultimately glad they had taken time off, and said they had gained physical and mental health, valuable real-world experience, and insight into themselves, whether intellectually or on a more personal level.

“As trite as it sounds now, I have zero regrets about taking time off,” Gardiner said. “It was a really good decision in the end.”

*Note: This student’s name has been changed to ensure his privacy.

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