November 30, 2006

Four Year College Plan Not For Every Student

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As Robert Frost famously noted, sometimes the road less taken is that one that makes all the difference. For some Cornell undergraduates, this lesson applies not only to the woods on a snowy evening, but also, their lives on a college campus.

For various reasons, a number of students each year choose to avoid the well traveled path — an uninterrupted four years of schooling. Instead, these students follow their own path by taking a temporary leave from Cornell.

As Ray Kim, the assistant dean for student services, said, “Society and especially higher education put students on a certain track that doesn’t work for everybody.”

A personal leave of absence is the decision on behalf of the student to take time off from Cornell. In order to do so, the student must be in good academic standing. As typical with Cornell, the actually process varies by each college, but it is one that generally requires little effort and paper work.

For some, this decision is made in hopes of pursuing a professional or intellectual goal. Ken Gabard, assistant dean of student services, said that these goals can be wide ranging. In years past he has seen students hike the Appalachian Trail, join a rock band and write a travel book.

For others, the time off may be spent in less glamorous settings. Kim mentioned a student earlier this year that took a leave because his mom was diagnosed with cancer, and he had to go home to take care of his family.

Still yet, there are the students who have no pressing professional or family issues, but rather, would like the time to figure out why they are at Cornell, and what they would like to do with their lives. For these students, time off can give them the ability to both contemplate what their academic goals are, as well as to determine the general significance of an academic career.

Kim mentioned a student whom he had met with that had “lost her way,” and thus wanted to take a leave of absence to “figure out why the heck she was at Cornell.”

After spending a semester working menial jobs, and realizing that this was the only type of work she could get without a college degree, the student ultimately decided to return to Cornell.

Many students who take a leave, said Kim, not only decide to come back, but when they do so, arrive with “so much more motivation.”

He added, “I never hear a student who has gone on a personal leave and said, “’I wish I hadn’t done that.”

The Sun profiled two students who chose to take a leave of absence for specific reasons and their feelings about the experience.
Anne Giedinghagen’s decision to take the path less traveled not only made all the difference, it may have saved her life.
At the end of Giedinghagen’s junior year, she was suffering from anorexia and depression, which a “traumatic experience” freshman year had jump started.

As she walked home from her chemistry prelim, she realized that her current path was leading her towards disaster. She said, “I was walking over the bridge, and was like ‘oh man, I could jump, I hate it here, I feel really shitty – I really shouldn’t stay here very much longer, it’s not going to be OK.”

Because Giedinghagen’s troubles were largely mental health related, her first option was to leave Cornell on medical leave of absence. For Giedinghagen, however, the stipulations attached to such a leave barred it from being a viable alternative.

As a student on medical leave, Giedinghagen would have to be away from school for at least six months, which, according to her was “not an option.” Additionally, because Gannett runs the medical leave process, Giedinghagen would have to prove to the school that she was mentally capable.

Giedinghagen said she was not comfortable giving Gannett this sort of control over her future.

With the option of taking a medical leave of absence off the table, Giedinghagen searched for alternatives. The option she ultimately reached was to take incompletes in each of the classes she was enrolled in. Doing so allowed her the leeway to decide when and how she wanted to return. When she came back, Giedinghagen merely had to finish her classes’ course-work. The only indication of her leave is an asterix on her transcript.
Her unique approach to the situation is not one that Cornell necessarily supports.

As Gabard explained, the school prefers that Gannett overseas mental health related leaves of absences, because the school wants to make sure a student is mentally fit to return.

“We don’t want to be in a position of making judgments about mental health,” he said.

Regardless of Cornell’s opinion on the matter, Giedinghagen chose to continue on her own path. Within a week of her decision, she said, “I was gone.”

For her family, Giedinghagen said, the decision was upsetting. She recalls her father asking her push through the one month she had left.
For her friends, however, the decision was a relief.

“They had been “pressuring me to do this for a long time,” she said.

While on break, Giedinghagen went to an inpatient eating disorders treatment center for two months where she, “read, painted and wrote.” Afterwards, she “screwed off for a month.”
Most importantly, while Giedinghagen was gone, she had the time to focus on herself, a liberty not enjoyed by students who must spend their time studying.

“I was able to … invest time in therapy, and reconnect with myself on a deeper level,” said Giedinghagen .

Upon her arrival at Cornell, Giedinghagen found herself a changed person, and her college a changed environment

“Cornell seems warmer,” she said, “maybe that’s knowing where the resources are as opposed to just thinking ‘well there’s no one here to help me, so I guess I’ll just curl up in my fetal position on my room.’”

The resources Giednehangen refers to, such as her advisor, Gannett and the Cornell Healthy Eating Program, have always existed, but Giedinghagen said that she was now prepared and willing to use them.

In reflection on her time off, Giedinghagen seems convinced that the path she chose was the right one for her.

“It taught me a lot about the importance of taking time for myself, realizing that what I need to be happy and successful might not be the same as what everyone else needs,” she said.

Leaves of absences are not always a matter of life and death; sometimes, they are a matter of introspection.

Nick English woke up the morning after his 21st birthday and not only “realized [I] was getting old,” but that, “The whole job process was starting, and I didn’t have a clue want I wanted to do and didn’t have a clue what direction I wanted to go in.”
So instead of resting in Ithaca, English decided to take the rest first semester junior year off. English spent the remainder of his semester at home, where he worked at a martial arts clinic. For the second half of the year, although he was enrolled as a Cornell student, English studied abroad in Australia.

According to English, the importance of his time off was that it allowed him to escape the mad dash to professionalism that he felt overwhelmed by.

“It gave me more time to figure out what I really like to do instead of rushing into one thing,” he said.

For English, the ability to stop and breath was important, because he saw his friends as being swept in a job craze that he could not necessarily relate to.
“They were so determined on getting a good job that I feel like they overlooked enjoying school and having fun while they were here,” said English.
These same friends were not necessarily understanding of English’s decision to leave.

“They didn’t understand why [I was leaving],” said English. “I think a lot were hurt that I left.”
Yet according to English, his changed attitude and behavior upon his return demonstrated to his friends that his decision had been the right one.

“They realized how unhappy I was before, and when I came back I was more at ease,” he said.

English attributes his changed and more relaxed attitude to the fact that his initial break from the norm allowed him to continue to follow his own path even while at school.

“I had already broken away from the mold and pressure … I felt like everything … my friends thought were so important weren’t really.”
English still does not know what he plans to do next year, yet he is comfortable with the unknown.

“It’s OK to not know what you’re going do,” he said, “so there’s no point to pretend.”