After 14 years of continuous academic life, Victor Odouard ’20 chose this semester to put his books aside and purchase a plane ticket to Australia to begin his own “freedom journey.”
Odouard is one of the many Cornellians who do not follow the path of eight consecutive semesters at Cornell. Instead, Odouard took a leave of absence after his freshman year — what the University would consider a voluntary leave of absence.
And while many college students follow the traditional path, others elect to take gap years, transfer colleges, pursue internships and co-ops, enroll in summer sessions or become part-time or night school students.
Other students also take leaves of absence during their time at Cornell. According to the College of Arts and Science’s website, approximately 10 percent of its students will take a leave of absence for one or more semesters during their time at Cornell.
“I have learned how to be a free man, to get past fear, worries and other people’s expectations,” Odouard said, reflecting on his leave.
Odouard is currently on a year-long leave of absence, pursuing work and travel opportunities in Australia.
His decision to do so was based on a desire to explore skills and interests beyond the traditional academic trajectory, which he worried would stifle his growth.
He said that he felt he had “spent the past 14 years of [his] life laser-focused on academic skills, without taking the time to perfect the life skills [he needs] to be a successful and fulfilled man.”
By shifting his focus out of academic skills, Odouard has been able to dabble in a variety in other trades, including developing software for a company that specializes in military drones, working as a glass collector at a pub and bartending at a nightclub. Most recently, Oduard is apprenticing with a sculptor.
Odouard’s advice to Cornell students considering taking a leave of absence is to “be spontaneous.”
“Don’t plan out your time, just let whatever happens happen,” he said. “I look at this as my freedom journey. It’s a year I can do whatever I want. If I planned ahead, I would have been trapping myself.”
For some students, the decision to take a leave of absence comes less out of desire to journey but rather to take time for their own health.
Justin Park ’19, a staff writer for The Sun, also took a leave of absence — taking a health leave for almost a year. For Park, the decision to take this time off came from the advice of Cornell professors.
“I was having a tough time, and it wasn’t diagnosed at the time, but I was dealing with clinical depression,” Park said. “I was staying in bed, not going to class or doing assignments, and just falling behind on everything.”
In the end, it was Park’s advisor who prompted him to consider taking a leave of absence.
“We talked about it a bit more, and went together to CALS Student Services to put it into motion,” Park said. “From that day, my leave of absence was set to begin one week later.”
While on leave, Park spent the majority of his time at home, both in therapy sessions as well as doing his own self-reflection.
Since coming back, Park found it critical to re-prioritize his time between his clubs, academics and social life. He said his friends were “nothing but supportive.”
For students struggling with mental health or debating whether to take a leave of absence, Park said there is no right answer, but emphasized that “taking time off is not a bad thing.”
He added that for many students, there seems to be a fear surrounding taking leave — fearing that their college experience will be diminished or that they will lose something when they are away from campus.
However, Park found the opposite to be true. He said he felt that the difficulty he was facing at Cornell was an “obstacle too big for [him] to succeed,” he said.
Looking back on his year off, Park said “I gained a better sense of who I am and who I want to be.”
“It’s better to take care of yourself, to come back stronger and renewed. I don’t regret it all,” he added.
At Cornell, the policies regarding leaves of absence vary across colleges. Most of the colleges identify three types of leaves: voluntary, required and health leave.
For voluntary leave, students in good academic standing leave temporarily for personal reasons. Required leave occurs when students are involuntarily placed on leave by either their college or the University Judicial Administrator. Students take health leave when Cornell Health recommends that students take leave for medical reasons.
The technicalities of leaves of absence also vary greatly by individual circumstances. Students considering taking a leave of absence need to work with their advisors to decide whether to take a leave of absence, for how long and the plan for once they return.
Returning to Campus
For many students, obtaining a leave of absence may not be the challenge. Rather, it is returning from a leave of absence that proves intimidating and difficult.
During their leave, students can experience personal changes that can shift their college experience. Social dynamics on campus can also fluctuate while students are on leave, forcing returning students to adjust to a new academic, health and living routine.
To help students reacclimate, Cornell Minds Matter offers a support group specifically for students returning from a leave of absence. Students can discuss the stresses and challenges that come with their return, as well as develop methods to achieve success at Cornell.
Tamara Aarsaether ’18, student leader of the Leave of Absence group and Cornell Minds Matter publicity chair, said the group began several years ago when a few students from Cornell Minds Matter were talking and realized they had all taken a leave of absence.
In talking, the students realized that their respective leaves were something they had hidden from their peers. Because they had collectively hidden this part of their Cornell experience, they had never met other students who had taken leaves.
The group then formed a way to “reduce the stigma of having an unconventional college experience” as well as to establish “a support structure for those struggling upon their return,” Aarsaether said.
Students who have participated in the group — which meets Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. in Willard Straight Hall — have found it not only a means to learn about Cornell’s resources and uncover personal strengths, but a social outlet as well.
In this way, the group “revolves around the students” and caters to “what they need, what they’d like to work on, or what they’d like to talk about,” Aarsaether said.
“It’s not just a facet of college life, but of life itself, that we need some sense of who we are and where we’re going,” Park said.