October 30, 2019

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Taking a Break From Cornell Should Be Easier

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As we continue through the semester, the chorus of reminders that students take care of themselves continues to grow. E-mails from staff, opinion pieces in The Sun and reminders from concerned friends and family encourage us to exercise self-care in addition to managing homework, exams, work and extracurriculars. We, as a community, have begun to talk more openly about burnout, self-care and seeking clinical care in the last few years. While all of these are crucial to helping students in distress, sometimes taking care of oneself is simply not possible while continuing one’s academic work.

Sometimes the best choice for a student may be to take a voluntary leave of absence. Policy 7.1 details the procedures for obtaining an LoA, and, at first glance, a five-step process seems fairly straightforward. However, right after the first step is a note of caution: “A graduate field, academic department or college may have specific guidelines governing leave of absence. Consult with the college registrar, graduate field representative or academic advising office.” This complicates the process, as students must now seek out their respective college’s or academic unit’s procedures. On top of notifying the academic units, students may need to inquire with additional University offices, such as the Office of Financial Aid, Housing and Dining or the Bursar’s office. Just one more level of complexity. Students may also choose to take either a personal or health LoA, with each type having unique requirements and conferring different outcomes.

By this point, figuring out the best type of LoA and how to acquire it should seem like an unreasonably difficult task. To make matters worse, students must drive this process as well. While staff or faculty may offer advice, it is ultimately up to the student to figure out what forms need to be submitted when and to whom and what the expectations will be for them afterward, and they must do all of this on top of managing the personal, academic or medical reasons that are making it difficult to continue one’s work. It is no surprise that, when talking to students who faced this decision, nearly everyone commented on how difficult this process was and how it only added to their stress. For some, students, faculty and staff knowledgeable about the process were vitally important for completing this process.

Students that are able to acquire a voluntary LoA often spoke about how helpful they found the process to be, but they also mentioned feeling disconnected to the Cornell community. Students often receive little to no formal communication from the University while on leave. A simple note reminding them that they are a member of our community, that we wish them the best during this time and that we would be happy to answer any questions they have would be a significant step forward in keeping students connected during their LoA.

Returning to campus is not necessarily easy either. Relationships with previous social groups may have ended as students graduated, and students may find themselves unsure of what new, or even old, resources exist on campus. Luckily, relatively new initiatives, such as orientation programs and peer support groups for students returning from an LoA can help mitigate these factors. However, if we truly believe that this is a tool that will help students, we must streamline the process and increase resources for students interested in taking an LoA.

Arguably, the single most helpful change would be hiring dedicated staff focused on helping students obtain a leave, connecting with them while they are on leave and helping them transition back to campus once they return. A single centralized unit that is aware of all the different nuances associated with taking and returning from an LoA would make navigating this process significantly simpler which simultaneously makes it more accessible for interested students. Alternatively, a centralized website that houses this information in one place might be a more affordable solution in the short term. Collaboration between academic units to minimize differences between LoA procedures will reduce the complexity in this process and make information-sharing across students simpler.

In this discussion, it would be remiss of me not to mention that a recent report by The Ruderman Family Foundation that scored Ivy League leave of absence policies gave Cornell’s policy a D- score (it is also worth mentioning that no Ivy League institution scored above a D+). It is clear that we, along with many other institutions, have significant work to do if we want to improve this process for our students, and we must do this work. By following suggested best practices and adjusting the process based on student feedback, we could significantly improve our process.

While an LoA is a temporary separation from the University, it may be a better option compared to suffering through the rest of the semester. An LoA may play a crucial role in determining whether a student is able to actually complete their degree, and as such, we must work to improve this process. For any student interested in taking an LoA, I encourage them to contact their undergraduate or graduate advisor for more information.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Munasinghe can be reached at mmunasinghe@cornellsun.com. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.