OPINION: The benefit of a leave of absence outweighs the stigma

Girl in bedroom looking outside
(Betsy Ding • The Student Life)

Last summer, prior to starting my year-long leave of absence from Pomona College, I spent hours sifting through articles that argued against taking a leave of absence. They cited reasons such as delaying graduation, losing a year’s worth of post-graduate salary and a potential inability to find fulfilling work during a gap year, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These arguments — coupled with internal fears of falling behind and being perceived as unproductive or unmotivated — made my decision to take a LOA incredibly difficult.  

In reality, taking a LOA is an incredible opportunity. The four-year college plan is not one size fits all, and taking time off is an increasingly viable option for those who feel they need a break.

When in the middle of your undergraduate education, there is an unavoidable stigma around taking time off from school, which frequently deters students from engaging in this potentially valuable pursuit. If we take steps to understand the benefits of taking a LOA and offer resources to students so that they can flourish during their time away, we will create a culture that celebrates experiences outside of an academic context and prioritizes student health and well-being over the traditional four-year college plan. 

Whether students are struggling with their mental health, feeling unsure of their educational path or simply wanting to try something new and exciting, taking the leap from full-time enrollment to being a free agent in the world can be liberating and an incredible addition to their college experience. Utilizing time off to the fullest will deeply enrich students’ lives outside of an academic environment and offer them invaluable benefits such as growth in their independence, resiliency and time to reflect on their values and path forward.

I am incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity and resources to take a year-long LOA. It is not always a viable option for students who are constrained by visa or degree requirements, student loan payments or other financial, logistical and emotional factors. It’s crucial that colleges offer more accessible avenues for students to access leaves of absence so that the experience is not reserved for only privileged individuals. 

And taking a LOA in the middle of my undergraduate degree was never a part of my plan; similarly to many around me, I felt that it was best to push through my degree and figure the rest out once I graduated and was in the “real world.” Taking time to pause, reassess and engage with those goals in the present never seemed like a truly feasible option. 

It was only because of the toll that online classes took on my mental health, as well as feeling trapped in a degree program in which I wasn’t confident, that the pressure became overwhelming. I felt like there was only one choice that honored my health and what was best for me, so I submitted my LOA request.

I am so thankful that I made that decision. Taking a LOA was the absolute best decision I could’ve made for myself, and I’m confident that others would experience similar growth if they took a leap of faith. I took time to reflect on what made me happy outside of college, what values I held and how I could incorporate them into my daily life in lieu of a class schedule. 

I spent the fall prioritizing my passion for photography while expanding my professional portfolio and applying to dozens of remote internships. In October, I began an internship focused on digital media at an outdoor gear company. Now, I’m living in Colorado at A Place Beyond, a community that emphasizes outdoor engagement for college students while they do remote work or take classes.

The benefits of leaves of absence are not limited to what you can accomplish on paper. While I’m thrilled that I’ve strengthened my resume with work experience, the most value I am getting from my LOA is internal. 

Beyond resumes, there is research that cites gap year students as being “more mature, more self-reliant and independent” than students who don’t take time off. 

Similarly, I feel that I am now stronger in my independence and core values. Prioritizing my health included reshaping my lifestyle and examining what I wanted my remaining time at Pomona to look like: I changed my major, used my internship to inform my post-college interests and emphasized my connection with the outdoors. 

Taking a LOA allows for this kind of transformation — it is a unique, personal period of time that, most importantly, will give you an important perspective on your time in college and your life outside of it. 

While there is traditionally a negative stigma associated with taking time off from college, it’s time to uproot that sentiment. Leaves of absence can be stunningly transformative; if we claim to prioritize students’ well-being, we must normalize them.

Stella Favaro PO ’23 is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics major from Sonoma, California. Some of her favorite things are extra hot almond milk lattes and going on early morning walks.

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