This semester, the number of Pomona College students registered on leave of absence outnumber those studying abroad. While 94 students are studying abroad, consistent with the past decade’s fall semester average of 96, the number of students on leave has risen to 110.
Pomona is not alone – last year, TSL reported on the increasing number of students taking leaves of absence across the country.
Pomona Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum said the roster of students on leave of absence may not be up to date. Estimating the actual number to be slightly less than 100, Feldblum explained the remainder are likely in a withdrawal process. Pomona’s leave of absence policy states that unless a student appeals to have their leave extended, they will be withdrawn from the college after two years of leave.
According to Feldblum, the most common types of leaves are, from most to least common, health, personal, and academic. Other reasons listed on the leave of absence policy include military or financial leave. Health, especially mental health, accounts for one-third of the total number of leaves, she said.
“We have an increase in students who are exhibiting the need for support in terms of emotional and mental health and for that, colleges like Pomona are trying to increase access and the visibility of support and the scope of support and wellness measures,” she said.
Mental health leaves include student psychiatric hospitalizations. In the past, if a student had a psychiatric hospitalization, they would automatically go on leave.
“There used to be, maybe 10 years ago, three to seven psychiatric hospitalizations. Last year we had a significant number of hospitalizations,” she said. “Now the majority of our students who have a psychiatric hospitalization actually return to campus because they can have different kinds of accommodations.”
According to Feldblum, increasing incidents of mental health issues are not necessarily a reflection of student mental health.
“It could also be a reduction of stigma, in that more people are seeking help, seeking treatment,” Feldblum said. “You never want to say the increase in number of people seeking treatment is a bad thing, that’s actually what we’re looking for – that there is much more acceptance for students wanting to seek treatment.”
The second most common reason for leave of absence – personal – may include work, volunteerism, travel, or simply taking time off school.
After his first year at Pomona, Avery Bedows, originally PO ’19, took a leave to work at an augmented reality startup in Palo Alto.
For Bedows, the process of requesting a leave was straightforward.
“It was extremely easy to do. I wouldn’t call it overly supportive, but there was nothing standing in the path,” he said.
The leave of absence provided Bedows an opportunity for work experience outside of the college setting.
“It’s been the hardest year of my life, in the intellectual sense, in the adult sense, in the social sense. But I’m very happy because I feel more qualified to do a lot of things. I feel personally more confident in my ability to take something on,” he said.
Bedows began his leave in June 2016, but recently, he received an email from the college asking if he will enroll in the spring.
“I’m not a fan of the two-year cap [for withdrawing students],” he said.
Instead, Bedows suggested, a longer period should be allowed before a student is withdrawn.
“[It would] acknowledge the meaning and value in different types of educational experiences and life experiences people might have access to in their early 20s that they might not have access to in other parts of their life,” he said.
Bedows doesn’t know if he will return to Pomona.
“Psychologically, it might be tough,” Bedows said. “The thought of going back into the school environment where I’m handed a syllabus at the start of the semester, and 15 weeks [of school], it’s almost like Dance-Dance-Revolution with intellectualism.”
While some students choose to take a leave of absence and initiate that process themselves, other students are required to do so under academic probation or recommended under other circumstances.
“The only time the college initiates [the leave process] would be an academic suspension,” Feldblum said, citing accidents, family issues, and finances. “Otherwise it’s students initiating it or circumstance. It’s not about, ‘Can you function well?’ […] That may be something for the student to consider, but for us, it’s ‘What can the student do?’,” she said.
One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that a leave of absence was not their plan. Instead, it was recommended to them after they were stalked by another Pomona student during their sophomore year.
“It got to the point where the police got involved and reports were made,” they said. At the end of the school year, their stalker showed up in their room in the middle of the night.
The student and their parents “tried to engage the administration, but the administration wouldn’t do anything about it,” the student said, adding that Daren Mooko, former associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator at the time, was not responding to their emails. Eventually, college administration suggested a no-contact order.
However, when their stalker registered for a course they intended to take for their major, the college refused to enforce the no-contact order, they said.
“It was like, ‘We don’t want to interfere with his education, but it’s okay to interfere with your education,’” the student said. “When I tried to follow-up, they were completely non-responsive. I think they should have been more proactive about protecting me as a student.”
For the last few weeks of their sophomore year, the student said they were told to commute to campus as they were considered a “liability” staying there. They planned on spending their junior year abroad to avoid the other student, but, just before leaving for their study abroad, experienced a panic attack while visiting Pomona.
“I planned on dropping out, but they wouldn’t let me,” they said. Instead, Mooko suggested a leave of absence for them to wait out the other student’s graduation.
“He was like, ‘You could always go to another school for a year and then come back to Pomona for your senior year and graduate from here, because we really want students like you to graduate from school.’”
During their year off on leave of absence, the student transferred colleges. More than two years later, they are still registered under leave of absence.