A Voice From the Invisible Six Percent

When I was a freshman, I heard a rumor about Pomona College’s policy on graduating within the traditional four-year deadline. If you were nearing the end of your junior year and it looked like you might not make it, a dean would call you into his or her office and stress the importance of graduating on time. You might even be encouraged to switch to an “easier” major to meet the May deadline. While I’ve had quite the opposite experience at Pomona, that rumor was enough to set the tone for how I felt when I realized I needed more than four years.

Six weeks before my “scheduled” graduation date, I left Pomona on medical leave. The circumstances around my departure were desperate, difficult, rushed, and are better suited for a separate discussion. But to put it briefly, my lifetime struggles with mental illness pushed me to a breaking point, and I was unable to continue with my studies at that time.

Everyone reassured me I was doing the right thing, but what I remember most from that weekend was an overwhelming feeling of failure. Even though I had made it so far and overcome so much, I would not be graduating that semester. I was left in a state of shock, with nothing left to feel but self-hatred.

It was a long journey from the April I left to this January, when I finally returned to campus to finish my degree. As with any other illness, my path to recovery didn’t want to follow the plan I had originally set. Initially, my goal was to finish my incomplete work and graduate as soon as I possibly could. Instead, I watched as my planned graduation date slipped from summer 2013 to winter 2013 and then to just a question mark: Could I even do it? 

Each missed deadline weighed heavier as one more piece of evidence that I was worthless. All that time, I didn’t consider whether I needed to return to Pomona. I was still too ashamed. 

Once I decided to return to Pomona, I suddenly became optimistic about my illness, my life, and my future. But underneath, I was still worried about the stigma of being on campus for my ninth semester. Having to appeal to the Academic Procedures Committee to even be allowed to continue my studies probably didn’t help either.

Luckily, the whole process went very smoothly, and by working with Dean Darren Mooko and my adviser, Nicole Weekes, I never felt that my return was unwanted. But even with all their reassurances, I felt insecure about my place at Pomona.

I was worried because I had no idea how being a super senior would affect my college experience. My perspective had completely changed. For example, now I am sensitive to language that paints graduating as an inevitability, and I will probably deny any certainty of receiving my degree until I hear my name and walk across the stage.

But who at Pomona ever talks like that, and who could understand why I feel so strongly about it? I hadn’t talked with anyone who had experienced it themselves, and didn’t know who I could reach out to. Although there are many resources available to incoming freshmen, there are no resources to help returning students “reorient” themselves after an absence. 

I worried endlessly over how I would address the no-longer-simple question of “What year are you?” I considered all kinds of euphemisms and explanations, and even just lying. It came from feeling like I had no group to belong to. 

For most of my time at Pomona, I was a member of the class of 2013. Really, I still am, but all those people, my Sponsor Group, my classmates, and some of my closest friends, are gone. The class of 2014 has been welcoming, but I can’t help but feel like a transplant. 

Finally, the very first time it was brought up, I decided to just admit that I am a super senior. Just hearing my own response was enough to give me relief—the world didn’t end! Even more, I slowly began to realize that no one else seemed to care that I was a misfit. I realized I can have a group I belong to; even if we only make up about 6 percent of any class, we just need to find each other.

We should stop ignoring the existence of students who fall out of the range of freshman-sophomore-junior-senior. Surveys still trigger feelings of isolation when they ask about my year level, so authors should consider adding an “other” option or, even better, leaving the field blank so I can pick my own label. 

Now, I’m proud to call myself a super senior. My leave was essential to my health and well-being, and it’s not something I will ever feel ashamed of again. And while my personal experience was largely influenced by self-discovery, there are still opportunities for our community to influence how this story plays out for the next person who lives it. 

Don’t assume everyone is following the four-year plan, and remember that super seniors aren’t any different from any other student: We’re here to learn and get our degrees, just the same as you. 

Caitlin Plefka PO ’13 and ’14 is a neuroscience major and psychology minor. She is a co-founder of the 5C Mental Health Alliance. 

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