Veronica Nicholson.
Veronica Nicholson

When one freshman sat down with the dean of her residential college last winter to discuss a medical leave, she was not expecting to spend the next eight months at home. The student, who prefers to remain anonymous, had been on campus for only two weeks before an unanticipated physical health problem rendered coursework impossible. After initially seeking help at McCosh, she spent several weeks undergoing treatment in a hospital near her hometown. Shortly after her discharge, she returned to campus to discuss what her dean had described to her as “the transition back to school.”

“They wanted to meet with my parents, first,” she recalled of the visit. The dean suggested that she catch up on homework while she waited outside the office. When she was finally invited in, she was shocked to learn that the “transition” discussed would not take place for another year. “It was awful,” she told me.

At the time of the meeting, she had fully recovered from her condition, and was beginning to make up class assignments. While she was aware that her leave had left her significantly behind in her fall coursework—potentially jeopardizing her credit for the semester— she was eager to return in the spring. The University, however, held that this would be impossible. She would remain at home throughout the rest of the winter and spring, and return the following fall as a member of the Class of 2018.

The Administration’s unwillingness to approve a single-semester leave was not unique to her situation. Unlike the vast majority of US colleges, Princeton generally does not permit students to take a single semester’s leave, an unwritten rule that the student had not been previously aware of. Such leaves are not directly prohibited—according to the University’s official policy, a student may take a semester off “if he or she can demonstrate that returning out of normal sequence would not interfere with his or her progress to degree.” In reality, however, the nature of Princeton’s course of study makes this essentially impossible.

According to Butler College Dean David Stirk, the “primary obstacle” to taking a single semester’s leave is the fact that students’ junior-year independent work is “normally set up to work in a fall-spring sequence.” Additionally, Stirk noted that, “certain required coursework might only be offered in a fall-spring sequence.” Many science and language courses, for example, are offered at an introductory level exclusively in the fall. Both Princeton’s independent work requirements, and this sequential “course-stacking,” make it extremely difficult for Princeton students to follow anything but a traditional four-year track.

By prohibiting students from taking one-semester leaves, the University claims to act in their best academic interest, given the structure of Princeton’s course of study. Yet as I heard this freshman’s story, I couldn’t help but wonder about the way that the University seemed unconcerned about the inflexibility of the system itself. When her medical condition made graduating in four years impossible, the conversation turned not to how the University would make arrangements to accommodate her, but how she might still accommodate the school’s rigid course of study—even if it meant taking a full year, rather than a few months, more than her peers.

From a purely academic standpoint, nothing was lost to her—she returned to school this fall to re-embark on the four-year path to a degree she had planned on starting the year before. But while this policy ensures that students remain on track academically, it ignores the social and emotional costs that taking a full year off from school can have for students. Perhaps most troublingly, it might discourage students from taking leaves at all, reinforcing a culture in which students are willing to compromise their health for academic and extracurricular success.

Shannon Osaka ’17 knew that she needed to take a gap year shortly after she graduated from high school. The beginning of her senior year had gone smoothly, and her acceptance to Princeton in March was cause for celebration for both her and her family. Things began to move downhill later that spring, however, when Shannon developed increasingly severe pain in the joints of her legs, arms, and hands. By the end of August, the pain had become so intense that Shannon was unable to walk, and it became clear that she would have to defer admission while she sought medical help.

Shannon spent her first gap year consulting a variety of doctors and specialists, none of whom could provide her with a specific diagnosis. “I went to the rheumatologist, I went to the osteo- whatever, I went to my general practitioner—I did all of that, and no one knew what was wrong with me,” she told me. Her health improved towards the end of that year, and she planned on enrolling the following fall as a member of the Class of 2016. In the midst of her preparations for college, however, her condition took a turn for the worse. By the time she arrived on campus, she was uncertain whether or not she was physically ready to handle a full course load.

“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t handwrite, I couldn’t type,” she recalls. “And because they didn’t really know what the problem was—and they still don’t, really—there wasn’t anything I could do about it.” Shannon emailed her dean to express her concerns, and returned home to continue seeking treatment. “I really wanted to be in school, and out of this cyclical health process, but there were just too many hurdles before I would get there,” she said.

Despite these obstacles, Shannon was eager to begin her studies as soon as she was physically able. While determining whether or not she would join the class of 2016, she asked if she could defer for the fall term and return in February. “I talked to the dean,” she remembers, “and he said, ‘we just don’t do that at all.’” When she asked why, he cited junior papers and “course stacking,” referring to the sequential nature of many courses. Should she feel better in the spring, he said, she could try and contact admissions, but he “hadn’t heard of” the office ever allowing an incoming freshman to enroll second semester.

In retrospect, Shannon now feels that taking a second year off was not an entirely negative experience. While at home, she met with a number of new medical professionals who helped her to better understand her condition, if not to arrive at a specific diagnosis. Yet the time off was not without consequences. “It bothers me, because when I graduate I’m going to be 24,” She told me. “It’s kind of like lost time.” While she noted that many Princeton students do take gap years, graduating well into their twenties, the assumptions that other students make about gap years can prove just as, if not more, alienating than age differences. “I tell people I’m 21, and they’re like, ‘oh, did you take a gap year?’ And I say, ‘yeah, actually, I took two.’ And they’re like, ‘where did you go?’” she said.

The Princeton community is full of students with impressive stories: researchers, entrepreneurs, and artists whose accomplishments can often be as humbling as they are inspiring. This dynamic, I think, contributes to an achievement-focused culture in which we measure productivity purely as academic and extracurricular success. Shannon found this mentality especially prevalent among members of the gap-year community, many of whom had spent their time away from Princeton engaged in the kinds of activities students normally conceive of as “productive,” such as interning, researching, or doing public service work abroad. Because of this, she is often hesitant to discuss her own gap year experience. “I didn’t…I mean, I did things that were important during my gap year, but it wasn’t like, I went to the Sahara, and I did this research,” she said.

While overcoming a debilitating medical condition is certainly a productive—and admirable—use of one’s time, it is not something that can be put on a résumé. Like Shannon, the anonymous freshman struggled to reconcile her own gap year experience with what she felt were the University’s expectations of gap year students. She sensed these expectations most acutely in the “re-admission process,” an online portal system that all students are required to complete upon returning from leave. “They have questions like ‘what important or interesting things did you do over your break,’” she told me. “For example, did you travel? Did you work? And It’s like, no, I’m sorry, I’ve been in a hospital for most of this time…I didn’t have time to start a startup or do a non-profit.” Receiving medical care was nowhere on this list of “important or interesting things.”

As there is only a single re-admissions portal to accommodate all returning students, it is understandable that the questions would cater to the majority. Yet this system completely ignores the fact that, for many students, gap years are not a voluntary, welcome break from school but rather an unfortunate necessity—and that these students might be less than eager to gush to an admissions office about their time in a hospital bed. The student found the application-like format of the questions stressful, and felt it was “insensitive” to students on medical leaves. The phrasing seemed to imply that she should have been working, traveling, or doing something academically “productive,” and she left the portal feeling as though her illness had rendered her somehow inadequate. And though she later learned that the portal was largely a formality, at the time, she had received no certain assurances that she would be readmitted. The inevitable blanks in her application only increased her anxiety.

In addition to insensitivity, the application’s interrogative, “show-yourself-off” format seems to exemplify a willed blindness on part of the University to students’ medical concerns that extends beyond the readmissions process. In not listing medical care under “important or interesting things,” I am certain that Princeton did not intend to suggest that taking care of one’s health is unimportant. But the office’s failure to acknowledge the fact that many gap year students leave for medical reasons suggests that such students are not their priority.

In this context, the administration’s refusal to accommodate one-semester leaves strikes me as yet another way that Princeton overlooks the interests of students with medical concerns. For students who aim to take time off for other reasons, such as to pursue an internship, travel, or work on an independent project, having to take a full year off is not necessarily a major issue—given that such students are voluntarily taking time off, these students can plan in advance to make the most of their time. Yet students who take medical leaves are in a very different position. Firstly, such leaves are generally unplanned, meaning students do not always have time to coordinate elaborate trips or internships for the period of time in which they are healthy, yet cannot yet return to school. Additionally, these students generally do not want to be out of school. In fact, as the anonymous freshman noted, being out of school while your peers continue their studies can be a tremendously alienating and anxiety-producing experience. Understandably, most students do not want to extend this time longer than is absolutely necessary. By prohibiting students from taking one-semester leaves, Princeton ignores the interests of the group of students most directly affected by this policy: those seeking medical help.

As troubling as this policy may be for students taking medical leaves, however, it may be even more detrimental to those who do not. Because, for most students, taking a year off from college is a daunting prospect, the school’s policy can act as a deterrent to taking any leave at all. While students suffering from truly debilitating illnesses, like Shannon and the freshman, do not have a choice, students with less directly incapacitating physical and/or mental health problems may be persuaded to stay in school, against the interest of their well-being. For example, many people with severe eating disorders may be able to keep up with their classwork for all four years of college without recovering, as the long-term health consequences of the disease—such as infertility and osteoporosis—do not emerge until much later in life. Intensive treatment programs for eating disorders typically take two to three months—long enough to seriously interfere with a student’s semester, but short enough that a full year’s leave would leave a student with a significant amount of unnecessary time at home. These circumstances can make choosing to prioritize health and seek treatment incredibly difficult.

Princeton is, first and foremost, an academic institution. Yet, like every university, it has a responsibility to nurture its students not only as students, but also as people. Promoting students’ health is an integral part of that responsibility. In many ways, the University already makes a tremendous effort to encourage students to care for themselves, from offering free fitness classes and nutritional counseling to meditation and mental health support groups. But, when it comes to coordinating medical leaves, Princeton continues to prioritize the structure of its course of study over the wellbeing of its students. When our school chooses to turn a blind eye to students’ medical concerns, it does so at an invisible cost.