The disappearing act: taking a personal leave of absence from Tufts

This is the first part of a two-part story about Tufts students who take a leave of absence from school. This part focuses on taking a personal leave of absence from Tufts. 

On the administrative side, taking a personal leave of absence from Tufts is as simple as two clicks on SIS. However, the implications of that decision for students are more complicated and carry on throughout the process of leaving and returning to campus. 

According to the Tufts Student Affairs website, a personal leave of absence is one of two leave of absence options for which Tufts undergraduate students can apply — a third option, parental leave of absence, is only offered to graduate students. The personal leave of absence applies to students who want to take time off from Tufts for a variety of reasons including, “to participate in a non-academic program, attend to a family crisis or to gain a sense of direction.”

Jean Herbert, an associate dean of undergraduate education, said that the most difficult part about taking a leave of absence is often the actual decision to do so, as many students are wary of veering off the rigid academic track expected of them.

“As high-powered, intellectual, academically-minded students, from day one it’s been, ‘You go to grade school, you go to middle school, you go to high school, you go to college — end of story,’” Herbert said. 

But once a student decides to take a personal leave of absence, they may do so at any time, without official approval from Tufts, according to Herbert. This policy contrasts with the policy surrounding a medical leave of absence, she said, which requires several steps.

“It’s a revolving door,” she said. “Students can come and go as they please, which is sometimes surprising for students, for whatever reason.”

Henry Jacqz, a computer science major taking a leave of absence this semester, said the “revolving door” policy allowed him to take a leave of absence in spring 2015, then in spring 2016 and again this fall.

“It was great that I could leave and come back later and not be penalized for it,” Jacqz said. “Whether I ever finish a degree at Tufts is still up in the air, but the policy definitely gave me [the ability] to open the question up without having to pull the cord completely.”

Jacqz, who started at Tufts in fall 2013, said doubts about Tufts’ ability to offer him the education he wanted led him to take his initial leave of absence. 

“I decided to take a semester away from school because I was questioning whether Tufts was teaching me the skills and knowledge I wanted to apply to organizing and to making the world a more sane, just place,” he said.

For junior Sophia Grogan, taking a personal leave of absence provided an opportunity to explore options outside of the expectations she felt were placed on her. She explained that because her father works at Tufts, she had felt compelled to attend Tufts since this option made college affordable for her family.

But when she started school here, Grogan said she began to contemplate whether Tufts and her own academic plans were the best fit for her.

“I felt like I got into something that wasn’t going to make me happy, and I had a really hard time figuring out what my place was at Tufts,” she said. “I realized I didn’t want to go into international relations. I realized that maybe a prestigious university wasn’t for me.”

During her time away from Tufts, which spanned the 2014-2015 academic year, Grogan initially bought a one-way ticket to the Czech Republic to work at a hostel. She then backpacked and hitchhiked from the Czech Republic to Morocco. Later on, she visited South America, stopping in Argentina until she made her way up to Columbia on the back of a motorcycle, she said. 

“[I] didn’t really have a plan,” Grogan said. “I wanted to find myself. It’s a cheesy way of putting it, but I went in with the goal of trying to understand what I wanted and what I didn’t want.”

Both Grogan and Jacqz acknowledged that taking a leave of absence from Tufts would not have been possible under different financial circumstances. In Jacqz’s case, because he requested each leave of absence before the semesters started, he was not charged full tuition fees for those semesters. This made the decision easier for him, he said.

As the daughter of a Tufts employee who is therefore guaranteed a scholarship from Tufts, Grogan said that she, too, did not have to worry about losing a financial aid package or getting charged for part of the semester when she decided to take a leave of absence.

However, financial constraints might arise for a student who requests to take a leave of absence after the semester starts, at which point Tufts will no longer refund all of the student’s tuition for that semester.  After six weeks into the semester, students who want to take a leave of absence must pay the full tuition costs of the semester despite leaving, according to the Tufts Financial Services website. 

Herbert noted that academic deans can help students navigate this policy and other, more bureaucratic aspects of taking a leave of absence, particularly when it comes to ensuring students complete the residency requirement of eight semesters of full-time study at Tufts. While some leeway has been created around this requirement through the use of pre-matriculation and summer session credits, this can sometimes make a leave of absence less feasible for students, according to Herbert

Although the deans are a resource for students taking a personal leave of absence, Herbert added in an email that students are not required to talk to their dean before or after their leave, a policy she believes can be problematic.

“With a personal leave, we cannot actually require a conversation with a dean … [T]he academic dean always follows up with a phone call or an email, but there is no way to prevent the leave,” she wrote. “I believe we are all dissatisfied with this approach. In fact, we are talking together about changing the procedure so that every student is required to have such a conversation — both on leaving and on returning, just as with a medical leave.”

Returning from a personal leave of absence poses its own set of difficulties, Herbert said.

Alexis O’Connell (LA ’16), who took a personal leave of absence during her sophomore year to travel across different parts of Europe and Asia, said the most difficult part of her leave of absence was the transition back to Tufts.

“For a while, I felt like my college experience was really fragmented,” she said. “[I had] friends in a different place than [where] I was.”

Herbert urges students to meet with their academic deans after their personal leave of absence, emphasizing that this meeting allows the academic deans to hear about students’ experiences, evaluate the success of their time off and help students transition back into academic life.

“Sometimes, people feel like they’re behind for some reason, and we want to ease them back in,” Herbert said. “[Taking] the right courses that [first] semester back is essential … we want to make sure it’s a positive experience [and students are] not overloading because they feel behind.”

Despite the issues students might face when leaving and returning to campus, Grogan said she wishes a leave of absence was more strongly encouraged to students who feel uncomfortable at or unsure about Tufts.

Additionally, she hopes the option will become more readily available to students who might not have the same opportunities and privileges she had that made the decision easier for her.

“Had I not taken a leave of absence, maybe I would still be pursuing [international relations], because I felt like that was something I was wrapped into and I didn’t understand that [there were] other options,” Grogan said. “Because I took a leave of absence, I found my purpose at Tufts. I found out what I want to use the resources for, and what connections I want to make with people here.”