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The number of students taking leaves of absence increased since 2010, from a low of 203 to a high of 242 last academic year, according to data provided by the College's Administrative Board.
The statistics reflect the number of students who successfully petitioned the Ad Board, the College's judicial body, for a leave of absence, and do not include students studying abroad or on leaves of absence mandated by administrators.
According to Brett Flehinger, Associate Dean for Academic Integrity and Student Conduct, the College encourages students to consider the option of taking time off.
“We have a very wide-open leave policy with the goal that students will be able to come and go as they need to,” Flehinger said. “We want students to take leaves and we want them to use their eight semesters most effectively.”
Some students, like William F. Morris ’17-’18, said they were grateful they had made the decision to take time away from Harvard. Morris is currently taking the semester off and volunteering at a public defender’s office. He will intern at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., this summer, advocating for mental health awareness.
“Taking time off has really given me a much better perspective on what I want to do at Harvard, what my goals are,” Morris said.
Most leaves are voluntary, with only rare cases of students being placed on leave by administrators. From the 2010-2011 academic year to 2014-2015, there were five students placed on leave, according to statistics from the Ad Board. Approximately 130 students have studied abroad each year since 2010-2011, although the number of students studying abroad spiked to 151 last year.
“Virtually all the leaves are voluntary, sometimes they don’t feel as chosen by a student,” Flehinger said. “If I’m really happy to be here and I get a horrible case of mono and I simply can’t get out of bed for three weeks and now I’m so far behind, did I want to go on leave? No, but the College isn’t forcing me on leave, circumstance is.”
Luke R. Heine ’17, took time off during the fall and returned for spring semester, after realizing that he wanted to slow down, reflect on his college experience, and spend more time with his family.
“It’s phenomenal. I think in a lot of ways, it’s as if you leave a party, you open the door, you get some cool night air, and then you step back in.” Heine said. “When I’m 80, hopefully I get that old, and when I look back upon my life, those six months that I had with my family when we’re all in good health and I’m in my youth, I don’t think I’ll ever regret that.”
While some students who had taken leaves said they did not regret their decision, they acknowledged a stigma surrounding taking time off.
Morris said that stigma could stem from students' fears of looking weak or appearing unable to handle the pressure of Harvard, or from students not wanting to slow down their life plans.
“I think a lot of times people see Harvard as a stepping stone and it’s four years that they will use to get to the next step,” Morris said. “They might see taking time off as hindering them from getting to that step as quickly as possible.”
Flehinger said the College encourages students to take time off as a way of caring for themselves.
“Rather than struggle through a term, why not go somewhere where you can get healthier, and then come back and really learn and enjoy your time here?” Flehinger said.
Morris expressed interest in seeing the College help students who want to take time off and need funding. There is no financial aid for students taking time off, as financial aid applies only to current students.
“I would love to see the College... or a donor donate money to create a fund for people to take time off to work in the public sector or to work in academics,” Morris said. “I think the ideal situation would be to have people see Harvard as a five-year experience, four years in school, and one year to take time off, because I really do think it’s that valuable.”
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