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Anticipating a Fall Semester Away from Campus, Students Mull Leaves of Absence

University Provost Alan M. Garber '76 announced in an email to affiliates last month that Harvard's courses would resume in September, whether online or in-person.
University Provost Alan M. Garber '76 announced in an email to affiliates last month that Harvard's courses would resume in September, whether online or in-person. By Matthew W DeShaw
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

As undergraduates await news of whether the fall semester will continue remotely, many students say they are entertaining taking leaves of absence.

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced in an email to affiliates last month that Harvard’s courses would resume in September, whether online or in-person. Administrators will make their decision no later than July about course formats, they added.

In the case that the College conducts the semester online, several undergraduates said they would consider petitioning to take a leave. Some said they are weighing a multitude of factors such as educational quality and social life against potential disincentives, such as possibly losing their financial aid or housing upon their return.

Several students leaning towards taking leaves questioned whether remote classes are adequate substitutes for their on-campus equivalents.

David A. Paffenholz ’22 said the quality of online classes was foremost in his considerations over whether to take a leave of absence next fall.

“The academic experience is really quite different on Zoom versus in the classroom, particularly being able to see the rest of the class face to face, interact with others while walking into the classroom and chatting about the class, and then also the interaction with professors,” Paffenholz said.

Elijah McGill ’23 also said he would rather take time off than lose out on a semester in Cambridge should Harvard resume remotely this fall.

“Harvard is expensive. And I don't think that online education is worth that much money,” he said.

Beyond doubts over the quality of remote learning, students also expressed concerns about losing a semester of opportunities to socialize.

“The Harvard experience is so much more than just the academics,” Paffenholz said. “Being able to be with friends, be on campus, enjoy extracurricular activities, and kind of the other social interactions that happen outside of class are very, very difficult to replicate in an online format.”

Duke Moon ’23 — who anticipated taking two years off to complete his mandatory military service in South Korea — also said he would miss the social parts of undergraduate life. He wrote in an email that if courses resume online next fall, he would consider taking a leave to maximize the amount of time he could spend with his friends on campus.

“The time I get to spend with my friends on campus is more valuable than anything else Harvard can possibly offer me, so I’m leaning towards the option of enlisting this fall — that way I can come back in Fall 2022 and have another full year with my friends (they’ll be seniors and I’ll be a sophomore, but that’s fine),” he wrote.

Still, uncertainty over the College’s leave policy for the fall has tempered some students’ desire to petition for a leave.

Anticipating a higher-than-normal number of leave requests, some questioned how the College will be able to accommodate undergraduates upon their return. McGill said he thinks there is a “strong sense of uncertainty” among undergraduates surrounding whether students who choose to take this coming fall off will face any repercussions or disincentives from the College.

“If we're online, and there was a no-consequence policy of leave, I’d say right now that I would definitely take that,” he said.

McGill said, however, that the potential imposition of consequences would make him reconsider — the prospect of losing his financial aid upon his return in particular.

“Harvard isn't realistic for me without financial aid,” he said. “So far I've just been waiting until there's something official about that just because there's been so many things flying back and forth on either side of that debate.”

Aarushi H. Shah ’21 said she would take a leave of absence to care for her family members, including her father who is recovering from COVID-19, her sister who is due in August, and her elderly grandmother.

“I'm more than just a student,” she said. “I’m the healthiest in the family and so I feel the responsibility to give my parents, my sister, my grandma as much attention and dedication that I can.”

Shah said she worries taking a leave of absence may further financially burden her family by forcing her to delay applying to graduate school. Like McGill, she said she wondered if the decision would affect her ability to receive financial aid and participate in federal work study.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences fall planning committee is currently reviewing all options for the fall term. She added that the committee believes addressing student policies like those related to leaves of absence is “critical.”

“These policies need to be addressed holistically so that students can make informed decisions,” Dane wrote. “The College’s office of institutional research is in the process of collecting information and feedback from our students to help inform the College’s important planning work.”

“The current policies listed in the Handbook remain unchanged,” she added.

The Harvard College handbook states that student recipients of scholarships or financial aid should consult the Griffin Financial Aid Office concerning the “financial implications” of going on leave. The handbook also counts students returning from a leave of absence who have filed a Returning Student Housing Application among “those who will ordinarily be housed.”

Students who return from a leave that has extended beyond two years — as well as students who fail to file their housing application by its due date — can expect to be placed on a wait list and receive housing on a “space-available basis.”

Ultimately, Moon wrote that he hopes administrators consider student input as they make their decisions about fall semester leave policy.

“These are uncertain times for everybody, and no matter what happens, I just hope that Harvard allows its students the utmost flexibility and generosity,” Moon wrote.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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