A leave of absence has long been an option for college students who need a temporary break from their studies. However, taking time off from college can mean losing access to university resources and, in the case of international students, being temporarily barred from the country. The consequences of postponing a semester or more have always been an obstacle for some, but these barriers have taken on additional urgency in the time of COVID-19.
Most universities have developed COVID-19 testing plans, quarantine housing capacity and rules on safe behavior. The fact remains that dormitories and Greek housing are built for connection, not isolation. Living and socializing in Greek life housing has already been linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 at the University of Washington in Seattle, before the fall 2020 semester had even begun.
Many schools have decided to go online this semester, permitting students to live at home, but this is not an option for those without reliable access to the internet and a living arrangement conducive to studying. Some students who have a home where they can study still may not find online classes to be a good educational fit because their courses involve hands-on learning. Many students and their parents have balked at paying the same tuition for remote learning as they do for on-campus instruction, so they are taking a leave. A leave may seem like the solution to these concerns, but it could prove unaffordable for some.
Allanah Rolph, a double major at Harvard University in history and literature along with women, gender, and sexuality studies, was hoping to take a leave this fall. However, she decided not to because it meant she would have to pay over $2,500 to retain her health care coverage for six months, money her family could not afford.
Rolph knows the danger of being uninsured. She had strep throat after aging out of Medicaid in her home state of South Dakota and before her Harvard health insurance plan began.
“I was considering not getting treated for strep throat, but then I realized that would do permanent damage to my body, so I paid for treatment out of pocket, which was really hard,” Rolph said.
The financial challenges of a leave of absence can be especially difficult for undocumented and DACA students. According to Cornell Law Professor Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, undocumented students are not authorized to hold jobs off campus. While students with DACA status have more access to employment opportunities, they are still likely to face financial hardship during a semester off.
“Like DACA students, undocumented students may be more likely to have a need for on-campus housing, better access to food security, and other supports provided by institutions,” Kelley-Widmer said.
Students at some universities risk losing their housing. At Columbia University, located in Manhattan where affordable housing is hard to come by, activists have circulated a petition calling for their school to guarantee housing to students upon return from their leaves. Columbia University guarantees housing for all four years, but students permanently lose this guarantee if they take a leave of absence. The administration is resisting, citing a potential housing shortage.
Sky-rocketing unemployment makes paying tuition more difficult for many students and their families, forcing some to take time off.
One such student is Alexandra Mantilla, an environmental and sustainability science major at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Mantilla is taking a leave of absence both because of financial challenges and the risk of bringing COVID-19 back to immunocompromised family members at the end of the semester.
“I felt like if I went back to campus I would be losing a lot of money, while putting my health and my family’s safety at stake,” said Mantilla.
Even if Mantilla felt safe coming back to campus this semester, she would struggle to afford to do so. She was unable to find paying work this summer, and her 2020-21 campus job has been eliminated.
International students must leave the U.S. during their semester off, which could jeopardize their visas. The State Department requires them to depart within 60 days of their programs’ originally planned end date.
Valery Leon Quintero, an international relations and affairs major at Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass., has ruled out a leave. Her paid work in the U.S. helps support her family in Venezuela where their home has limited running water, electricity and internet access. Meanwhile, her criticism of the government puts her in danger if she returns.
“If I go back to Venezuela, there is a high chance I become a political prisoner,” said Quintero.
An additional complication is that the U.S. government has ceased offering visas to residents of many countries, including Laos, where Nita Senesathith, a psychology major at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., is from. If she takes a leave of absence, she may be unable to return to the U.S. and complete her degree. Senesathith said she and her fellow international students are taking life day by day.
“The more time goes by, the more we learn to live with the uncertainty,” said Senesathith.
Diana Paz Garcia ‘21, a double major in political science and international studies at Macalester, is from Mexico. According to Garcia, a leave would make her ineligible for an internship or post-graduation work for another two semesters.
“When COVID hit, many of my peers said, ‘Oh, I’ll take a leave of absence.’ For me, that’s not an option,” said Garcia.
NOTE: I became interested in writing this article when I decided to take a leave of absence this semester from Cornell, where I’m majoring in biology and society. I did not want to take the health risks of dorm life this fall, and did not feel online classes would be a good fit for me.
As I used social media to get in touch with other students who were also making choices about taking a leave of absence, I realized how inaccessible leaves of absence are to many of my peers. While universities tell students to make the choice that is best for them personally, some of us have easier decisions to make than others.Find More Stories