Home » Studies » Taking A Break From The Academic Rat Race: Leave of Absences, A Taboo?

University has the reputation of being a playground of fun and games. It is a fantastic opportunity to broaden your academia, meet great people, who are bound to be your friends for life, get involved in student politics, campus media and all the rage societies from Harry Potter Appreciation Society to Zumba. However, where is the line drawn when university loses it’s experiential value and becomes an oxymoronic struggle of  adventure that dwindles down to an anti-haven of pressure and unhappiness, or even becomes a factor in rethinking the direction of your life, as a student and as a person?

Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many students take a leave of absence annually, it is a concept that is not unheard of as many of you may have friends or have heard of fellow students taking a break from their studies. Each university has its own guidelines on their policies regarding leave of absences and whilst it may be the last thought on a student’s mind, what exactly are the pros and cons of taking an LOA and is it as ‘taboo’ as students make it out to be?

Reasons for leave of absences

There appears to be an academic rat race in the sequential process of education:

Complete GCSEs at 16

Pass your A levels at 18

Head straight to university

There is unnecessary pressure on students to conform to the expectations of academia and the ritual of coming of age by going through the monotonous flow chart of life. It does not have to be like that though. There are amazing opportunities out there to further your experience in the work field, ranging from taking internships to applying for apprenticeships. However, when it comes to leave of absence, students take them for various reasons; whether it is due to physical or mental health issues, financial troubles, personal reasons or change of mind, it is OKAY and does not mean you are a failure at life or even a boulder in the way of your path to success (excuse the cliche).

In fact, at the National University of Singapore, it is reported that 340 students, or 1.26 per cent of its 27,000-strong undergraduate population, took leave from school in the last academic year (2012/2013). This is quite a significant figure when one considers the academic reputation of students in the East. An example of one such student taking a leave of absence is Isaac Ong. Not only did he decide to take a year off, he took three. He spent his time volunteering and helping people by offering tuition and counselling. He also went on to initiate the project, #Freemovement, to inspire Singaporean youths. When it was time to return to his studies, he bravely considered how he could impact the greater good of others.

When I go to class, I’m not there just to get the grades any more. When I study my sociology class or my psychology class or my communications class, everything has an element of how do I give back to the community, how do I possibly earn a good enough profit to be able to give back? I think that really drags me out of bed early in the morning to learn.

This is a classic example of a leave of absence being taken, not for health reasons, but for personal growth. It is up to you to decide how you wish to lead your life. Explaining your reasons to employers, friends and fellow students can be rather draining and often leaves students in a frustrated, perplexed state as they wonder if they have made the right decision. However, it is all about reaping the benefits the year will bring to you as you focus on personal growth and development to ensure you are ready to continue your studies.

Student opinions

A common misconception of leave of absences amongst the student community is that of the ‘there is something wrong with you’ mindset, plaguing and brainwashing the academic ridden brains amongst the masses. James, of Portsmouth University, who is currently contemplating taking a leave of absence feels that:

If it will help the student for whatever reason they are doing it for, then it is a valid option to take, how can it be taboo if the purpose is to help them? It might be seen as wasting time out of your course/academic year I guess, so I can see taking a leave of absence being an extreme course of action for those who want to be part of the “academic rat race”.

Alex, of York University, speaks of his opinion on fellow students who take leave of absences.

I don’t think I knew anyone who took one in my first year, it was when the years progressed and things got difficult and more serious, that’s when reality hit and that’s when they considered taking  leave;  I know it [taking a leave of absence] is really tough and takes guts to do.

His comment is one of many opinions that quash the stereotypical attitude towards leave of absences.

Support is needed

A common outcome when a student takes a leave of absence is their academic work can sometimes suffer when returning to their studies. They can become heavily reliant on staff and pastoral support due to the disruption to their academic routine. Other outcomes can include friendship groups changing and even suffering. This can lead to students who are struggling with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety finding themselves even more alienated from the student community. It is reasons such as this that make it so important to challenge the stigma surrounding leave of absences and be supportive.

This all boils down to maintaining consistent support, contact and involvement from the university and students alike. This is an issue that needs to be improved as there is still a grey area when it comes to ensuring the wellbeing and welfare of students. How much can the university regulate this?  How much responsibility can it shoulder?

The issues surrounding leave of absences are still present. There are still the same pressures, the same risks, but I think there have been a lot of improvements in the way universities deal with absences through their somewhat rigorous, but focused, procedures and the outreach for students from their supervisors and friendship groups. On the other hand, there’s still a barrier and a stigma that doesn’t go away and we need to alter the attitudes of students to realise that leave of absences are perfectly valid and is an option when considering studying for a degree. After all, it’s your life, your choices, your actions.

You can find a useful pdf here containing a decision tree that will help guide you if you are considering whether you should intermit/withdraw from your course. It also contains some information about the procedures to follow if you do decide that you want to intermit/withdraw.

Featured image from Reddy Aprianto

20 years old, born in London, made in York. Studying English Literature at the University of York. I'm a word crafter by nature: journalist, (occasional) poet, blogger and photographer.
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