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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

My medical leave of absence: a tale of bureaucracy at Carleton

Like most things at Carleton, my decision to take a medical leave of absence—and its aftermath—was fraught with difficulty.

It’s not so much that the decision itself was tough to make; in fact, the relevant college administration was delightfully helpful in working with me to figure out the logistics of taking my Fall Term of sophomore year off.

The real difficulty ended up being everything after.

Which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t necessarily amount to a ton, life-or-death-wise, but it reached a certain threshold of mild inconvenience that, to me, necessitated my writing about it. I have heard similar stories from many other people.

What perhaps was the first issue I encountered—after taking the time off itself for the term—was the prompt refusal of the Career Center to let me apply for externships my sophomore fall given I was taking a medical leave that term. Despite my (as far as I know) being on the campus directory, I was still (so far as I was told) prohibited from applying to the program given that I was, at that time, taking a medical leave—though I had informed the Carleton administration long before application deadlines that I intended to return to school the next term. To bar a student taking a medical leave of absence from applying to a career-helping program which all other on-campus Carls have access to felt extreme to me. Almost stigmatizing… sure, bar the people struggling with mental illness from important career opportunities—wonderful idea. Very Foucauldian…

Toward the end of Winter Term this year came the time for major declaration, as well. Since I’d taken the leave of absence, I wasn’t yet able to declare my major until much later. This made sense to me until I realized that, because I was now off-cycle, I wouldn’t be allowed to declare my major until the beginning of Fall Term. That felt weird. Why couldn’t I declare essentially at the same time as on-cycle sophomores could, just one term later? Why would other off-cycle sophomores have to wait an extra six or so months to do so? I was never given a clear answer. As a result of all this, I wasn’t able to really, properly meet other students in my major, and I missed almost all the communications among the majors between April and September this year. I was also, because of my off-cycle status, passed from advisor to advisor in the interim. Especially because of the ongoing pandemic, this only increased my sense of isolation from Carleton and made an already atypical college experience even more so. That waiting period felt arbitrary and—again—unjustly isolating and hoop-jump-requiring given that the decision to take a term off had been the result of serious and pressing mental health issues, not just because, say, I felt like taking a break from school.

On top of all this, since students cannot accelerate their graduation until they declare their major, I was unable to get back on-cycle until I went through all the aforementioned bureaucratic rigmarole of declaring my major. While I am now back on-cycle and up to speed finally, it was immensely frustrating that it took over a year since deciding to take a term off to get back on-track graduation-wise.

While, again, these aren’t the biggest possible issues that could have (or already have) arisen during my time at Carleton, they have for me (and I’m sure for others, too) combined in a kind of Gestalt-ish way to make me almost regret taking the term off—even thought it was, for me at the time, almost literally a life-or-death decision. Overall, the decision to take a medical leave ended up requiring much more time, emotional energy and labor from me than I expected or should have been subjected to. And I attribute that all to bureaucracy.

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