College Notes Lower-Than-Expected Leaves of Absence for Fall 2020

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Maeve Thistel '23, Guest Writer

Despite Dickinson’s July 15 decision to go remote for the fall 2020 semester, just 110 students have opted for leaves of absence–a lower figure than the college initially predicted.

Dickinson was one of the first liberal arts colleges to announce a remote semester. Following the decision, every student grappled with the decision to return to an online semester or take a leave of absence in the fall. According to Angie Harris, Associate Vice President for Student Life, 110 students declared a leave of absence at the end of the 2020 spring semester. 

“This number is inclusive,” said Harris. “It includes more than just students who took leaves because they did not want to be remote this semester.” Of the 110 students, 39 were rising sophomores, 41 were rising juniors, and 29 were rising seniors. 

For some students, taking a leave of absence is an opportunity to pursue the gap year they never had. Maeve Hickey ’23 took leave this fall and is considering taking the full year off.

“I wanted to take a gap year before college,” said Hickey. “I saw this semester as an opportunity to take a break from school and collect my thoughts and think about my future.”

Hickey, a musician, moved to Bristol, Vermont with two friends, both of whom are taking online classes through Dickinson. “I brought all my instruments,” she said. “I am hoping to write a bunch of music and record an album.” Hickey is supporting herself financially this semester by working as chef in a restaurant kitchen on the weekends and waitresses or delivers pizza on weekdays. 

Gap years are not the only reason to take a break from school. Financial aid is another factor in the decision for many students. Andrea Wrenn ’23 was already reluctant to continue her studies online, but a change to her financial aid package made it impossible to return.

“I did the appeal process,” said Wrenn, “but they only gave me $2,000 when I asked for $20,000.” Wrenn, who is already a gap year student, is concerned about pushing her graduation date back another year.

However, she is  working hard to remain a part of the academic sphere. Wrenn is a bilingual speaker pursuing Russian as a third language. She is currently working with Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), a European organization that works to create English teaching opportunities.“I want to keep learning,” said Wrenn. “Education is a journey. I want to be around people who value it.” Wrenn is concurrently exploring other fields she has less experience with. “I’ve never been a STEM person,” Wrenn remarked, “so I want to teach myself physics, math and chemistry.”

However, the majority of Dickinson students decided to continue their studies online this fall. Caitlyn Longest ’23, an intended Studio Art major, was concerned that taking the semester off would be detrimental to her academic performance.

“I didn’t really see [a leave of absence] as an option. I wanted to stay on track with my studies.” Longest, who is also pursuing minors in Arabic and Anthropology, was concerned about maintaining her language fluency. When Dickinson went online in the 2020 Spring semester, Longest had three days of Arabic a week. “Even just having two days off hurt my learning of the language,” she said.

Choosing to learn online or take a leave of absence is a personal decision that is difficult to make. Some, like Longest, found self-growth in learning online. “Remote learning makes me feel as though I am improving myself,” she said. Others, such as Hickey, jumped at a new opportunity to learn outside of school. “If Corona gets better,” said Hickey, “I can spend the semester in a Spanish-speaking country and improve my language skills.” 

Even so, factors beyond a student’s control play just as strong a role in the development of a new college experience. “I’m still making peace with the decision,” says Wrenn. “I would love to go back to Dickinson, but if my financial aid remains what it is right now, then I can’t go back.”