Communication, Cooperation Needed for Medical Leave Reform

Editorial Board

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College fifth-year Libby Salemi went on medical leave during the second semester of her first year. After dealing with panic attacks that made it impossible to focus on her studies, she decided to take a break and try to diagnose her disorder. Upon returning to campus for her sophomore year, Salemi was required to attend weekly meetings with an assigned dean. Salemi found the dean apathetic and disinvested in Salemi’s reacclimation to campus. “I would like a person who can walk you through this process and be there for you,” Salemi said. “It’s confusing. It would have been nice to have someone when I returned to campus actually care, not someone who was just hired to do this job.”

The end of the semester is a stressful time for every student at Oberlin but exponentially more so for students dealing with health issues like chronic illnesses and disabilities. Medical leave remains an available option for students who might need to take a semester or two off from strenuous workloads. Unfortunately, Salemi’s experience is far too common. There is a dire need for revision of the College’s medical leave policy, and since administrators are in the process of doing just that, the Editorial Board implores them to consider a significant flaw in the existing policy: a lack of communication and cooperation between the offices who process returns from leave and the offices equipped to handle the medical and academic challenges of reintegrating into Oberlin.

The medical leave committee that processes student applications includes a member of the Office of the Dean of Studies, a member of the Conservatory Office of the Associate Deans, a class dean in the Office of the Dean of Students and the Director of Housing. While not officially involved in the process, Director of Student Health and Counseling John Harshbarger and Associate Director of the Office of Disability Services Isabella Moreno often offer assistance to students with letters of support. “A lot of times what will happen is that the Counseling Center will write a letter of support for students we have been working for,” Harshbarger said. “We will also see students who are very depressed and can’t continue at Oberlin; [we] meet and assess and write a letter of support.”

Unfortunately for returning students, that initial support from the Counseling Center and ODS often disappears once they return. Deans and professors usually don’t have the training necessary to handle the disabilities or illnesses with which students returning from leave might be struggling. They shouldn’t be expected to, but the Counseling Center and ODS should step in to fill the void. For the dean’s office, having another partner in the administration might help streamline the student’s overall transition back to Oberlin. The best way to ensure contact upon both leave and return would be to formally incorporate the Counseling Center and ODS into the formal MLOA process.

Since most students returning from leave aren’t able to confirm their reenrollment until a few months before the beginning of the semester, they are saddled with late slots for housing and class registration. Returning students find themselves scrambling to find classes required for their major that aren’t already filled by students who registered the previous semester. Aside from the potential to negatively impact graduation schedules and finances, it makes Add/Drop all the more anxiety-inducing for these students. Facilitating greater communication between the Office of the Dean of Studies and students on leave — and accelerating some confirmations of return in the process — would enable those students with a more concrete timetable to avoid getting the raw end of an academic and residential deal.

On a campus that has 650 students registered with Office of Disability Services — comparable to the number of students enrolled in the Conservatory or on varsity teams — it’s clear that policies surrounding the health of students both on and off campus needs to change. The board applauds the administration for reconsidering the terms of medical leave, but in order to maximize interdepartmental efficiency and minimize student frustration, it’s just as important to examine the process by which students return as that by which they leave.

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