The bed is stripped, the bookshelves empty, the walls a naked white. Your friend is gone, you’re not sure when he left. People whisper, but no one really knows exactly what happened. And when he returns, if he returns, no one will discuss his absence in detail, and life will plod on without pause.
There are few taboo subjects of conversation at Yale. Withdrawal, with its stigma of shame, is one of them.
Frequently the consequence of unexpected and unwelcome circumstances, withdrawal upsets students’ pre-planned lives. Unlike leaves of absence, which allow undergraduates to take up to two semesters off without forfeiting their status as students, withdrawal has more stringent requirements. Students withdrawing usually do so mid-term for a serious reason — either “personal,” medical or academic — and must apply for readmission when they want to return. In certain medical or academic circumstances, the University can force a student to withdraw.
“When someone is withdrawn from Yale, they see it as a mark of failure,” Assistant Dean Jill Cutler, chair of the Yale College Readmissions Committee said.
Many students who have withdrawn from enrollment at Yale become just that — withdrawn — when asked about their time away from school. They shy away from in-depth discussion about their situations, telling friends they “took time off.”
Withdrawal, whatever the circumstance, poses a number of challenging situations to students who are often already dealing with complicated issues. Most students who withdraw must grapple with rough periods of transition, a stressful readmission process and an environment they say can sometimes feel hostile. Especially when students are forced to withdraw by the University, landing on their feet and continuing their lives becomes difficult.
One Yale student, who was made to withdraw by the University due to mental health concerns, described her shock and disorientation upon finding herself suddenly not in school:
“I was angry and upset when I was made to withdraw,” she said. “[I thought], ‘You’re pushing me out into the cold. I’ve lost my occupation, lost my social base.’ It was a little like I didn’t know where to go.”
Although she said she is now glad she has taken time off, the student said the transitions to and from college life caused her the most difficulties. She lost her Yale health insurance and had to find a new therapist. Ultimately, despite the aid of her residential college dean and her advisor, she said she felt rejected and isolated.
“It definitely made me feel like no one wanted me here,” she said. “It didn’t make me feel like I had an advocate here.”
Most of all, the student said, she felt as if she had no supports at Yale, that she and her parents were “helpless.” She returned to Yale only to withdraw a second time because the transition back to school proved to be too jarring.
Lorraine Siggins, psychiatrist in chief at University Health Services, said that withdrawn students become ineligible for therapy through UHS. But, she said, the Mental Hygiene Department does all it can to aid them. UHS offered a voluntary support group this fall for students returning from withdrawal.
“We try to work with them about getting treatment [at home],” Siggins said. “We’ll help them find a clinic.”
Cutler added that the residential college deans call the students several times to check up on their progress after they return to campus.
But students must often proactively seek support from the University’s various channels of advising.
“I had to use my advisor, he wasn’t going to tell me [what to do],” said Peter Furia ’05, who voluntarily withdrew from Yale during the fall of his sophomore year because he felt overwhelmed academically.
Furia said freshman year his social life flourished, but not his academics. The “contagious sentiment of urgency” at Yale, especially during shopping period his sophomore year, eventually led to his decision to withdraw.
During his year off, he took a “normal job at a normal wage,” spent time with his family and worked on his drawing and painting. For a while, he considered leaving Yale for good and going to school in California, closer to his home. But something made him refuse to give up on Yale entirely.
“Maybe it matters who I am rather than where I am,” he said. “If I am an unhappy person, it doesn’t matter where I go.”
His return to Yale one year later was not entirely smooth. Many acquaintances did not recognize him at all, and his grades at first did not significantly improve. But, he said, he was more comfortable and peaceful. And eventually, after finding a new major and redesigning his schedule of classes, Furia’s academics caught up with his expectations.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here in my junior year if I hadn’t taken time off,” he said.
Furia is, however, critical about one point of the withdrawal process: applying for readmission.
The application process for readmission to Yale is “stringent” compared to other universities, Cutler said. Although Cutler said she tells students their readmission is more a question of when, rather than if, they will be readmitted, the process draws the criticism of most students who reapply. The inconvenient timing of the committee’s decision — students usually find out about two weeks before the term starts whether or not they have been readmitted — as well as the rigorous list of requirements, makes reapplying an ordeal. In order to be readmitted, withdrawn students must have taken two courses at another institution or Yale Summer Programs and received a grade of B or higher, undergone a series of in-person interviews with members of the readmission committee, and filled out an application with a personal statement and other short essays.
The short notice of the readmission committee’s decision makes an already-difficult transition even more challenging.
“It was really disorienting when I returned to have so little early notice,” said the student who withdrew for mental health reasons.
Furia said he simply assumed that he would be readmitted, booked his airplane tickets, shipped his belongings to New Haven and only found out whether he could return 24 hours before his flight.
A freshman in Berkeley College was not so lucky. She was turned down after her first application and had to scramble to find housing at another university where she was taking classes. She was readmitted after her second application, but said she felt as if she had applied to the same school three times.
Cutler blamed the short notice on the “vagueries” of the academic calendar, which gives deans the summer off until Aug. 15.
“I’d be the first person to say it isn’t perfect, but I believe it’s as good as we can make it given the constraints we have,” Cutler said.
Amy Seese ’06, who withdrew around midterm last spring for medical reasons, said she was frustrated by a system that does not distinguish between medical withdrawal and withdrawal for mental health and academic reasons.
“It actually really alienated me, and I considered not coming back,” Seese said. “The decision [about when to return] for students who have withdrawn medically should be between the doctor and the patient.”
But Cutler defended the process as a necessary precaution at a university as difficult as Yale.
“I recognize that for the person going through it, it can be quite unpleasant,” she said. “Yale is a difficult place to go to school. There are ways in which it’s a very intensive academic and social environment. If you’re not ready to come back, wouldn’t it be better to wait until you are?”
When students do return, they rarely discuss their experiences with their peers or professors. The serious and often abrupt nature of withdrawal contributes to a culture of silence. Even the language in the Blue Book paints withdrawal in a disapproving light: Students withdrawing for personal reasons must write a “letter of resignation” to their residential college dean.
No matter how beneficial the withdrawal is for the student, the stigma remains.
“I think people feel within themselves that [taking time off] is cheating,” Cutler said. “It’s not a culture in which these options are easily exercised.”