One year ago, the death of Luchang Wang ’17 sent shockwaves through campus. As the community gathered to mourn her, many focused attention on a note Wang wrote before her apparent suicide, in which she described her fears about taking time away from Yale and not being allowed to return. Students pointed to her note as evidence of the inadequacy of mental health care at Yale as well as flaws in existing University policies regarding withdrawal and reinstatement.
In the wake of Wang’s death and subsequent student activism, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, on the recommendation of a review committee of faculty, administrators and one undergraduate, announced in April a host of reforms designed to make the withdrawal and reinstatement processes more flexible and transparent. While some of the changes were put into effect immediately, Holloway wrote in his collegewide announcement that others would take time. He committed to enacting all of them for students applying for reinstatement in spring 2016. As such, students who applied to be reinstated this semester would be the first to experience the full effects of the changes.
Interviews with students recently reinstated show that most of the changes have indeed been put in place, although some have yet to materialize. In addition, newly and formerly reinstated students emphasized that while the reforms are a good start to support students who need time away from Yale — especially those leaving for mental health reasons — more remains to be done.
PAST VERSUS PRESENT
The reforms announced last spring range from adjustments in terminology to extensions in timelines. The process formerly known as “readmission” was renamed “reinstatement” to clarify a common misconception that students who withdraw from Yale College are un-admitted from the University. The administration also extended the deadline by which students must request a leave of absence — which does not require reinstatement — from the 10th day of the term to the last day of the course selection period, which translates into five extra days in the fall and six in the spring. Holloway also promised to implement ways for Yale to ease the financial burdens of reinstatement, increase communication between students and the administration and streamline the reinstatement process. In particular, reinstatement interviews must now be completed several months before the start of the semester in which the student is seeking reinstatement, compared to formerly lax deadlines that left students unsure of their reinstatement status just days before move-in. Finally, the committee advocated for the launch of a website that would contain clear information about the new policies as well as all application materials for reinstatement, which students previously had to actively request.
While leave of absence, withdrawal and reinstatement regulations have been outlined on the Yale College Programs of Study website, the downloadable electronic application materials were not yet available online as of Thursday night. Holloway told the News that the website will be available by spring break this year.
“The process for applying for reinstatement has been simplified: in the past, students who were applying for reinstatement had to meet two deadlines, one for requesting an application and another for submitting it. Now, only the second one remains,” Holloway told the News, adding that the application deadlines have been moved back to July 1 for fall-term reinstatement and Nov. 1 for spring-term reinstatement to give applicants more time. “Internal communications have been improved so that Chair of the Committee on Reinstatement [Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Pamela George] is now informed when students withdraw, putting her in a better position to respond to questions right away, rather than waiting until withdrawn students have requested an application for reinstatement.”
Previously, George did not know which students had withdrawn until they applied for reinstatement. She acknowledged to the News last March that this made it difficult for her to assist withdrawn students with their returns to Yale.
In addition, Holloway said the administration also decided to eliminate the $50 application fee for reinstatement, move reinstatement interviews up to July and November for the fall and spring terms respectively and remove residential college deans from the voting reinstatement committee to allow them to more actively engage with withdrawn students. Students on financial aid can also apply for their Student Income Contribution to be forgiven, and Student Financial Services automatically waives the SIC for students who require a ninth term to complete their degrees.
Students who were reinstated prior to these reforms described a long, arduous and frustrating process. Rachel Williams ’17, who was readmitted in January 2014 — before the terminology change — after withdrawing for mental health issues, said she can relate to the alienation and lack of trust in the administration Wang expressed in her note. Those concerns, she said, are “very legitimate.” While Williams said she is not familiar with the reformed process, she emphasized that the most important change that the Yale administration must make is to show that they care about their students, including those who have withdrawn and are away from campus.
“I had no support from [the Yale administration] whatsoever while I was away,” Williams said, adding that the reinstatement process was “incredibly stressful” for her and that she hopes for more transparency. “What Yale needs to make clear is that it wants [students who have withdrawn] back. If Yale really wants to be credible in its claim that it cares about its students and that this is a great environment, then it needs to offer support to students even while they are away.”
Some students reinstated this semester reported having a better experience. One student said he valued the support he received from the administration during his time away from campus, especially the regular contact he had with his residential college dean while away.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said he did not consider the process of applying for reinstatement very stressful. Although he knew he ran a chance of not being reinstated, he said this did not worry him excessively. He added that he does not believe Yale’s reinstatement policies put undue pressure on students.
“[A small element of worry] will be there if there’s a process of reinstatement at all, so there’s always going to be that feeling for the student,” he said.
Although the website with application materials has not yet appeared, the student said he did not need to solicit an application for reinstatement — administrators mailed one to his home — and his reinstatement interview took place in November, in accordance with the revised timeline. Still, other newly reinstated students said they had to email administrators to request the application.
The student who received the mailed application said he had access to his Yale email address while he was away, and while he did not have permission to use the Yale library system, he said he did not object to this loss. Throughout the process, he said, he felt that the administration was trying to help him be reinstated.
“It was all very easy and well done, partly because [my residential college dean] is awesome and really helpful,” he said.
TWO ACADEMIC CREDITS
One aspect of the reinstatement process that did not change is the requirement that students complete the equivalent of two academic credits during their time away to demonstrate that they are academically ready to return to campus. Students interviewed said this requirement is one of the most burdensome components of the reinstatement process, and questioned the administration’s decision to not modify it.
An international student who was reinstated at the beginning of this semester said it was frustrating to complete two academic credits outside of the United States. Institutions in his home country follow a different academic calendar, the student said, and there is no equivalent of community colleges. It was complicated to obtain university-student status at home just to complete two academic credits, he said, and the administration did not take these cultural considerations into account during his application for reinstatement.
In general, the student said, students who withdraw because they are suffering from mental health problems should not be required to take courses during their time away. He added that he has spoken with other reinstated students and even administrators, and found that they often harbor the same sentiment.
Another student who was reinstated this spring said the academic requirements were not hard to fulfill but were simply “annoying.” Still, he said he thought all the reinstatement requirements were reasonable.
While the reforms did not eliminate the two-academic-credit requirement, the committee did remind students that it is possible to fulfill the requirement by enrolling in Yale Summer Session, which can provide need-based scholarships to students who are on financial aid at the time of withdrawal.
Administrators interviewed remained steadfast on the importance of requiring two academic credits for reinstatement.
“The enterprise that [withdrawn students] are leaving for a time, and to which they plan to return, is decidedly an academic one,” Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker, who was on the review committee, told the News. “As with the entire reinstatement process, the requirement of two course credits is not an obstacle but rather an avenue to returning to Yale with the best chance of success.”
Holloway also defended the academic requirement.
“For many students, Yale is a stressful place. We want to make sure they can handle the rigors of the academic process, and they have to remain healthy while doing it,” he said.
one size fitS all
Beyond the academic requirement, students criticized other aspects of the reinstatement process that went unchanged.
“From what I gleaned, as far as the reforms go, they were just nominal changes in literal lexicon, expected to appease the reasonably angry students,” said Monica Hannush ’16, who was reinstated in the fall of 2013. “What [the administration] has done is really nothing close to what we need. They just put different make-up on a one-size-fits-all policy.”
The reinstatement process continues to lack transparency and consistency, said Alexa Little ’16, who withdrew for medical reasons in the spring of 2013 and was readmitted in the fall of 2014. For example, although the revised policies state that reinstatement interviews may be conducted via video conference if a student lives far away from campus, she said they are unclear about what distance qualifies as “far,” and that travel costs could still be prohibitive for many students. Additionally, she said, administrators have allowed some students to fulfill their academic requirement at community colleges but have denied that opportunity to others.
Little also criticized the medical assessment component of the interview, during which a professional from Yale Health evaluates the applicant for his or her fitness to return. A one-hour meeting with a Yale clinician, she said, should not carry more weight than the advice of the withdrawn student’s personal physician — who does not have a deciding role in the reinstatement process.
In addition, Little expressed frustration with the financial repercussions of withdrawal, including loss of tuition. While Holloway’s reforms suggested greater publicity of Yale’s tuition-insurance program — which, for the cost of about $350 per year, guarantees up to a 90 percent refund of tuition, room and board in the case of medical withdrawal — Little said this is not the perfect solution.
“People with a valid medical diagnosis should be able to leave without the financial punishment,” she said. “I’ve been told that the solution was supposedly the tuition insurance. But that’s asking students to spend [a few hundred] dollars on the off chance that you might get ill, and some students can’t afford that. It’s insane that this is a loss that Yale somehow can’t cover. Yale paid for lasers at Safety Dance. We have custom waffle irons. That really gets to me. You have to be suffering so badly to have to leave here.”
RETURNING TO YALE
Still, administrators are taking steps to ease the transition back to Yale. George has begun hosting lunch gatherings for reinstated students.
“To make it easier for reinstated students to meet each other, the chair has started an informal and voluntary series of lunches,” Holloway said. “My understanding is that they have been well-received. Two were held last term and two this term, each one in a different dining hall. In time, I expect that these will be extended to dinners as well.”
George told the News that the lunches have proven helpful for students who wish to meet others and create a “meaningful community” among themselves. She added that these gatherings will continue and extend to other times convenient for the students. She will continue to assess interest and solicit suggestions from students and deans, she said.
Some students reinstated this semester called this move a “very admirable effort” on George’s part. But others described the lunches as an “awkward situation,” in which attendees avoided certain topics and tried to appear normal.
One of the anonymous students reinstated this semester said students who withdrew and returned want to leave the experience behind.
“We want to be as invisible as possible,” the student said.
No matter how reinstated students have found the transition back to Yale, all agreed that the process of creating a better mental health climate on campus has just begun.
“Now my frustration is, because something has been published on the issue, so many people consider it a solved problem,” Little said.