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'They let you do that?' Why more Duke students should consider taking leave

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“Jerry, I think it’s this way!” I look over, and I see two guys also lost and decked out in Bernie gear. One of the guys comes over and says, “Hi, I’m Ben, and we’re lost.” Spring semester just started, but I’m hundreds of miles away somewhere in New Hampshire on Keene State University with Ben and Jerry. 

I came to Duke excited to be going to one of the top-ranked schools in the country—ready for all the opportunities the experience would provide. Little did I know that the best opportunity would be leaving. The personal leave of absence policy at Duke is not advertised. They do not present this option during orientation nor have I heard it mentioned by any of my advisors or peers, but the process is fairly simple. I had a five-minute meeting with my dean, and a few emails later, my wallet app notified me my Duke card had been suspended. I was no longer an active Duke student.

I struggled with this decision. I met with several advisors. I spoke with many of my peers. Mostly everyone was supportive. I questioned if pausing my studies for the Bernie 2020 campaign made sense for my academic or professional career. I would not be receiving credit. I had no job lined up. I did not know where in the country I would live. It was a risk, but I knew this was something I was passionate about. I would never have this opportunity again.

My dean and advisors were supportive, but it doesn’t surprise me that many students are reluctant to take this step. Students are not allowed on campus for any reason during a leave of absence. If I wanted to visit, I would need to provide 72-hour notice and obtain written permission. Not only are students on leave not allowed on campus, the policy explicitly states students on leave can no longer participate in any student group.

Thankfully, these policies are being reconsidered. Just last month, a new committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Teaching, Academic Standards and Honors (CUT), was introduced, chaired by Professor Jakob Norberg. CUT is considering differentiating between academic and nonacademic personal leaves. Norberg argues that those on an academic leave should still be allowed on campus because students provide academic value. I agree this policy needs to be revisited but disagree with this differentiation. Duke students are more to the community than mere tokens of academic value and should be welcomed to campus during every step of their academic journey—even if they need to take a step away.

The first thing I heard when I told people my plans was, “Oh, they let you do that?” It does seem strange at first. I know I thought it was. Many of us enter college with the same plan. We are going to go to school in the spring and fall, get internships in the summer, maintain a good GPA and then graduate with job or graduate school offers cued up. At least, this is how I saw it.

Instead, what if you take opportunities when they appear instead of searching for them when they don’t? For me, Bernie Sanders has shaped my life. He is the reason I am majoring in political science and want to pursue a career in politics. I owed it to him and myself to do everything I could this election cycle. I saw an opportunity to get involved, and I took it. 

With the pandemic halting campaign operations throughout the country, I am isolated just like everyone else. Except, compared to my class of 2023 peers, I am “behind” a semester. I have only four completed credits, while my peers will have eight or nine. However, I forged countless meaningful relationships. I have professional experience in a field I want to work in. And compared to just a few months ago, I have a more profound sense of direction, a more defined value set and a plethora of new experiences.

Duke should encourage students to explore opportunities not provided by the university, and not go out of their way to isolate students who want to diversify their background. Allowing students on leave to visit campus is the first step to normalizing personal leaves.

But how will I ever catch up? With the summer sessions looking eerier as the days pass, I’m not sure if that is the path I want to take. If I attend next year’s summer session, I would be “caught up,” but I would surely be missing out on other opportunities. What if I take another leave?

Maybe I will graduate a semester “late.” Perhaps I will graduate a whole year “late.” But I am doing what I love to do, fighting for things I believe in and following what I am passionate about. Your path as a student and a developing individual, both academically and personally, is not defined.

Carson Termotto is a Trinity first-year.

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