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Some students opt for spring leaves of absence amid continuing pandemic, changed life plans

While many students are experiencing on-campus living for the first time this semester, others decided to take leaves of absence after being at Duke in the fall. 

The fall 2020 semester was the first time Duke had to manage on-campus living during the pandemic, and many students harbored uncertainties surrounding all that fall semester at Duke would entail, making a leave of absence an attractive alternative. 

Kimberly Blackshear, director of the Time Away Office, provided data showing an increased number of gap semesters compared to previous years. 

For the fall semester, 288 students took a leave of absence. Of these 288, 142 planned to find a job or internship, 23 worked in politics and 206 indicated that their leave was pandemic-related.  

After Duke demonstrated that it could keep COVID-19 cases low during the fall semester, many students decided to come to campus for the spring. Of the students who took a leave of absence in the fall, 185 students who took a leave in the fall returned this semester. Still, there were 89 spring leaves, and eight students indicated that their leaves of absence were related to COVID-19. 

Sixty students on spring leaves of absence planned to get a job or internship, and 27 students extended their fall leave into a gap year. Some students who took either the fall or spring semester off plan to return during the summer semester. 

Blackshear emphasized that Duke wanted to be accommodating for students’ various situations during the pandemic, allowing students to back out of housing contracts and extending the part-time study policy to all upperclassmen, when it is is typically reserved for second-semester seniors. 

She expressed that the interesting jobs, internships and experiences that students would gain during their leaves would enrich the Duke community, and that leaves of absence should be more normalized even in non-pandemic times. 

Junior Lillian Clark took a leave of absence this spring, after living off campus in Durham during the fall semester and taking all but one of her classes remotely. Clark’s fall study away in New York City was cancelled due to COVID-19, and one of the reasons for her leave of absence was to have time for that study away in the future. 

In addition to her study away hopes, Clark explained that a leave of absence was the right option for her career goals. She came to Duke in the Pratt School of Engineering as a civil engineer, but “did not like the systems of thinking it required,” so she switched to being a statistical science major in Trinity. 

“I spent last spring semester living at [the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] and taking classes there, and I took two journalism classes that I really loved and realized this is what I want to do. Over the summer, when my internship plans got cancelled, I worked on a farm in Raleigh and listened to podcasts the entire day and realized that I want to do specifically audio journalism,” Clark said. 

As a junior, Clark felt that the leave of absence would provide her with time to “do a little bit of catch up,” so that she can graduate with experience in the career she hopes to enter. 

For Clark, Duke’s handling of COVID-19 was not a primary concern for her leave. “I’m not taking time off for safety reasons. I felt safe enough last semester. I hardly left my apartment, which was part of the problem, so this semester is also largely for sanity reasons and becoming comfortable and happy again,” Clark said. 

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