Online learning has taken a heavy toll on the mental health and well-being of students all over, exacerbating the academic pressure many students already face. As online learning amid the pandemic continues to be a challenge for many, it’s no surprise that a number of students have decided to take a break from the University.
Taking a leave of absence (LOA) provides a number of benefits to students: an LOA allows some students the chance to rest and recuperate, to focus on their mental health, and to take a break from academic pressures. On the other hand, others are left with no choice but to take an LOA due to financial difficulties, another side effect of the pandemic and its associated lockdown measures. But in times of distress, there will come a time when other matters take priority over working toward their degree, deeming an LOA necessary.
The hard truth
Fortunately, some refer to taking an LOA as a good opportunity to fully recover from issues that prompted their leaving. Jardine Peare Sy (III, AB-OCM) was away for two terms after remote learning took a toll on her mental health. “I had to recalibrate how I would study for online class,” she reflects. “It’s really hard for me, as someone with a learning disability.”
Aside from tending to her mental health, she also sought ways on how to better improve her focus, ones that can help power through any distractions. “I’m too easily affected by distressing events to the point that it would be very disruptive for my studies,” she reveals. Thus, she spent her LOA to focus on her therapy, learning techniques that would help her adjust to the online setting.
Others, too, experience burnout from difficulties in fulfilling their academic responsibilities online. Ryan Ong (VI, MKT) recalls how poor internet connection only exacerbated his already “taxing” classes, which dealt with paperwork and computations. He shares, “During that time, it was the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) and we didn’t have any internet…[the internet provider’s] office also wasn’t responding. I couldn’t finish any assessments, submit [anything], or even attend class.”
At that point, applying for an LOA seemed like the most sensible option. The situation inconvenienced him, and it would soon inconvenience his peers. “It’s impossible to study, it’s impossible to do research. I can’t do anything, and it’s better to take a break so I won’t hassle my groupmates,” he posits.
While concrete measures have already been made to protect student welfare, students still feel that the University needs to become more stringent in its enforcement of these policies. “Some announcements would say, ‘Please don’t give homework on the weekends’…but then they’re not strictly implemented, so some profs really don’t adhere to it,” Sy narrates, noticing the lack of a clear policy toward professors who go against this rule.
In the end, the endless barrage of academic pressure on students leaves many in a constant state of burnout.
A tough decision
Making the decision to take an LOA is not always an easy one. Students often face multiple factors that cause them to harbor doubts and apprehensions about taking a break from school. As one of the offices in charge of endorsing LOA applications, the Office of Career and Counseling Services (OCCS) pinpoints multiple reasons why students take a leave. “Some students might not want to consider filing for their LOA because they don’t want to be left behind,” shares Joel Navarez, an OCCS counselor.
This was the case for Sy, who felt that taking an LOA meant extending her time in the University even longer. “In my case, I already took a year off of senior high, which is why I’m older than my batch sa [ID] 119…knowing madedelay pa ako even more, that was really difficult for me to stomach,” she shares. Despite this, Sy felt that taking the LOA was still worth it. “I just wanted to be in the best of my mental state before I would try again,” she shares.
Beyond this, additional pressure from parents also adds to this apprehension. Ong notes that there might be scholars whose families may be depending on them to graduate early and land a job, and add another source of income for the family. Hence, taking an LOA is out of the picture. Societal pressure plays a part in these apprehensions as well. “Maybe there are some people who think that if you rest from school, you might be called lazy, or all you want is just to have fun,” Ong asserts.
Navarez also cites financial difficulty as one factor, especially since it has become more prominent as a result of the ongoing pandemic. “All the students I talked to regarding financial [difficulties] mentioned unemployment and the sudden drop of business in their family, which cannot cover their enrollment in the University,” he remarks. Other reasons cited—although minimal in number—include domestic concerns, travel concerns, and military duty for international students.
Understandably, students are bound to get overwhelmed during their LOA term. But OCCS is quick to reassure that students don’t have to go through this plight alone. One of its core functions includes LOA intervention, where they devise plans in accordance with the reason behind a student’s urge to take an LOA.
When crafting LOA intervention plans, Navarez admits that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. But, in making sure that such a plan fits the needs of the student, their situation is carefully and thoroughly examined beforehand. An intake interview is conducted between an applicant and a counselor before an LOA is decided as the best course of action.
“If [the reason is] financial, we assess the current family situation. If it’s a mental health or psychological reason, we first ask [for a] clearance from their psychiatrists. If it’s academic, we explore the academic difficulties the student has experienced,” he suggests. What’s important is that the office, in Navarez’s words, “[would] provide the specific assistance they (students) would need before making [their final] decision.”
Ultimately, it takes considerate University-wide policies to design a healthy learning environment that perfectly caters to the needs of its students. As Navarez puts it, “The structure should make sure it values academics [and], at the same time, values self-care.”
But in an educational institution that still sees students constantly grappling to strike a balance in their personal and academic life, an LOA is a choice that is arguably an act of service to one’s self. “You shouldn’t feel like…taking an LOA is quitting,” Sy reminds. “It’s really just to give you time to rest and you can always come back.”
A cry for change
But in as much as it ought to help students find relief from their troubles, the process of filing and returning from an LOA has only brought more grief to some students. “It was daunting pa lang from the start because of how many steps there were,” Sy laments, adding that the whole affair was tedious due to the confounding instructions from the Help Desk Announcements and insufficient support from the offices.
She points out that seeking clarification about the process can sometimes even bring more confusion than clarity. “Some of the student services people that I was in contact with couldn’t explain [the process] thoroughly,” she recalls. She eventually took to social media to raise her concern over the apparent lack of coordination between the offices, where she found many of her peers echoing similar sentiments. “A lot of people were also complaining about how the offices were also not keeping them updated, or that they get followed up for payments that they actually made.”
While there are some who have experienced a more seamless return to the University like Ong, the existing guidelines evidently still make it difficult for all students to advance. In these instances, the shortcomings of a failed system are brought under a critical light, calling attention to a systemic reform that is long overdue.
Editor’s Note: November 4, 2021
In a previous version of this article, the Office of Career and Counseling Services (OCCS) was implied to be the only office that endorses Leave of Absence applications. Further, the “LOA intervention plan” was incorrectly referred to as “crisis intervention plan”.
Changes have been made to reflect the role of OCCS correctly. The publication apologizes for these errors.