“In my 20+ years of working in this field, I’ve never had anyone come back from a leave of absence and say “god I wish I hadn’t done that.”
– Dean Olin
Michael Olin is the dean of Mathey College. Before meeting with him, I was offered candy at the front desk. He greeted me with a smile and handshake. He was aware I had come in to talk about what it means to take a “leave of absence”—three words that often seem equally taboo to students and faculty. Yet he was kind and forward with me.
The thought of leaving Princeton—even for a while—can be overwhelming. There’s a collective feeling that despite the difficulty, there’s some obligation to stay and push through. Taking time off isn’t talked about often, and when it is, it’s fleetingly. It’s certainly not an option the school actively advertises. Only about 125 students take a ‘leave of absence’ in a given year, which is statistically not many. There’s some insinuation that taking time off means you won’t come back. But students do. And generally, the time away leads to some sort of growth, some result that improves the rest of their time here at Princeton. Students take leave for many reasons: mental health, job opportunities, and travel are just a few. I FaceTimed one student on leave, Orie, to ask what his experience with deciding was. The background of our call was the wide wooden headboard of his bed. He told me, “I wasn’t dead certain [about taking time off] until I talked with my DOS—shoutout Dr. Cordova.”
Shoutout Dr. Cordova for sure. The decision to leave is one done in conjunction with the Residential College Deans. The general leave process is franchised, in that power goes to the Residential Colleges, but especially in this early step, lots is left to the deans. The “Time Away From Princeton” website states, “If you are considering taking a leave, the first thing you should do is meet with your residential college dean to talk through the options that make sense for you.” This is the only direction given by the website on this initial step, and while this centralized power seems scary, the deans have good reviews.
I asked Dean Olin how someone can decide it’s right for them. He told me, “Sometimes a student comes in and they’re struggling. The dean’s starting point is: What can we do right now? Can we drop a class? It’s only when a student comes in and says, ‘I need to take a leave’ where we go right to doing that.”
Once the decision has been made, the student continues working with their residential college to make it official. Madi is another student on leave who I had the opportunity to call. When I asked her whether going on leave was complicated, she told me, “I think I reached out to my DSL. And from there, it was a pretty simple process, surprisingly.” Orie similarly said, “Dr. Cordova just gave me a short form about little things. Then, just needed to talk with Dean Olin and clean up loose ends.”
Dean Olin described the process in more detail. The first step is to talk with your Dean, demonstrate your interest in taking a leave of absence. Before going further, they suggest you run it by other important people in your life. Dean Olin wanted to emphasize that “the college staff can be really helpful” in talking with family and bringing them on board. Once committed to wanting to take leave, the students fill out a Leave of Absence Request form. After that, it’s just “crossing t’s and dotting i’s.”
The biggest (and generally, only) roadblock in this process is based on Princeton’s ‘year-long’ structure. Returning in the fall is the easiest option; returning in the spring… comes with unique challenges. For one, Princeton has a timeline that students are expected to follow: declaring major, JP, senior thesis; the shifting of this timeline, over by one semester, is something the school is hesitant about. Dean Olin told me frankly, “You have to remain in-phase at Princeton, locked into independent work and need to track with your cohort. If a student is in an academic department, they can petition for an out-of-phase return. It depends on your department.” On top of that, a student returning in the Spring must consider housing; while the University promises to offer them the best available room, some requests can’t be met.
Importantly, though, while the return process has its quirks, the actual act of leaving is much more open. Students can take a leave of absence up until the last day of classes, and if they declare their leave within the first nine weeks of the semester, their current classes disappear from their transcript. If the student declares leave by the end of add/drop, they are charged 10 percent of their tuition (unfortunately, as each week goes on that percentage gets progressively much higher).
Before a student leaves, the college office works individually with them, to figure out their plan. “Me and the other deans want to talk about how they’re going to spend the time. Sometimes the most productive and restorative leaves of absence are when the student is engaging with multiple things,” is how Dean Olin put it.
What do Princetonians do with this time off? Madi told me, “I started coaching at my alma mater high school for the track and field team; I love it. I also started interning at a local gym as a strength and conditioning coach, and I’m going to start substitute teaching in my school district.” When I asked Orie, he smiled. “I’m channeling my global citizen and going on adventures.” Both are equally valid.
Orie “started with only a one-way ticket in January (to England), and a one-way ticket back in August.” His extended family lives in England and he’s been “really grateful for my time with them.” A big reason for the trip was to spend time with family. He acknowledged seeing his grandparents, uncles, and aunts as calming. He’s spent most of his time with them “going on a lot of afternoon walks, drinking tea, and watching Love Island.” He told me he was living “the retired life.” It’s a state of relaxation that you often don’t get the opportunity to experience while at Princeton. He had a second reason for taking a leave. He thought, “I’ll seize the day, I’ll be bold.” When I called him, he had just come back from Dublin and was heading to Switzerland in a week. His plan was to go to Italy after that.
Madi, on the other hand, started her leave of absence completing a Princeton course and working at a bank. She’s spent her time at home working and taking on unexpected responsibilities. Unfulfilled by the bank work, she started subbing and coaching. She told me that, “it’s definitely really nice to be able to do something that actually aligns with like, things I’m passionate about and my values, instead of just sitting at a desk job.” She’s taken time for herself, to reflect and dive into the work that she is now enjoying.
Madi and Orie provide distinct examples of what can be achieved with a leave of absence. Though they differ in what they’re actively doing with their leaves, both have been given tremendous time to think about themselves and the college experiences they desire. “Being away from Princeton forces you to question what you want to do with your life,” Orie noted. “And what you want to do with your life AT Princeton.”
Free time has meant both Madi and Orie have been able to find the little things they value. “I rediscovered my passion for walking,” Orie said. “six miles every day at least.” These minute joys come out in the space that a leave offers. When I called Madi, she was in the front seat of her car. I joked how jealous I was that she could drive. She laughed and agreed that driving had become a calming space for her. More importantly, her personal reflection led her to tell me, “I feel like I’ve really been able to define my priorities. And that’s been huge.” Both felt that they had grown as people over their time away.
This freedom has also given both of them the space to muse over what they want their Princeton experience to be. Orie told me, “In my case, I reflected a lot on the classes I’ve taken so far. Which ones really changed my life, which ones didn’t.” Looking at his own experience and the experiences of his friends, Orie got the chance to look at his academic experience broadly. He noted he wanted to pursue “inspiration” more. I asked Madi the same question. She said, “It sounds controversial, because it’s Princeton, but honestly, I want to prioritize the interpersonal aspect of it.” She told me “academics are a close second” but that her time away has helped her understand the importance of cultivating the relationships she cares about. Part of this appreciation comes from her distance from them now.
This separation, however, brought with it new challenges. Being away from the people that mattered was a theme between the two students on leave. Madi has been able to come back on campus once to see her friends, but other than that, the two were communicating with their Princeton roommates, teammates, and friends just over the Internet. “I knew going into it that the hardest part would just be missing it and being away from it.” Madi said. “I think it’s just hard to like, watch. You see all your friends go through big milestones. And so that’s a really hard aspect that I knew would be difficult, but I didn’t know how hard that’d be.” Orie agreed: “Navigating friendships while you’re away is a really important thing. We all get that with high school friends, but even more so now that you’re away from everyone.”
The two Princetonians were surprised by the little things they miss. Orie told me, “I miss the people I see in passing. Like the wholesome interactions who I haven’t been able to keep in contact with,” while Madi missed “being able to take a train to New York.” She noted, “When my head hits the pillow, that’s what I think about.” Both think that their distance now will make them appreciate these aspects of Princeton life more when they get back.
When I asked these students if they regretted taking their leaves, they seemed to come to their responses. “As of now… no. I definitely miss things I would’ve had, had I not taken a gap semester, but I don’t regret it at all,” said Orie. Madi felt even more strongly, saying, “I would not change it for the world. It’s helped me already in so many ways. And it feels really, really like a pivot point in my life that I think will continue. It already has paid off in so many ways, but I think it will continue to pay dividends down the line.”
They both noted the difficulty of Princeton, but also the value. Their choice to take time away is not at all a reflection of a dislike of the University. “I think what makes Princeton so great and so valuable is also what can make it incredibly difficult,” Madi said. “I think it’s been helpful to step away from all that to actually be able to get in a really good spot to come back and to actually appreciate the opportunity for what it is and fully take advantage of Princeton.” Orie noted, “I think spending all four years here, that’s a great thing to do, but spending some time away from Princeton, that’s also a great thing to do. It’s very good to remind yourself that the world is a lot bigger than Princeton.”
The choice to leave Princeton for reflection and restorative care doesn’t mean they aren’t returning. The day I went in to talk with Dean Olin, he told me he was in the middle of sending emails to returning Mathey students — Orie was one of them. This return is both wonderful and scary for students who are away. Orie told me he was, “excited to return with new… global insight.” Madi, meanwhile, reflected some of the honest fear that comes with going down an irregular Princeton path. She told me that “for most of the year I was like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. But really, in the past few weeks, I’ve felt like I finally have been like, ‘alright, alright,’ like I think I’m ready to go back.” Coming back can be both wonderful and scary. Luckily, there is no limit to leaves of absence; Dean Olin told me that when students come back and feel unprepared for Princeton, conversation on another year is always open. He did tell me however, that upon return, “more often than not, there’s some level of change that’s positive.” The image he painted of the returning student was one of someone with unique experiences, reinvigorated by the things that interest them.
Hearing how Orie, Madi (and presumably many students who take leaves), have undergone so much growth, and had such a wealth of experiences, I asked them whether they think it’s something more people should take advantage of. Madi said, “I feel like it’s definitely not like a one size fits all type of thing… like, it really depends on your specific circumstances.” Dean Olin was more explicit. “I don’t think every student should think about taking a pause and taking time off,” he said. “But when those curveballs come up, sometimes it’s worth it to take that pause. I wouldn’t say more students should take the leave of absence; they should just do whatever is best for them.”
The possibilities of a leave of absence are tremendous. Madi’s self-reflection led her to tell me “I just feel like a completely different person.” At the same time, she has found meaningful work giving back to her community. Meanwhile, Orie has found new purpose in his Princeton education, spent time with trusted family, and is exploring the world in a way he’s never had the chance to. Every story for why to take a leave of absence is different, as is the journey gone on over the time away. Orie, Madi, and Dean Olin all acknowledged that often (maybe even usually), staying at Princeton is the right decision. It just depends on the person, what they need, and what they want. But even if it’s not a decision taken, Dean Olin is right — “It’s important for students to understand the options they have. And this is always one.