Accessibility on campus: Medical leave at Smith

Photo by Lena Wilson '16 | Smith’s process to grant students medical leave and return to campus has been criticized for being complex and inaccessible.

Photo by Lena Wilson '16 | Smith’s process to grant students medical leave and return to campus has been criticized for being complex and inaccessible.

Molly McGuire '18 News Editor

The processes surrounding medical leave at Smith have led to criticism from the student body on multiple occasions. Many students question whether the Smith administration has put enough effort into making sure that this process is fully accessible and accommodating.

As it stands, in order to be granted voluntary medical leave, a student must make a request in writing to a Class Dean, the Director or Associate Director of Health Services or the Director of Counseling Services. The request will then be taken to the Evaluation Committee, which may include those mentioned above, in addition to the Dean of Students, the Director of Disability Services, and other administrative representatives that may have insight to add to a certain case.

It is also possible for a student to be required to take medical leave in cases where the administration determines that the student presents a harm to themselves or others, if they are unable to fulfill their educational responsibilities or if they require a level of care that Smith cannot provide.

After a student has been on medical leave, they must go through a special process in order to be readmitted to Smith. According to Smith’s Handbook, “the student must provide documentation that provides evidence of regained functional capacity.” This can be done by taking courses at another institution during their time off, by having a full-time job or through consistent volunteer work.

The Director and the Associate Director of Health Services will review requests for readmission and suggest whether the Administrative Board should approve these requests. Students may also be asked to provide a detailed plan for self-care upon return.

Many students at Smith have criticized this process, particularly the process by which students are readmitted to the college after medical leave. According to notes provided to The Sophian from the semi-annual meeting between the Board of Trustees and the Student Government Association in March, SGA President Meghna Purkayastha ’16 wrote, “that policy makes students who have taken medical leave feel as if they are not valued as [Smith students] enough to return without proving themselves to the administration.”

When asked how the Smith administration works to ensure that the process to be granted medical leave is accommodating and accessible, Margaret Bruzelius, the associate dean of the college, said via email, “The Medical Services, the Class Deans and the Student Affairs staff are available in person, by email and by phone to help answer questions that students have about medical leave.The basic policy is described in the Student Handbook.”

Bruzelius was addressed how the Smith administration supports students who are applying for readmission. “The readmission form is online — the Class Deans and Health Services are happy to answer any questions students may have and help them plan for their return,” she said, adding “We are always trying to improve our processes and we are happy to consider suggestions.”

A student who went on voluntary medical leave but would like to remain anonymous was also interviewed over email about her experience.

“The administration in general was accommodating enough, I didn’t have any issues. During the time I was applying for medical leave before I actually left, dealing with financial services was challenging. They would not inform me of how much of a refund I would get from the semester, or how really any of the financial background to medical leave worked. They claimed because I am a financial aid recipient, the calculations weren’t simple.”

When asked what changes she would like to see be made in the processes surrounding medical leave, the student also said that she would like the Smith administration to, “make it more transparent. Going into medical leave I had no idea what kinds of rights I had as a ‘withdrawn’ student, what I could still access and what I couldn’t ….”

Another student who was required to go on medical leave, and would also like to remain anonymous, shared her experience with The Sophian via email as well.

“I felt that the administration was not very accessible or accommodating at all,” this student said. After being hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for two weeks right after Thanksgiving, I went home and finished my semester over J-term. During this time, I was told that I had to take a medical leave, and when I eventually returned to Smith I would not be allowed to use counseling services any longer. They said I was not allowed to return for the spring semester because I did not meet requirements for treatment, which included going to expensive group therapy. I was seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist, but because my course of treatment was not exactly what they wanted, they made me take the spring semester of my sophomore year off. There was an appeal process, but I was too scared to appeal because it would look like I was resisting the treatment they were insisting upon,” she said.

Going on medical leave can affect students even after they are readmitted to Smith. The student who was required to go on medical leave also explained how, “Now on my transcript it says ‘readmitted’. I’ve been told by people that if they saw that on my transcript during a hiring process, they would assume it was a disciplinary thing that made it such that I had to take a semester off from Smith. I’ve been trying to get it off my transcript all year, with no success thus far.”

“I think a mandated medical leave is complicated, and I’m not necessarily against it, but being told that I’m not functional, after working really hard to finish my fall semester was really frustrating. Not everyone has a home to go back to if Smith makes them take a leave, and had this happened again during my time at Smith, which I was really afraid of seeing as my mental illness is chronic, I would not have had a place to go home to because of my parents’ living situation,” said the student required to go on medical leave.

While the administration may be working as best as it can to accommodate students who would like to be granted medical leave or are returning from medical leave, it is clear that many students are calling for some changes to be made to these processes.