The Many Roads Back to College: Charting a Pathway Back After a Medical Leave

Posted on January 25, 2022

By Ambar Paredes Martinez

First things first, let’s start by acknowledging that we need to normalize taking time away from school to protect and prioritize our health – both mental and physical. Taking a leave of absence due to a mental health condition is often necessary, deserved, and vital to our wellbeing.

If you’ve taken a leave of absence from school because of a mental health challenge and are deciding that you want to go back, you’ve taken the first step on your journey to return to college. As someone who has taken a leave of absence myself, one piece of advice I would give to others is to not let comparison thwart your personal success. Your journey is yours, and we’re all on our own individual paths with unique circumstances that only we know.

My own personal journey with college involved a stellar start, but a swift spiral in my sophomore year after my father passed away, resulting in my leaving. After a year, I felt the urge to return to school but needed the bridge supports to make it a reality. That’s what brought me to Fountain House and to the College Re-Entry (CRE) Program. After going through the Program, I’m happy to say I’ve since completed my degree and am now in graduate school. CRE helps academically engaged young folks who have taken some time off from their college undergraduate experience due to a mental health obstacle. It’s a semester-long, non-clinical program that helps students after their medical leave of absence to engage with habits and rituals that will benefit them in the long run once they get back to school, whether they decide to go back full or part-time, and whether or not they choose to do so while working.

After graduating, I became intimately aware that our journeys needed to be acknowledged and celebrated for all of their ups and downs. Once I left the Program, I wanted to know how my experience looked alongside other graduates. So, I sat down with some of the CRE staff (Academic Coach Michaela Hinson, Director of Outreach and Research Julie Wolfson and Program Director Anna Guimaraes), and interviewed two recent Fountain House CRE graduates, Ivan and Jackson, to get a sense of what the pathway back has looked like for students who have been through their program.

As I share these personal reflections from CRE graduates, I want to emphasize that my goal in sharing these stories is to allow CRE graduates, and myself, to connect with each other and reflect on our experiences. I also hope that, by sharing our stories, students and young people across the country can relate and resonate with what we’ve shared and feel less alone. We’ll be touching upon unhealthy timelines in this discussion, and it will require self-reflection and honesty. CRE is for many, the first step towards cultivating skills and habits that are fruitful, person-centered, and focused on helping people discover wellness rituals that will help them accomplish any goals they have set for themselves.

Michaela, Julie and Anna:

When you first walk in to CRE you are greeted by the staff, in a space filled with brightly colored furniture and a studious aura, meticulously arranged for the array of activities they have planned for all the students.

Michaela immediately offered encouragement, saying, “You are in the right the place!” and Anna chimed in and reaffirmed with, “We want you here!”

When I sat down with Michaela, Julie, and Anna, I wanted to know: What is the biggest struggle you find to be common among participants when they first are admitted into CRE? What is a common misconception that young people who finish CRE have regarding work or school? I also wanted to get their take on what it means to adhere to one’s own timeline, and how to cultivate a schedule that works best for us, instead of adhering to goals that may have been set within unrealistic timelines.

The supportive environment that is provided at CRE is genuine. They want you to succeed and they want to help you reach your goals. But they also want you to have a sense of encouragement while being open to new ideas and new things. Often, much of what stops us from succeeding in ways that are meaningful to us is our hesitance, inability to fully step into our potential, and the fact that we compare ourselves to new people while having in the back of our minds, “How do I stack up?”

When thinking through our own unique journeys, Julie said to remember that you can always become a part of CRE and still decide not to go to college, and that they want to be there for you and help you in your own specific path, which could look different than the journey of others. When asked, “What is one characteristic you think most people who succeed at going back to school have?” Anna answered with the “ability to communicate” and “connect” to others, especially with those who can provide help. Anna said they want to encourage young folks to apply to CRE, and that they always have in mind that journeys are personal. They are there, she said, not only to serve as a tool, but also as a stepping stone into the next great thing. Julie emphasized that, during the admission process, CRE staff meets with each student to learn about their individual goals, to ensure that the process is caring and thoughtful. If, at the end of the Core semester, you’re still interested in going back to school, the experience of having completed the program can offer some reassurance that this is the right next step.

Ivan:

Ivan, a young man of CRE class of 2020, is now part-time at school. When talking to him, we understand that the path towards our goal is never linear. He emphasized how important it is to take breaks and how necessary it is to mold your time according to your needs. “Scheduling and time management” are some key things that are needed to find balance between work and school, he said. He also noted the importance of “not getting caught up in the idea that you have to finish everything” before you have fun or focus on self-care, and to remember that pausing takes precedence before burnout.

CRE is a great stepping stone, and although there will still be much to tackle after leaving CRE, Ivan said he looks at it this way: “Maybe the journey just got a little bit easier, and a little more tolerable than your journey before, because now you have more tools.” As you continue your journey, you can keep implementing the tools you have acquired at CRE at whatever pace is best for you, to take on whatever task you decide after the Program. Ivan emphasized, “we are not in a race with anybody,” and that we shouldn’t “put a time frame on anything if it stems from comparison to anyone." As long as you have a rough guide, you should have a good sense of what is good for you and can always adhere to that, he said.

Ivan, an entrepreneur, hopes to make his time and money work for him, and not anyone else. When he thinks of timelines, roles, and traditional routes, he said he chooses not to adhere to them, and encourages you to find your own voice and your own vision as well.

Jackson:

Jackson, who’s currently a student at Macalaster College, feels that CRE prepared him with even more resiliency and compassion for himself, and thus helped him prepare to not “catastrophize” some aspects of school that he was dealing with. Jackson decided to go back to school full-time and feels that time management has been a key tool that CRE has given him. Time management, he said, is something he uses in all areas of life, not just to manage schoolwork but for responsibilities outside of school. When asked, “What is a common misconception that young people who finish CRE have regarding work or school?” Jackson answered: “The idea that you will go back, and things will be fine … it’s not the end of the work that I need to do. Graduating doesn’t mean I’ve completely solved all of my problems surrounding school.” He advises that “it’s going to take a lot of intention and it’s going to take a lot of consistency.” You should have some sort of an idea of the road you want to embark on, he said, to give yourself some sense of where you want to be going, while keeping in mind that “it’s OK to not always be doing fine.” This phrase, he shared, is something he was told by Michaela, his academic coach! For him, “setting clear, realistic goals within time” and “deciding what he will do for next semester” has helped him develop a clear and adequate timeline for himself, and better define the goals he has, one of which is graduation.

As we take a step back and look at the wonderful advice from staff and graduates of CRE, we understand that the exploration of finding yourself, and a way back into academic or work life, is hard, personal, and also wonderful. No journey is the same, and no passage towards these goals will have a standard, cookie-cutter route which one can recommend. We encourage you to step into greatness, and not be afraid of the next step forward, whatever that might be, and encourage you to find a timeline that makes the most sense for you and your personal journey.