Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Being a graduate student at the University of Maryland is tough. For many, it symbolizes a pivot point in academic or professional careers.
With a mix of career changers, immigrants and people who want to dedicate their lives to research, graduate school can be a time of uncertainty. Understandably, things come up in graduate students’ lives that they may not be able to foresee: medical issues, familial instability, immigration status questions and financial troubles.
In the working world, employees are increasingly being granted the runway they need to deal with their issues through compassionate policies like unlimited paid time off. However, graduate students are offered a much less reassuring solution: taking a leave of absence.
However, when graduate students at this university need a lifeline, this university currently does nothing to save them. If a student needs to take a leave of absence, they are forced to forfeit their graduate assistantship positions and any health insurance coverage that comes along with them. Furthermore, as soon as they begin their leave of absence, they are cut off from any of this university’s resources and forced to fend for themselves.
Graduate students often produce valuable research for this university and are an invaluable part of this community. They should be treated as such. By implementing more lenient leave of absence policies, this university can show that it is willing to stand by its graduate students. Making it easier for students to deal with extenuating circumstances will allow them to re-enroll with a new, refreshed frame of mind when they are ready.
Graduate students at this university have noted that taking a leave of absence can be detrimental to their financial and emotional well-being. This is the antithesis of what the leave of absence process should be.
This university needs to tackle at least one aspect of its students’ worries and grant its students some semblance of financial security. The Graduate Student Government passed a resolution on Feb. 17 calling upon this university to re-examine its policy. The university needs to listen.
Furthermore, there is a clear opportunity for this university to become a pioneer among other research universities by providing top-class support for its students through periods of hardship. Adding a grace period for a leave of absence would allow students to retain university resources for a short time. This could really help ease the tumultuous transition into and out of leave, and would help unburden students of their worries about school when they are going through a life crisis.
Another more immediate policy that this university needs to implement is holding assistantship positions for graduate students who end up taking a leave of absence so they can have a job when they come back to school. When graduate students consider taking a leave of absence, a crucial factor may be whether or not they will be making enough income to sustain themselves once they reenroll in school.
While forcing students to slog through graduate school is bad enough, an even worse scenario is the possibility of these graduate students leaving academia altogether. While official statistics are not compiled on graduate student dropout rates at the national level, there’s reason to think that with all of their stressors, a significant number of graduate students would drop out of their programs. And this is not a loss just for the dropouts, but it is a loss for society, which needs more highly educated people who are able to conduct innovative research and contribute at high levels of discourse.
For too long, universities have underappreciated the valuable contributions of their graduate students who work tirelessly day in and day out to get their degrees, connect with their professors and often produce invaluable research. We cannot let these students slip away from academia.
Instead of making these students feel forced to continue or drop out, this university needs to give graduate students a third option: the means to take a break. It’s time for this university to overhaul its leave of absence policies to make fairer provisions for its students.
Ravi Panguluri is a sophomore computer science and statistics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.