For Arthur Alvarez ’13, 31, graduating from Stanford this spring will have taken a little longer than four years.
Having first enrolled in 1999, Alvarez has left and returned to the University four times over 13 years. Although Stanford’s leave-of-absence policy indicates that students cannot request to leave for more than four quarters at a time and eight quarters total, Alvarez credited Stanford for allowing him to continue—and ultimately complete—his education.
“The reason why I’ve been able to come back [so many times] is because the Stanford system has been one of support and not of judgment,” Alvarez said. “The university is very flexible—they’ll work with you.”
Though the Registrar precludes students who leave Stanford for more than two years from subsequent enrollment, affected students can file a “Request to Return and Register in Undergraduate Study” online. Students must then consult with Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) before being re-admitted to complete their undergraduate degrees.
“It’s one of the qualities of this institution,” said Randy Williams, associate dean of UAR. “Once admitted, a request to return to the University is always a possibility.”
According to University statistics, 92 percent of the Class of 2010 graduated within five years, and 95 percent graduated within six. Even then, however, 79 students did not graduate within the expected time frame.
Williams said that, because students do not have to state why they are planning a leave of absence, the University does not keep numbers regarding the different reasons that students offer. He said, however, that personal struggles are the most common reason cited.
According to Director of Residentially Based Advising Kirsti Copeland, this category includes issues related to family matters, a desire to transfer, academic difficulties and mental or physical health problems. She acknowledged that, while the University doesn’t often create mental health issues, it has issues managing them.
“If [a student is] dealing with mental health issues, the stress with attending a place like Stanford isn’t helpful,” Copeland said. “It can be a terrible place if you’re feeling bad.”
Robin Thomas, who enrolled in 2008 after spending a year doing community service with AmeriCorps, claimed that the University doesn’t focus enough on teaching tangible skills to undergraduates. He said his gap year was a “wake-up call,” asserting that Stanford never gave him the same learning experience.
“I was just this little white boy from Ohio. The other workers all had street-smarts and a common sense I couldn’t even dream of,” he said. “It’s not like Stanford [lecture] classes are bad, it’s just not right for some people. I [could] take tests really well, but it doesn’t mean I was really learning anything.”
Thomas left Stanford his junior year to join the Marine Corps, believing it would provide what he wanted—a great mental and physical challenge.
A long journey back
A native of Fresno, Calif., Alvarez first left in the winter of 2000 due to pre-existing mental illness, then again in the spring of 2002 because of difficulties in balancing the side effects of his medication with academic requirements. The second time, Alvarez filed a Leave of Absence request without a definite return date and did not return until the fall of 2005, after having worked part-time and taken classes at a community college.
“I needed to prove to myself that I could be a student again,” he said.
Relationship and commuting issues—he and his partner lived in San Mateo—caused him to file a Request to Permanently Withdraw (RPW) in 2007, and Alvarez left Stanford for a third time.
Yet requesting to permanently withdraw is an extremely rare instance—Williams emphasized that the appropriate form can only be accessed through graduate student pages—and the term “drop-out” is not used within the Stanford Administration.
“I think the term is antiquated,” Williams said. “I feel like 30 or 40 years ago, it had a cultural significance—to disengage from an establishment…to rebel against a ‘broken system.’ It was about not conforming.”
“But here, and so much more often, it’s about taking advantage of something,” Williams added. “It’s more about dropping into an obligation a student might have. Sometimes it’s great to step away from educational pursuits, if there is a more immediate priority.”
Williams himself has seen fewer than 10 RPWs in 10 years, though that number doesn’t reflect the cumulative experiences of UAR’s other advisors. Most students file for a Leave of Absence first, for which they must obtain signatures from a UAR advisor and their Residence Dean. Students must consult with both advisors to discuss the pros and cons of taking a Leave of Absence, as well as logistical details.
“We aren’t putting up barriers to keep [students] from leaving the university,” Copeland said. “A lot of universities are worried about retention rates, but Stanford does not have that problem.”
“We want to support our students’ development so they can be the students they want to be when they return,” she added. “We have the freedom to let students who do leave to come back [at their own pace].”
According to Alvarez, Stanford has facilitated his unique journey with all its obstacles.
“The complicated part is figuring out your life,” he said. “The paperwork is straightforward.”
Alvarez will return in the spring to finish one last course before graduating with a B.A. in English Literature. Thomas, on the other hand, has no plans to return.
He completed boot camp but was discharged after being diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It was a difficult experience, he said, since “there were so many others who had more to become depressed about.”
Today, Thomas runs a one-man company that sells portable whiteboards he invented, called Noteboards. The concept first came to him as he prepared to hitchhike back home from the Marines. In less than one year he has assembled and sold over 14,000 Noteboards.
Thomas said he might return to Stanford, if it ever feels like the right place to be, but that at the present he is the happiest he has been his “entire life.”
In his farewell column from The Daily, Thomas praised the University for allowing him and others to find their own paths to success.
“Stanford makes [leaves of absence] mind-blowingly easy to do,” he said. “I offer this as evidence that our school really does give a darn about us as human beings. Against all traditional business sense, Stanford lets its students take time off to figure out who they are and welcomes them back whenever they’re ready.”