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Discovery in Absences

by Kami Rieck

photography courtesy of Ansqa Momin

Imagine this: you finally muster up the courage to disclose your decision to take a leave of absence next semester. Your parents are apprehensive, intimate friends champion you, Boston University processes your leave, but only you understand that taking a leave of absence does not equate to taking a break from school.

Every semester, a number of Terriers do not return to Commonwealth Avenue for a multitude of reasons. Some students decide to travel, grapple with financial burdens, reflect on what they hope to gain from college, hope to launch their own organization or need time to improve their health—whether that be physical or mental health. The reason varies among students, but one aspect remains constant: rarely are student ever actually taking a break.

Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk is a program manager at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University where she directs NITEO, which is a one-semester program that aids students who are struggling with mental health conditions.

NITEO, which is a Latin verb meaning bloom or thrive, hopes to normalize the fact that bachelor’s degree earners take more than four years to finish. Students are connected with other young adults to create a collective support system during their leave.

Joly-Lowdermilk encourages students to place themselves in a classroom or work-related space that helps them cultivate their self-efficacy so they are able to be more confident when they return to college.

“This can help students own their narrative that I’m not at Boston University, but I’m working,” Joly-Lowdermilk said. “I’m working and during this time I’m examining what it is I want to be doing differently.”

Mariah Brooks (COM ’20) opted to leave BU during a semester for a dissimilar reason.

Brooks said her parents didn’t provide financial support towards her education, but that did not stop the lofty balance on her student account from increasing each month.

“I received multiple letters from housing telling me I had ‘x’ amount of days to make payments, otherwise I’d be thrown out, and it just became very stressful mentally, physically and emotionally,” Brooks said.

Although she isn’t ecstatic about putting her academics on hold, Brooks aspires to establish a foundation for the rest of her life and acknowledged a leave of absence was the right decision.

She acquired a financial understanding of tax deductions, bills and student loans, all while practicing money management skills. As a college student, Brooks lacked extensive financial knowledge but forced herself to develop different habits and budgets.

Today, she spends five days a week memorizing wine lists, discovering elegant food, implementing the steps of service, but most importantly, working tirelessly to secure a prosperous future.

“I don’t get to see my friends at all and a lot of the time I feel like I was left behind but I know that the path I’m on now is going to pay off in the end,” Brooks said.

Joly-Lowdermilk believes there is not so much a stigma surrounding leaves of absences, but a very high expectation to stay enrolled. She hopes to see a cultural shift on college campuses around honoring, respecting, and celebrating whole persons.

Regarding academic wellness, Joly-Lowdermilk said it’s important to celebrate classroom achievements and honor the work one has done to secure college admittance. For emotional and social wellness, she encourages self-care, practicing wellness strategies, and taking care of fellow Terriers.

“We’re creating a community and a culture of care and self-care,” Joly-Lowdermilk said. “We are creating ways and at least a dialogue that there needs to be a change.”

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