The Road Back

Photo of Charelle Brown by Robbie Short.

Content warning: This piece includes references to suicide.

Editors’ note: This article was updated on December 14 to reflect changes in Yale’s online information about the reinstatement process.

Editors’ note: This article was updated on December 20 to reflect one change in policy that took place after initial publication. Editors removed two sentences indicating that Yale had not created a Reinstatement website; the university published a Reinstatement FAQ page on December 14. In addition, editors removed a sentence indicating that the deadline to apply for reinstatement is July 1, which was inaccurate. The deadline was changed to June 1 earlier this year.

On November 14, 2017, Jesica Springer was at rehearsal for the Yale Dramatic Association’s production of Dreamgirls when a twelve-pound disco ball fell on her head. The following day, she went to Yale Health, where a doctor told her she would recover within two weeks. She continued to attend classes, and tried to ignore the headaches that worsened each time she looked at the board or her notebook.

But Springer, then in her first semester at Yale, did not get better. Once, she got lost during the three-minute walk from Saybrook College to her room in Vanderbilt Hall. In a moment she no longer remembers, she shoved a classmate to the ground. Per doctor’s orders, she could only work for ninety minutes a day, in half-hour intervals. On December 7, the second-to-last day of classes, Springer withdrew from Yale. “I was not cognitively capable of keeping up with my work, or taking my finals,” she told me. “If I kept pushing the way I was, I would have damaged my brain permanently.” To withdraw, Springer sent a nineteen-word email to her dean. At the time, she had no idea that she would have to navigate a months-long, bewildering, bureaucratic process just to become a student again.

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In 2015, one week into First-Year Scholars at Yale, a summer program in which incoming students take English 114, an introductory writing class, Charelle Brown’s father passed away back in New Mexico. After missing class for a week to attend the funeral, she ultimately failed the summer course. “My family didn’t expect me to finish the program,” she said. “I was struggling to get writing. It took me a while to process losing my dad, and I lost him at a time when I had to produce a lot of writing. I was just so scared to write again.” Brown had to take a writing class to complete her first-year requirements and advance to sophomore standing. She enrolled in a writing course both semesters of her first year, but withdrew each time. “It was so severe—that fear of writing and producing things,” she said. Brown spent the summer of 2016 at home in Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa), New Mexico, seeing to family responsibilities and taking English 120 online. It was her last opportunity to complete the required writing credit and gain the eight credits she needed to advance to sophomore standing. When she arrived at Yale for her sophomore year that August, her grade for the online course was not yet available.

One day that September, toward the end of shopping period, Brown was called to a meeting with Ezra Stiles Head of College Steven Pitti and Dean Nilakshi Parndigamage. Brown had failed the summer class, Parndigamage said. She would be forced to withdraw. Brown said the administrators seemed apologetic, and that they emphasized that they were reading the official policy to her. “They told me that I had seventy-two hours to leave campus from the end of that meeting,” Brown said. “[They] made it seem like [by being here] I was going to put the university in danger, which was strange, because somehow, being withdrawn for an academic reason makes you a threat.”

Springer, Brown, and every other student who withdraws from Yale has to complete a uniform and lengthy list of tasks, regardless of the reason for their withdrawal. Often, the path to reinstatement requires spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets and classes at other colleges. In recent years, administrators’ efforts to reform the process or even enforce Yale’s existing rules have been uneven and inconsistent, leaving students frustrated and confused. Yale does not publicize statistics about how many students withdraw or are reinstated per year, but Risa Sodi, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs and the chair of the Reinstatement Committee, said that between 30 and 55 students apply for reinstatement each semester. This fall, I spoke with nine students who are either currently enrolled after being reinstated, or are still withdrawn. Their stories reveal the complex and often alienating process of applying for reinstatement.

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There are five reasons why a student may withdraw from Yale: personal, financial, academic, disciplinary, and medical. Personal withdrawals cannot be forced, while financial, academic, and disciplinary withdrawals are rarely voluntary; only health–related cases can be either. Mental health–related issues are the most common cause for withdrawal, according to Sara Samuel, a 2015 graduate who served on a committee that reviewed Yale policies around withdrawal and reinstatement. To withdraw, a student sends an email to their residential college dean, who forwards it to the Yale College Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office notifies the University Registrar’s Office, which changes the student’s status in Yale’s online systems from ‘Full-Time Enrolled’ to ‘Withdrawn,’ creating a formal separation between school and student, said Deputy Registrar Shonna Marshall.

Withdrawals are different from Leaves of Absences, which are always voluntary. Students in good academic standing can decide to take a Leave of Absence within the first fifteen days of a term. They can leave for up to two semesters, and while away, they remain affiliated with Yale. To return, a student on leave simply emails their college dean. Yet withdrawn students wishing to return must begin a long and complex reinstatement process, regardless of the reason for which they withdrew, and whether or not it was voluntary.

Once a student’s status is changed to ‘withdrawn,’ the ID Center deactivates the student’s swipe access after seventy-two hours. From then on, withdrawn students are barred from campus in perpetuity. “They may come to campus only upon receiving prior permission from their residential college dean or the Dean of Student Affairs,” state the academic regulations of the Yale College Program of Studies. Sodi, the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, told me in an email that “students found to be on campus may be reported to their residential college deans or the campus police. In addition, anyone on campus who feels threatened by a withdrawn student can also call campus police.”

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Yale administrators often frame reinstatement as an application gauging readiness: Is a student ready to come back to Yale? Will they be able to succeed in a stressful academic or social environment? Or—especially in the case of mental health withdrawals—will reinstatement exacerbate the challenges that forced them to withdraw in the first place?

Over the last four years, three Yale students have committed suicide after withdrawing and re-enrolling: Luchang Wang in 2015, Hale Ross in 2016, and Thomas Lawrence earlier this year. After Wang’s death at the beginning of the spring semester in 2015, public conversation on campus shifted towards examining policies around mental health services, withdrawal, and reinstatement, at least temporarily. In February 2015, the Yale Daily News published a series of editorials criticizing the process; in a heated town hall with university administrators later that month, previously withdrawn students did the same. 

On November 5, a 2018 alumna, referred to as Z.P. in legal documents, filed a lawsuit against Yale. She claimed Yale–New Haven Hospital held her for involuntary mental health treatment and disclosed confidential information to administrators, who forced her to withdraw from the University in November 2016. The suit alleges that Jonathan Holloway, then Dean of Yale College and one of twelve defendants in the suit, denied her appeal to remain at Yale. Z.P. was reinstated in fall 2017 and graduated this past spring. In her suit, she claims that Yale required her to withdraw as a preventative measure “due to her health and the recent suicides of two students,” even though she had demonstrated “improved mood and coping skills.” She saw Yale as “a refuge from her stressful home environment,” the suit went on, and wanted to stay on campus. While Z.P.’s allegations have not yet been brought to trial, they bring forth important questions about forced withdrawal: What reasons does Yale have for requiring a student to spend time away from campus? Do its requirements for reinstatement function in students’ best interests? And how can Yale act proactively to ensure students’ wellbeing while responding to the individual needs of those who withdraw?

When students who have withdrawn hope to be reinstated, they must submit a personal statement and gather two letters of support from instructors or employers. They must spend as many as two terms away from Yale “constructively occupied,” according to the Yale College Programs of Study. They must travel to New Haven to interview with Sodi, the Chair of the Reinstatement Committee, unless “circumstances warrant [a] video teleconference.” Students withdrawn for medical reasons must interview with doctors at Yale Health. The three-person committee—Sodi, Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker, and Director of Yale Mental Health & Counseling Dr. Lorraine Siggins—reviews the application, makes a decision, and notifies the student about whether she will be reinstated.

Two of the students interviewed said that they were grateful that they were forced to take time away or not allowed to come back after a first application for reinstatement. But several students, including those two, said that the process was anxiety-inducing and stressful, or that it even impeded their efforts to prepare for reenrollment. One student currently withdrawn for bipolar disorder who asked to remain anonymous because she has not yet been reinstated said she thought her application was denied because of two instances when she checked herself into a psychiatric ward for a night, months before she applied. “They saw it as a sign that I needed more time away,” she told me. “I was worried they would penalize me because I reached out for help.”

On the day she died, Wang posted a status on Facebook. In it, she described her intense worry of “having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted” to Yale. According to the YCPS, “A student is eligible to be reinstated only once; a second reinstatement may be considered only under unusual circumstances, ordinarily of a medical nature.”

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Brown, the student who withdrew after struggling to complete her first-year writing requirement, comes from a low-income family; a scholarship from the Gates Millennium Foundation covers all of her attendance costs. After learning she needed to leave Yale, she knew she could not afford a plane ticket home. Her Head of College, Steven Pitti, covered the cost of the flight to Albuquerque. “I’m pretty sure it was out of his own pocket,” she said. “I remember telling him, ‘I’ll pay you back,’ and he said, ‘When you’re famous and you’ve graduated from Yale.’”

In the hours following the meeting, Brown moved everything she couldn’t fit into her luggage to the Native American Cultural Center’s basement. She logged nineteen hours of work there, mostly spent cooking for the center’s Welcome Back Barbecue, to have money when she returned to New Mexico.

Brown flew home just days after the barbecue. In a letter sent to Holloway the next week, her college advisor and architecture professor Karla Britton criticized the administration for failing to provide Brown any option other than returning home. Instead, Britton suggested the school offer students like Brown an internship or job in New Haven. “In my 14 years of teaching at Yale College, I have not encountered another student with such a deliberate determination to give back to her community of origin,” Britton wrote. “If Charelle could have been given broader support for her goals at Yale, she could have been positioned to influence not only her pueblo, but certainly the students and faculty at the Yale School of Architecture as well.”

During her year at home in New Mexico, Brown lived with her brother, his wife, and their children. “When I got home, my family did not want to talk about why I had to leave. They were embarrassed that I came home,” Brown said. She biked everywhere to cut travel costs. And she worked to get over her fears of writing. “I spent the year writing all the time, writing every single day, writing in [my] journal,” she said. “That’s really what helped me figure things out.”

In the spring, to fulfill the two-course requirement for reinstatement, she enrolled part-time at the University of New Mexico, commuting daily by train and bus, three hours round trip. UNM offers financial aid to full-time students only; to pay for her classes, she worked at the school’s Indigenous Design + Planning Institute, which gave her a tuition grant in place of a salary. She had no income, so to pay for transportation and food, every Friday and many Wednesdays, she cooked and sold burritos to other community members in her pueblo.

When Brown began her application for reinstatement in May, she quickly encountered barriers. There was an outstanding balance of $1,551.85 on her account, which she could not afford to pay. Of this amount, $504.32 was listed as “Board” charges from the fifteen days she had spent at Yale eight months earlier, and $165.44 was “Room” charges. Her scholarship is only valid for full semesters, so it did not cover the two weeks she had lived at Yale. Yale had placed Brown’s account on financial hold, preventing her from applying for reinstatement to Yale or requesting transcripts, which Brown needed to present before receiving her scholarship. She wrote a letter to her tribal governor explaining her dilemma and requesting that her tribe cover the outstanding balance. Tribal officials quickly agreed, and the payment was processed on May 31.

Brown was reinstated on August 3, 2017. Upon her return, she hoped to live with her friends and former suitemates, but she was placed with two transfer students instead. This year, she moved out of Ezra Stiles. “I just didn’t feel connected to it,” she said.

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In fall 2014, Holloway, the former Dean, appointed a committee of six, chaired by English professor John Rogers, to review practices surrounding withdrawal and readmission. The committee was the administration’s first public effort to address policies and processes that had been criticized for more than fifteen years, according to a story published in the Yale Daily News in 2015. The semester prior, a Yale College Council task force had published a six-page report recommending changes to the process. Sitting on the administration’s committee were Mark Schenker, the Dean of Academic Affairs, former Trumbull Dean Jasmina Besirevic-Regan, and two lawyers from Yale’s Office of General Counsel: Susan Sawyer and Caroline Hendel. Sara Samuel, then a senior, was the only student.

The administration’s committee met eleven times and interviewed the registrar, the Director of Financial Aid, the Readmission Committee, residential college deans, representatives from the YCC, and students who had withdrawn and been “readmitted,” as the process was then called. “We spent a lot of time discussing the requirements for getting back,” Samuel told me. “We wanted to present the policies in a transparent fashion.”

Wang committed suicide that January, part-way through the review process. Samuel, the only member who agreed to comment about the committee’s proceedings, said its members found the event sobering. “It really added to the gravity of the work we were doing,” she said.

The committee issued a 4,300-word report in April 2015, outlining suggestions for policy and implementation. Some were simple: a change from “readmission” to “reinstatement” to dispel a sentiment that withdrawal nullified a student’s Yale acceptance, an extension of the period for taking leaves of absence from ten to fifteen days, and the elimination of a $50 reinstatement fee. According to Sodi, Holloway endorsed all of the 2015 recommendations, meaning they could be enacted as policy. Many of the changes were made immediately. However, as of November 2018, three and a half years after the report was issued, several other recommendations endorsed by Holloway, who left Yale in 2017, are outstanding or only partially implemented.

The report recommended that administrators create a website with downloadable application materials, information about the 72-hour rule and insight into the financial aspects of withdrawal, including an explanation of tuition insurance. Back in February 2016, Holloway told the Yale Daily News that the website would be up by spring break of that year. A “Reinstatement FAQ” page on Yale’s website was updated with application materials and information about the process in mid-December 2018.

The University’s implementation of other recommendations has been uneven. Several suggestions made by the committee do not appear in the YCPS; it is unclear whether they are not policy or just unavailable for students to view. For example, the report recommends that students on personal, medical, or academic withdrawal be able to petition for online library access. It also suggests that administrators require students to meet with their residential college deans while applying for reinstatement. (Neither policy exists in the YCPS.)

In some cases, the University has neglected to formalize its policies in writing or communicate them to administrators. For instance, after finding that some students’ ID cards and email accounts were being deactivated immediately after withdrawal, while others’ accounts were left active for months, the committee recommended that Yale suspend student email accounts fourteen days after withdrawing. However, this fall, Sodi said students now have email access for three years after withdrawal. (YCPS contains no mention of this policy.) When Springer withdrew after her concussion, her dean, Christine Muller, told her that her email would be deactivated. Quickly, Springer sent emails to alumni, with whom she was working to coordinate a conference taking place that spring, passing on other students’ contact information—even though she was banned from viewing screens because of her concussion. Her email was never suspended.

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When Springer returned to her home in Shoreview, Minnesota, last December, she was under doctor’s orders to do as little as possible. She continued physical and occupational therapy for her eyesight, which was badly damaged and causing her headaches. She couldn’t read books for weeks. “I did a lot of sitting on my front porch,” she told me. “I couldn’t exercise or move quickly without passing out.”

By the end of February, three months after she was struck by the disco ball, her condition was improving. She traveled to California and Canada to visit friends and family. She started reading books again. At that point, she knew little about the reinstatement process. When she withdrew, she got the impression from Muller, former Dean of Saybrook College, that her reinstatement would be guaranteed. “Dean Muller just really emphasized, ‘Don’t even worry about it. You’ll have to do an application, but don’t worry about that until April,’” Springer said. “It was very much presented to me as a non-issue. Both my mom and I were under the impression that there was no question of my coming back.” But she was later told multiple times in the standardized emails she received from the Reinstatement Committee that reinstatement was not assured.

Photo of Jesica Springer by Robbie Short.

Because her withdrawal was related to physical health, Springer was required to pay for a flight to New Haven in April to be cleared to return by Yao-wen Hu, Director of Athletic Medicine at Yale Health. “He was like, ‘Do you feel good?” Springer told me. “I was like, ‘yes.’ It was a twenty-minute meeting. I was like ‘Wow, I really came out here for this?’” She returned to Minnesota after the meeting. By late May, she had mailed in a personal statement explaining why she wanted to be reinstated and two letters supporting her return from an instructor and an employer.

On May 31, Springer received an email from Sodi’s assistant, Rolaina Wright, telling her to set up interviews with both Sodi and Director of Yale Mental Health & Counseling Lorraine Siggins. The subject line was “reinstatement materials received.” Springer scheduled both interviews for the last two weeks of June.

Then, on June 18, she received another email from Wright. The subject was “reinstatement materials NOT received.” Sodi had never received Springer’s medical clearance letter from Yale’s doctor. “I suggest, then, that you contact Dr. Hu to request a duplicate,” Sodi wrote later that day in an email to Springer, who frantically called Yale Student Health and Yale Medical Records to reauthorize them to send her health files to Sodi.

That day, Springer had rearranged her schedule for a Skype interview with Siggins about her mental health. At the time, she was enrolled in two courses at the University of Minnesota—a calculus class and an introductory economics class—to fulfill the two-credit requirement for reinstatement. The conversation with Siggins was quick. “She was like, ‘Oh, Jesica, I just opened your file because I was going to interview you, but I see that you withdrew because of a concussion. So I guess we don’t really need to talk,’” Springer told me. They ended the Skype call. “They just assumed without ever looking at my case that I had mental health issues,” Springer said. Siggins did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When Brown applied for reinstatement, she, too, was told by an administrative assistant, Lisa Miller, that she needed to interview with Siggins, even though she explicitly mentioned she withdrew for academic reasons when scheduling the interview. Unlike Springer, Brown completed the interview with Siggins. No Yale policy requires students on academic withdrawal to interview with a psychiatrist.

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On October 22, Sodi met with Yale College Council Vice President Heidi Dong and Director for Student Life Grace Kang to discuss a new set of policy recommendations for withdrawal and reinstatement that the YCC had been working on since the spring. (Kang is also a formerly withdrawn student; she hurt her back during her first semester, spent a year away, and was reinstated in the fall of 2017.) Earlier in October, the council had conducted a focus group with four reinstated students, soliciting feedback about the withdrawal and reinstatement processes.

The YCC proposed eliminating a requirement for students withdrawn for academic and personal reasons to spend two full semesters away from Yale. The suggestions also included offering financial aid for students who, like Brown, cannot afford to take required classes while away from campus, creating an earlier application cycle for withdrawn international students to give those who are reinstated more time to apply for visas, and establishing a Peer Liaison program for recently reinstated students.

Many of the suggestions YCC brought to the administration in 2014 have yet to be implemented. “The Dean’s office thinks that they’re welcoming to returning students and helpful to students looking to get reinstated, but somewhere along this chain of people, reinstated students feel neglected by the Dean’s office,” Kang wrote in an email. But Dong and Kang both said that Sodi, who has been the chair of the Reinstatement Committee since October 2017, was receptive of the latest set of proposals. “Because she’s new, she wasn’t aware of some of the problems that students had,” Kang wrote. According to Kang, Sodi will pose YCC’s recommendations to other deans in a December meeting. However, Kang added that it may take up to two years for the changes to be implemented.

In the YCC’s research into other schools’ policies, Brown University stood out. Its reinstatement process is fairly simple. If a student leaves for medical reasons and wants to return, they need to do three things: write a letter explaining their case to the student support dean they are paired with while away, procure and supply a letter from a treatment provider, and fill out an information release form to allow deans to access their medical information. Brown does not require students on medical leave to take classes while away, or to interview with any Brown officials.

Brown’s Office of Student Support Services website contains a wealth of information about the school’s protocols for leaving and returning. Online guidelines include a four-week timeline of the petition review process, an outline of the criteria the committee use to evaluate cases, and a list of committee members. If a student wants to appeal the committee’s choice, the guidelines also provide instructions on how to do so. Prior to the creation of the guidelines in 2017, Brown deans ran a comprehensive blog about the medical leave process, complete with student and parent testimonials.

Daisha Roberts, a YCC senator who has contributed to the group’s research, praised Brown’s policies. “Everything is just student-centered, and they really care about the student’s well-being more than our policy does,” she said.

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On July 16, Springer learned the committee had reinstated her, even before grades from her summer courses at the University of Minnesota were released. Students need a B or higher in their required two classes to be reinstated. She was relieved to hear the news—and knew she would pass the classes—but was still confused. “Why did [the committee] make me pay for these classes if [they] are going to reinstate me without seeing proof of them?” she asked.

Springer said that returning to Yale as a first-year for the second time is different. She has different priorities; she worries about different pressures. Her second set of orientation meetings was useless. She’s retaking the same French class she nearly completed last year. She’s managing a 4.5 credit course load, prioritizing paper-heavy courses over detail-oriented ones. “My memory is not as good as it used to be,” she said. “My short-term memory is just not there. I’m having a really hard time keeping track of people.” A few times, she has mistakenly reintroduced herself to someone she met last year.

Since her concussion, Springer has worn bifocals to help her eyes shift between looking at close-up and far-away objects; her eyes no longer converge and she has minimal vision between one and three feet from her face. Her adjustment was also marred by bureaucratic challenges. She could not be guaranteed housing with her class because she was not reinstated until after dorm arrangements were set. Even though Springer was assigned a room in Vanderbilt Hall with other first-years in Saybrook at the last-minute, after a student decided not to matriculate, she was not granted the medical single she requested for her post-concussion sleep disturbances. The summer credits she took did not transfer automatically; she spent weeks convincing the Math and Economics departments to transfer them, seeking advice and support from Sodi.

Springer told me she found that Yale’s policy and process created barriers that exacerbated the challenges she faced in returning to school. “It could be so much more personalized,” she said. “The person who I had rearranged my entire schedule to have a Skype interview with thought that I withdrew for mental health reasons. It’s kind of absurd to me that I’m put through the same process as someone who’s on a disciplinary leave. I also think that requiring two classes when I was gone for a semester—and that I would just have to pay for these things—is just absurd.”

When Springer arrived for move-in this year, there was no ID or key for her, although she had been communicating with university staff including Cissy Armstrong, the Assistant to the Dean in Saybrook, for more than a month about her impending return.

After arriving to Old Campus with her luggage, Springer walked over to a woman from the registrar’s office standing nearby. “I was like ‘I’m a reinstated student, there’s no ID here under my name, I don’t have a key to my room,’” Springer said. “And this lady was like, ‘Are you sure you’re reinstated? Are you sure? Have you gotten a letter? Are you sure you’re actually reinstated, and don’t just think you are? Are you sure you’re a student here?’ I was almost crying when Cissy walked up and was like, ‘She’s good!’”

Three days later, Springer found out the woman from the registrar’s office was her first-year advisor.

Elliot Wailoo is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

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