Manuel Mas: Students returning from a withdrawal need more support

When I left campus last spring, I went through withdrawal – quite literally.

It’s been about a month and a half since I returned to campus after withdrawing from the University last semester, and I’m still figuring things out. When I made the decision to withdraw near the end of last semester, I didn’t think about the consequences that my decision would have on the rest of my academic career.

I was just desperate, after months of unhappiness, to throw in the towel. After filling out a flurry of forms, visiting a therapist and awkwardly telling my professors that I wasn’t going to take their finals, I boarded a plane back home to brood over my future in a slightly less stressful environment. After four months of soul searching at home, I decided to give this college thing one last go. But once I got back, reality started settling in.

Withdrawing from college, especially in the middle of a semester due to unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances, is a serious issue. A combination of academic, social, financial and personal health issues can be dredged up during a withdrawal process and its aftermath, since it requires students to deal with a myriad of issues. That’s why the GW community, including students, faculty and University officials, should do more to help students just returning from a temporary withdrawal.

I wasn’t alone when I made the decision to withdraw. Last year, GW’s graduation rate dropped to 72 percent, and I suspect a significant percentage of them were withdrawals that never returned. We need clearer numbers about this phenomenon, but clearly there is enough anecdotal evidence suggesting returning students like me do exist. And we need help.

When I got back, my academic progress was stymied, I had to live with randomly assigned roommates and I had to deal with the insatiable curiosity of my acquaintances. They questioned me incessantly about the withdrawal.

But mostly, I felt utterly alone in my experience. There were no support groups – no clandestine Alcoholics Anonymous-type meetings were I could share my story and wallow in the empathy of my peers. I needed guidance on practical concerns like how to get back on track with my degree. I needed to talk with someone who went through the same ordeal. I needed empathy and got indifferent bureaucrats instead.

Because there’s a lack of specialized University resources to help with this all-too-common situation of a sudden withdrawal, I trudged on for a few weeks doing the best that I could. And I tried the official resources to no avail: My adviser just handled class registration, Mental Health Services recommended private care providers and I wasn’t about to broach such a personal subject with any professors.

Then around mid-September, I met up with an old friend of mine to work on a paper. During our conversation, I found out he withdrew under similar circumstances the previous fall. His withdrawal was abrupt and unplanned, just like mine, and we got to talking about how we were dealing with the return to life at GW.

Walking home after that candid conversation, I considered the possibility that not everyone who is back after temporarily withdrawing has the chance to talk with another returning student. It was by purely random chance that I even had this much-needed conversation. The University should have services ready for readjusting students, like specialized academic and financial advising, or a mentorship program that utilizes the expertise of former students who have withdrawn, then returned.

Specific advisers for students who are returning after an unplanned absence could help us with tangible questions like how we explain it in interviews for internships, how we catch up on what we missed and how we adjust to possibly being a year behind our peers.

But since no program like that exists, it’s up to us to readjust as best we can, with the help of our friends. It takes time, but eventually, you may realize that your withdrawal wasn’t the end of the world. Months later, you may still be thinking about these circumstances. And the only way to move on from them is to talk about it – whether with friends or with a counselor at MHS.

If you’re a returning student, get involved in extracurriculars if you weren’t involved in any before. I decided to start writing, since over the summer, I realized I’m considering journalism as a career. If not for professional reasons, joining an organization is a great way to utilize creative energy for non-academic purposes.

Remember, nobody plans to withdraw from college. But just because you were forced to step back for a few months doesn’t mean all is lost. Taking time off can help you rediscover why you came to GW in the first place, and when you do, you’ll come back with an even greater zeal for learning than ever before.

Manuel Mas, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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