Opinion guest column

Not all medical leaves turn into horror stories

Last week, The Tech published an article that, in part, recounted the experience a student had going on leave. This person described going on leave as a “hellhole,” which made me think back on my own experience being away from MIT for almost a year. I have absolutely no intention of invalidating her story, or that of anyone else who went through a rough time on leave. However, I did want to share a perspective that is less commonly heard: that is, how going on leave was a massive force of change and improvement on my life.

My reasons for taking time off were perhaps more common than we’d like to admit. Although I was doing alright in my classes, I was very deeply unhappy with my MIT experience. Part of it was due to having very unsure life goals (questioning whether you like science is a stressful thought to have at MIT), and part of it was due to dissatisfaction with the way I had been living my life. While going to Mental Health was helpful, after a while it became clear that there was no way my mental health issues could be solved while juggling academics. However, the actual decision to go on leave was very difficult and terrifying. I come from Puerto Rico, where the dire financial situation has led to very limited opportunities to find a job, obtain health insurance, or take classes. My low-income background certainly didn’t help: my dad had lived in Texas for about five years to maintain a job, my mom frequently found herself unemployed (and actually lost her job a month after I went on leave), and a good chunk of our income went to my brothers’ education. Needless to say, I had all the usual fears: what happens when I get home, how will I explain to people that I had to put my academics on hiatus (especially since knowledge of mental health issues back home is mediocre at best), how will I find a job or take classes or do anything, what if I’m not able to return…?

I ended up going home halfway through my sophomore fall. I almost immediately began treatment, and a month and a half later I started working as a computer science teacher at my old high school. Despite how tough the leave was at first (affording treatment without health insurance required me to go through a million and one hoops), it’s impossible for me to put into words how amazing of an experience this was. Since I was a kid, I’ve been so focused on this super narrow path of taking tests and doing homework that I had lost track of how much there is to see and do in the world. In the apparent simplicity of my new life, I found a passion for learning and discussing the myriad of societal issues Puerto Rico and other countries were facing, which led to me changing majors. I developed a close connection to my family, especially with my mom, with whom I frequently butted heads before coming to MIT. I fell in love with exploring the natural beauty of my island, and I found extreme fulfillment in serving others, through teaching or otherwise. Having that “MIT student” identity stripped from me taught me how to disentangle my self-worth from my academic work, how to find purpose and meaning in what I truly enjoyed, and how to love myself unconditionally. Quite honestly, these identity issues would likely have never been resolved had I pushed through and stayed at MIT.

Now, there’s a lot of concern around campus regarding coming back to MIT. I’ve heard the term “horror stories” used to describe this almost invariably. I can’t speak for anyone except myself, but my experience has been the complete opposite of that. I was very lucky to have an S3 dean who very clearly laid out from the start what I would have to do to come back and regularly checked up on me to make sure I was doing well. While there is something scary about the whole return process, I genuinely felt that I was in good hands. And it turned out just fine: I came back the next year and have felt consistently content with my time here so far. I feel much more involved in my activities, much more engaged in my classes, and much more connected to MIT’s campus and culture.

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking back at conversations I had with friends at MIT or otherwise and I caught a pattern: oftentimes I would describe a belief that I had, or an attitude I developed, or an activity I started doing, or a relationship that I strengthened as something I started “while I was on leave.” In fact, at one point I told someone that I honestly believed 90 percent of who I am was born during my year off from MIT. That’s insane to think about, given that more than 19 years of my life happened before that. But going on leave has without a doubt been the most formative and life-changing experience of my life, and I’m very proud of having set aside my academics for my mental health.

René Andrés García Franceschini is a member of the MIT Class of 2019.