Ode to a LOA: Taking a Leave of Absence





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GI was in my fourth year and on the cusp of graduation. Within reach was the long-anticipated graduation scroll. I was more than ready to don the gown and receive my certificate. And yet, a week before entering my fourth year and having secured my modules, I abruptly took a leave of absence (LOA). 

It was surprisingly quick. When UHC forwarded their recommendation to FASS, it got approved within the same day. Kudos to NUS for actually caring about me!

Reasons for my LOA

Students commonly go on LOAs because of internships. This time, I took a LOA because I was in really poor physical and mental health—and I’m not afraid to admit that. In fact, when year 3 came around, I knew a good handful of folks who took LOAs because of mental health stressors and illnesses. And that’s A-Okay!

Either way, people tend to immediately retreat to the assumption that I took a LOA because of an internship. I figure that it seems in line with my character since I often recklessly charge ahead without a heedful consideration of my health and bandwidth. But it still seems delegitimizing when people ask where I’m interning at, instead of first asking why I’m taking a LOA. My life is not centred around work, work, work; even if it certainly seems like that most of the time.

Overall, my family and friends have been surprisingly supportive, and I’ve also been receiving continued support from my counsellor at UCS. My days have also been slow and unstructured. On the whole, I’ve tried many new jobs and hobbies in trying to recuperate my physical weaknesses. I’ve also been pain-free for most of the LOA, so, a big step for Yuki, and an even bigger step for my undergraduate journey.

The big WHY

In the weeks that I’ve been embarking on this LOA, what I find most interesting are some hesitations or fears surrounding taking a LOA.

After all, taking a LOA is no short of falling behind. Apart from suspending your academic term and putting your educational life on hold, you watch everyone else launch themselves ahead of you. And while they continue clearing modules and attending CCAs, you alone face the looming prospect of falling 5-6 months behind the classmates you’ve been journeying with. It can be nerve-wrecking—terrifying, even. Moreover, if you’re not doing an internship like me, the panic of doing nothing can be a bone-chilling prospect that sets in 3-4 days after you take the LOA. One friend even told me that I was “really brave” for taking the LOA, and was not sure that he could do the same were he placed in my position.

Pile this on top of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), and it makes for a disastrous concoction of feelings. Indeed, taking a LOA essentially boots you out of the undergraduate programme and ‘student life’ for 5-6 months; and without striding alongside your peers, it’s hard to keep up with the latest campus news or social activities. Complaining about lectures, rushing onto jam-packed campus buses, and mugging for assignments are all part and parcel of student life, fun or not. As long as you’re off the grid, the feeling of being excluded and experiencing FOMO doesn’t sit well with you.

Another major downside to it is the opportunity cost of money. On top of external writing and teaching jobs, I work two jobs for NUS. Yet, for students going on LOA and not paying school fees, they are expected to relinquish their jobs and void any pay for the semester. Frankly speaking, this was nothing short of heart-wrenching, especially when one of the part-time jobs was my mainstay income.

My experience

The further in I chug along on this LOA, however, the more I realise that it really isn’t that big of a deal. Financial concerns aside (—I had to really tighten my purse strings), I’ve had the privilege to truly unwind and do absolutely nothing for days on end. The last time I was able to do this was during Circuit Breaker—which was aeons ago.

Another thought that occurred to me was that I was going to be working for the rest of my life the moment I graduate; So why fret in the weeks when I should be relaxing and kicking back in time for next semester? Once you graduate, you most likely won’t be getting back an undergraduate life. Milk the most of it while you can.

Personally, I’ve been able to continue my CCAs and explore wildly different jobs outside of school. This has been most fulfilling and nourishing for me, especially since I’ve always wanted to make time for these activities. For instance, I managed to teach swimming for a short while! In vain I had to quit when I found out that it kept giving me awful and recurring urinary tract infections. (Sad face. It worsened my health problems.) But it was fun while it lasted.

I also jump-started my love for screenwriting and writing once more, which fuelled my recreational pieces, and commercial pieces with companies.

By virtue of being on LOA, I have the added advantage of exploring Singapore at my own time and pace. On days where my health problems weren’t going wild, I could go for a 30 minute walk around the neighbourhood. Now, I could go to the library at my own time and pace, and actually sit and read instead of dashing by to drop off and pick up new books. 

The best part was the food. Many days on end (and if my health permitted), I found myself lounging in my favourite cafe or hawker centre. And surprisingly, while I’ve always been ok with eating alone, I found myself being totally comfortable with that fact. Perhaps going to hospitals and clinics for (an endless amount of) follow-ups has sparked a new kind of independence in me.

With a boundless amount of time, I was able to meet more of my friends and loved ones by accommodating and working around their schedules. For the most part, I was lucky to be in good health by the time our plans swung around. And if I weren’t, I had sheer grit and determination to back me up (until my doctor’s appointment the next morning, har har).

Thankfully, I also have the immense privilege of having very understanding employers. In the wonderful position of being a writer and teacher, I’ve been able to do most of my work from the comfort of my chair, or over Zoom (if need be). Lesson plans can also be drawn up at home! (Whew.) Unfortunately, my chair is not ergonomic and I had to make up for my deteriorating health by going on long walks.

Lastly, and despite being a tad ashamed to admit this, I’ve been gaming a lot more. To curb this addiction, I write to you live from NUS’ Town Plaza, where students are studiously finishing up on their recess week assignments, and kitting themselves out for the war that we call midterms.

Above all, I am blessed to have friends who accompany me to apply for a LOA, alongside many supportive folks who continue to chase me for lunches and dinners even while I’m away. If I had been schooling, I perhaps wouldn’t have as much headspace to practise the gratitude I bear for these lovely people. By slowing down, appreciating the sights and sounds of Singapore, and the ability to walk around without being in crippling pain, I found a lot more gratitude in here, than I ever did in all my years of being completely healthy, particularly since the latter was often occupied with busy periods where I would be starving to do anything and everything. (No regrets!)

Falling behind is an okay choice.

What you quantify as falling behind is ultimately up to you, and what matters to you depends on how much stress you internalise from being on a different path from your peers. If you want to continue taking on an internship, go ahead and do so. But doing something for the sake of it, rather than doing something because it is meaning-making, can be an act of succumbing to peer pressure. By scrambling to overcompensate for our losses, we may find that what we do does a lot more harm than benefit to our goals (and mental health)! Some jobs we take on might not even spark joy or be productive towards meaningful ends. To that end, it might only fill a vacant space which we can name as: Being insecure about doing nothing and trying to overcompensate for it.

These feelings of guilt and anxiety are completely normal. But one quote I always hark back to in these times of natural weakness is : Feelings are not wrong or right; they just are. Rather than jump on the bandwagon and fight against rest, sit with the discomfort of knowing that you are doing nothing. If possible, it’d be great if you can even schedule time for doing nothing. Over time, you may find that the negative, empty space can do wonders for slowing you down, keeping you grounded, and in creating room for reflection. It also allows you to focus on one goal at a time.

If anything, just know that there’s nothing wrong with choosing to take the slow lane. Falling behind is a choice, and that’s okay.

Most importantly, the message I want to convey is that you are not alone. (Cue Michael Jackson.) I’ve had several friends who have gone on two to three semester-long LOAs for mental health reasons. If you’re like us and not going the traditional route, it’s okay! Rest easy in the fact that you won’t be the first person who’s doing so, because we’ll be there with you.