Students on Leave Take Up Important Causes from Social to Scientific

As many students have opted to take an academic leave this fall rather than enroll in an unprecedented semester of restricted campus life or remote learning, some have found different ways to occupy their time away from Amherst, notably by working on important causes ranging from the pandemic to the election. Between internships, campaign work and other activities, they have also had to deal with the challenges of being separated from friends and campus life.

After the college announced their reopening plan for the fall in July, students faced the difficult task of deciding whether to enroll in a semester marked by uncertainty or instead wait to continue their education at a later time. When asked about how they ended up deciding to take a leave, many students cited the difficulty of staying engaged with remote learning as the primary motivation. “You know, when we were doing Zoom school from March to May, I was just having the worst time with it,” said Colin Weinstein ’23E. “It is really, really hard to focus doing Zoom school.”

The reduced campus experience that would come with Covid restrictions was another important factor, especially for those with just one year left at Amherst. “I’m a musician, so I knew there wouldn’t be as many of the opportunities for practice and performance on campus as I wanted there to be,” said Diana Daniels ’22E, who spent the first half of the spring abroad and thus was among those students who were invited back to campus. 

“I just didn’t want to go back to a campus that I knew was going to be so much more limited than what I was used to,” she explained. “Having already had what was going to be a really great semester cut short [in March], I didn’t want to have that happen to my senior year.”

Without the regular load of classes to occupy their time, many of these students have spent the semester working for causes that are particularly relevant to the current time. Since the summer, Cameron Matsui ’23E has been working at The University of Texas at Austin Covid-19 Modeling Consortium, where he analyzes how the University of Texas system has been dealing with Covid-19 and comes up with policy recommendations for the administration.

“There’s been this interesting scenario that’s played out, in that we saw the spike in cases at the beginning as students returned, but it’s since died down quite a bit. It’s clear that there’s not a growing outbreak on campus, and so we’re trying to kind of wrap our heads around why that might be,” Matsui said. “That’s probably been the most intriguing question that I’ve been thinking about.”

Daniels has also been addressing the impact of the coronavirus through her work with the Farmlink Project, an organization created by college students in response to the problem of food waste, which the pandemic has only exacerbated. The nonprofit purchases surplus food from farms and delivers it to food distribution centers across the country to fight against food insecurity while also supporting essential jobs.

“Over the summer, I was doing a lot of outreach to different food banks and pantries trying to set up our contact sheets, and now in the fall have transitioned more into the research side of our team,” she said. “We have several different projects going on, basically just trying to look at increasing our impact, reaching more marginalized communities and connecting with established organizations in those communities.”

Lisa Zheutlin ’22E has kept busy juggling several different positions, from working for Project Rousseau, a nonprofit based in New York City that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to creating art for Power in Place, an organization that celebrates women in politics, to conducting voter and volunteer outreach for the Colorado Democrats.

“I have wanted to do nonprofit work, but I never actually knew what that meant, so I wanted to take this time off from school to get concrete experience in that realm.” Zheutlin explained. “[I] also just felt like, how could I not do something for the election during this time? The confluence of wanting to do something for the election and wanting to feel like I was integrating into Colorado a little bit more is how I got involved in the fellowship with the Colorado Democrats, which has been really exciting.”

Taking on these different roles has given students greater clarity surrounding possibilities for meaningful work. “I really had no idea what I wanted to do after school, so I think it’s been really useful in that respect, in terms of figuring out what I want to do,” Matsui said. “I feel like the work that I’ve been doing has made me excited for what comes after Amherst.”

“In the past couple years I have become more drawn to environmental politics and fighting climate change, but with this work that I’m doing surrounding food systems and food rescue … everything has fallen into the realm of food, [and] I just think it’s really cool that it’s all come together in this way,” Daniels remarked. “In the future I would love to dive deeper into the food sphere and food systems.”

Regarding her campaign work, Zheutlin said, “It just has been very rewarding to feel like I’m actually making a difference and doing something to change the course of what’s been happening in the country.” She added, “For the nonprofit job [with Project Rousseau], it’s been meaningful seeing concrete impact because I’m working directly with students.”

While students have found fulfillment in their pursuits away from academics, several have also found it challenging being out of touch with campus life. “I definitely feel FOMO [fear of missing out] about not being at Amherst, or not being a part of the class of 2021 anymore,” said Zheutlin. “I think that’s been the hardest thing to come to terms with.”

Daniels echoed the sentiment: “It’s been a little difficult not being around everyone and seeing things happening on campus that I’m like, ‘Oh, they were able to make this work, that’s awesome. Hmm, maybe I could have done that and gone [back] and it would have been fine,’” she said.

For these students, being able to continue participating in extracurriculars has been an important way of staying connected with campus. “We’ve been able to do weekly shows [for Mr. Gad’s House of Improv] on Zoom, so that doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on my time at all, which has been really good,” Zheutlin said.

Many have also stayed connected by arranging to live with friends from Amherst who are not on campus. Weinstein is spending the semester with five other Amherst students. One student is taking time off, like Weinstein, while the others are learning remotely. “I’d say my only real connection with Amherst in these past months has been through the other people in this house who are doing Zoom school,” he said. “You know, we’re talking about what classes we might take next semester, whether we’re going to take a January class [and] reminiscing about when we used to have Val and could just get food anytime we wanted.”

Some students reported feeling that the administration of the college has not made enough of an effort to reach out to and support those taking a leave during this time. Several expressed frustration, for instance, that they have not been receiving the communications that are sent out to enrolled students and have had to rely on what they heard from other students for campus news. “You know, we’re still part of the community even though we’re taking time off, so it’d be good to still be receiving those updates by email,” Zheutlin remarked.

“It’s generally felt like I’ve not been included in the community as much as I would have liked to have been,” Matsui echoed. “I think it would have been nice had there been more check-ins … [since] there’s equally a pandemic happening for me.” 

Daniels added, “We’re kind of just left on our own to figure out jobs, internship stuff before my last year of college, and that is kind of a huge barrier, especially right now, so I think more support from [the college] would be helpful, but I don’t think it’s going to be provided.”

Despite the difficulties that have come with taking time off from Amherst, however, overall, students seemed happy with their decision. “I think in the end, the costs of Amherst not treating me as a student were outweighed by the benefits of taking the semester off,” Matsui said.

“As much as I do miss Amherst and I miss being in school, I’m really glad I’ve taken this time to step back and evaluate, ‘Okay, these are the things I’m really interested in, what [classes] do I want to take when I get back to school?’” Daniels reflected. “Now I feel like I have a better idea of what I want that final year to look like.”

“It’s definitely sad that the grade was split up, but I think everyone made the decision that was best for them,” Zhuetlin concluded. “I hope that everyone does feel that they did make the right decision for themselves.”