Helping the Re-Admitted Student

Linda Helton for The Chronicle

February 16, 2012

Making the transition from high school to college is challenging enough. But at every university, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is a special group of students each semester who are making the transition to college for a second time.

At MIT, each year we receive about 120 applications for re-admission from students who have withdrawn for various reasons. We re-admit about 65 percent of them. They like to joke that they are in an elite class of students who have the distinction of being admitted to MIT twice. Once re-admitted, these students begin a unique and challenging journey, and MIT has made it a priority to provide them with comprehensive support.

Whether they're coming back after a leave of one year or five years, they are returning to a place that is substantially different from the one they left. Their peers have pressed on and, in some cases, graduated. Professors have left, dorms have been built, academic majors have been created or disappeared, and core graduation requirements have been changed. The hallways look the same, but the faces are different.

In many ways, it is like returning to your hometown after having been away for decades. However, usually when you return to your hometown, you reminisce, get a sandwich at your favorite deli, and head back to the comfort of your family home. Returning students, on the other hand, have to reacclimate to a place that feels familiar yet foreign at the same time.

About 10 years ago, as MIT moved toward a more systematic approach to dealing with withdrawals and re-admissions, it became clear that these students faced unique challenges. Perhaps the people who had the best opportunity to observe their struggle were the clinicians in MIT Medical's Mental Health and Counseling Service. Starting in the spring of 2004, we created an innovative program for returning students that has now been running for 15 consecutive semesters.

The mission of the Returning Students Group is to provide support for these students during their first semester back. Its directed by the students themselves, guided by a dean in undergraduate education and a psychiatrist from MIT Medical's counseling service. Our re-admission committee refers students to the group if they seem to need some continuing help. Once a referral has been made, students are invited for an in-person meeting with the dean and the psychiatrist to see if the group would be a good fit for the student.

Meeting once a week throughout the semester, the group has only three rules: 1. anything discussed in the group is confidential; 2. everyone must attend all meetings; and 3. anything that affects the group outside of group meetings must be discussed within the group (e.g., if two members start dating).

Each semester about eight students participate. There is no agenda; the members discuss issues that are most pertinent to them. Although the group is different from semester to semester, we have seen consistent themes pop up, including:

  • Almost universally, students are nervous about returning.
  • They are unsure of how to discuss their withdrawal with friends, faculty members, and staff employees once they've returned.
  • Students don't know how to classify themselves. For instance, if they entered as a member of the Class of 2012, should they still be considered a part of that class when they come back?
  • Anxiety increases notably around the first exams or problem sets.
  • Almost every returning student worries that he or she is going to fall into old patterns of behavior.
  • The students who are the most successful are the ones who avail themselves of the support services on campus.

While the two campus administrators guide the group and answer questions about mental health, medication, or administrative issues, the students are the ones who support one another and hold one another accountable. They get to know each other quite well. If a member is going through a difficult time, the group is there to offer support. If a student falls into old patterns of behavior and doesn't recognize it, the group can point it out.

The important thing is that the students get advice from each other and, as a result, are more likely to listen. In the last seven years, the group has helped save a suicidal student, prevented multiple academic collapses, supported students with family crises, and shared in group members' successes and triumphs.

The Returning Students Group is an important innovation, but we feel that the support at MIT, and at other institutions, should be broadened for this vulnerable population.

We have, for instance, held a Welcome Back Dinner at the beginning of the semester in which students have the opportunity to meet critical staff members and other returning students. Students who were re-admitted in previous semesters are invited to the dinner to speak about the trials and tribulations of returning to MIT. The dinner has been well attended and positively received.

We have also instituted what we call the "fifth-week check-in." Deans review the students' expectations that were outlined as part of the re-admission process and check if they are following through. We are most interested in ensuring that they remain in contact with their deans, academic advisers, and treatment providers.

Students who are found to have fallen off the radar screen or had minimal contact with those administrators are pursued with more aggressive outreach. The hope is to prevent students from falling through the cracks and early indications are that this process helps. In the future, we intend to arrange a midsemester dinner for all returning students in their first term back. We also want to more closely track them beyond that first semester. We are concerned that the focused support we offer drops off drastically after the first semester, and we would like to change that in the future.

Our program for re-admitted students has evolved over time, but the key has been students supporting students, and consistent help throughout the semester. While the needs at different colleges and universities may vary, helping students through this awkward transition is likely to benefit both the student and the institution.

David W. Randall is associate dean of student-support services in the office of undergraduate advising and academic programming at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.