Legend has it that if you step on the campus seal at the entrance to Healy Hall, you will not graduate on time. Whether or not that story is true remains to be seen, but for some students, taking an unconventional path through Georgetown is not a myth.

According to U.S. News and World Report’s 2011 college rankings, about 13 percent of Georgetown undergraduates do not graduate within four years. The reasons for prolonging one’s academic career range from choosing a five-year plan to having to take a leave of absence due to a health condition.

When Four Isn’t Enough

For Julian Sesma (COL ’13), the decision to remain on the Hilltop for a fifth year made good academic sense. As a biology-theology double major and a premed student, Sesma could graduate on time only by taking a full course load during both the academic year and summer.

Instead, during summer 2011 he remapped his academic plans to include another year at Georgetown.

“Yes, I wanted to spread out my schedule. Yes, I wanted to think about what I was going to do after my fifth year. And at the end of the day, I still had some requirements to finish up,” he said.

Sesma said he also wanted an extra year to enjoy Georgetown’s social scene and explore more opportunities.

“I think Georgetown has a lot to do with building relationships with other Hoyas, and that’s one of the main things I’ve gotten from my Georgetown experience,” he said. “Building relationships in the context of the university is the thing you’re going to carry with you.”

Sean Quigley (SFS ’13), however, never considered taking additional time to complete his degree.

Quigley, who is currently on a leave of absence, began the process of applying for medical leave last spring after a combination of schoolwork, extracurricular activities, family issues and insomnia created an unmanageable load.

After serving as editor-in-chief of The Georgetown Voice, co-director of the Improv Association and a member of the foreign service fraternity Delta Phi Epsilon, Quigley said he pushed himself too far.

“I joined all those groups my freshman year, so I had done three years of the grind of Voice, improv, fraternity stuff and schoolwork, and my grades had always been fine,” he said. “For me, it was just kind of an endurance thing. I was tired of doing it all. I fell one semester short.”

Quigley said that his dean, Maura Gregory, ultimately suggested that he take medical leave in order to get back on track.

“I [have] to give them credit, because it was Dean Gregory’s idea for me to take this leave of absence, and I wouldn’t have even known it was possible to get this semester scrubbed off my transcript,” he said.

For some students, taking a leave of absence becomes a matter of medical necessity.

Former Super Senior Anna Martignetti (COL ’12) considered taking a medical leave of absence after feeling sick during her sophomore year but did not make the decision until the illness worsened her senior year.

“I was super disconnected socially I could hardly show up to my job at The Corp. I knew something was wrong,” she said.

Martignetti was rushed into surgery for appendicitis complications when she returned home for winter break, and she went on medical leave the following semester.

“When I left, it didn’t feel as strange, because being physically sick at school is just as isolating as being sick at home,” she said.

Rewriting the Plan

The decision to remain on campus an extra year or to apply for leave requires coordination across multiple university departments.

According to Anne Sullivan, senior associate dean of the college, voluntary leave is nearly always approved, while medical leave requires more careful consideration because each student’s situation varies.

“The college deans are fully supportive of students taking a leave of absence, for good reason,” Sullivan wrote in an email. “We do not pressure students to ‘stay in school,’ and we certainly do not pressure students to rush through the degree.”

After making the decision to take a leave of absence, students work with university counselors to develop a plan for their time away.

Quigley’s leave agreement stipulated that he receive treatment for his insomnia and find a job.

“Almost always, there is no academic credit to be earned while on leave — the leave is a ‘leave’ from the academic enterprise to do other worthy and interesting things, or to respond to a family crisis or some other circumstance where stepping out of the degree for a period of a term or a year is a good idea,” Sullivan wrote.

Christopher Dicks (SFS ’12), who took two separate medical leaves of absence, went to sessions at Counseling and Psychiatric Services to decide what to do during his time away from campus. Toward the end of his leave, Dicks took summer classes at American University to readapt to academic life.

Students who forgo the typical four-year Georgetown experience say that on-campus resources proved invaluable.

When contemplating taking an additional year, Sesma went to Associate Dean of Georgetown College and Director of Catholic Studies Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., for advice.

“Fr. Maher reminded me you’re a human being,” Sesma said. “He provided an alternative to [the four-year route].”

Dicks agreed, noting that his dean periodically checked up on him during his time away.

“It took more agency on my part to make sure there would be that much of a system but I feel like when you ask most people to help, they’re willing to help,” he said.

“A Year of Closure”

Oftentimes the final year of a five-year stay on campus can be the most difficult because many familiar faces have left.

During her senior year, Martignetti lived in Dupont Circle instead of on campus.

“I felt a distance from my peers because they wouldn’t take that time to take care of themselves,” she said. “When you’re so sick at school, it’s easy to leave and harder to come back.”

Dicks, who currently resides in Tenleytown, says that the undergraduate experience is not something that interests him any longer. Although he worked at The Corp and was involved in New Student Orientation before his leave of absence, he explained that he now feels disconnected from other undergraduates.

“There’s such a difference between an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old … a 19-year-old and a 23-year-old. … There’s nothing bad or terrible about it — it’s just a different experience,” he said.

Because of his commuter status, he said he feels more like a graduate student. At the same time, he sometimes struggles to relate to old friends who have already graduated.

“All of them have these exciting new careers, and it’s weird to feel like I could be doing that, too, but I’m still in school right now,” he said. “It’s weird to feel like a transient person going between age groups.”

Dicks added that the culture of Georgetown makes it difficult for to make a decision to extend their time at college.

“The biggest challenge of it [is] that there’s no visible presence to people who have shared that experience,” Dicks said. “There’s even some social stigma attached to it, especially at Georgetown … [They are] very prescriptive; once you’re here after the first years, you’re here for four years and that’sit.”

Sesma said that he experienced mixed feelings while watching the College’s graduation procession last spring.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, that’s my class right there,’” he said. “But on the inside I thought, ‘I’m excited about this year because I still have a good chunk of friends that are here, and I have a chance to be on the Hilltop another year.’”

While some students are more eager to leave the college life, others want to relish their last moments before becoming adults.

“I thought I would feel out of place, but in a lot of ways, I’m glad that my college experience isn’t over,” Quigley said. “Talking to my friends who have graduated, they’re [saying], ‘It’s weird for me now to be at a random keg party on N Street,’ because they’re adults.

“I’m glad that I still have that excuse to do the dumb [things] that college kids do,” he added.

Quigley, who plans on returning for the spring semester, hopes that his story can serve as a cautionary tale to freshmen who try to do everything.

“Be sure that you don’t take on too much, because you can do it for the short term, but you can only run yourself into the ground for [so] long before you just can’t go on,” he said.

However, Dicks said that his story also demonstrates the beneficial aspects of taking an additional year to graduate.

“It’s almost a little more beneficial to see your friends go through that transition before you, because then they’re also able to give you advice about applying for different jobs and what it’s like to be in different sectors, and it’s kind of nice to feel like you have people who have gone before you,” he said.

Sesma is exploring a variety of options after graduating, including taking a position with student development at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar or going to seminary or medical school.

“It’s another year to be grateful and give thanks to God,” he said.

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