I started the story below just over four hours ago with an interview. I suppose I should add a slight reflection/qualification first. We often hear about students having bad experiences with MIT medical leave or readmission after it. It’s often tough, though, to sort out legitimate complaints that can serve as the basis of a critical story from hearsay or more dubious objections to a process that will likely leave people disappointed even in the best case. But in this case, between the possible legal action (with decent precedent), the crowdfunding campaign, significant attention and support from on-campus email lists, the subject’s own documentation and willingness to go on-the-record, and the added issue of financial hardship during medical leave, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally explore this issue. I only had time to incorporate one side, but I hope to add in all the nuance later that I think makes this story interesting.
That being said, this story is not ready to go to print. Due to the four hour limit, I have yet to get/seek comment from MIT (though it will likely just be a “no comment” for privacy reasons). I also want to incorporate far more documents and direct quotes into a longer, more interesting piece for The Tech. And since colorful writing or its absence so often makes or breaks feature/profile pieces, and this piece feels so dry, I expect a lot of revision will be necessary.
I’m quite used to writing stories quickly in news style, but getting even the skeleton of a profile done in 2.5 hours from a 1.5 hour interview is pretty tough. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t the best choice of topic given the time constraint, but it also grew significantly over the course of the interview.
Here’s the current version:
According to Joshua Hernandez, his story is not uncommon at MIT. Following his February 2013 stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont due to an “intense depressive episode,” he went on voluntary medical leave from the Institute. Two years and two failed applications for readmission later, his fledgling campaign to raise money to mount a legal challenge to MIT’s latest decision has prompted discussion on campus — and commiseration from those with similar stories they say stem from a flawed approach by MIT administrators.
Hernandez feels the latest denial of his readmission application lacked a solid medical basis and said it runs counter to the recommendations of his therapist — a possible violation of Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he also emphasized the struggles embarking on medical leave without stable finances or home life, stresses he described as comparable to those at MIT.
Hernandez knew he had bipolar II disorder before a period of depression and resulting alcohol abuse led to his hospitalization. His assigned therapist summarized his progress during his stay to MIT Mental Health, a division of MIT Medical tasked with handling the clinical side of such cases. A day before his discharge, he learned from MIT Student Support Services (S^3) that he had little choice but to voluntarily go on medical leave. “I was told that it would be extremely difficult for me to return to MIT” if forced onto mandatory leave, he said.
Though Hernandez said he was upset with the decision and felt it was “not handled as well as I think it could be,” he said, “Ultimately I did kind of agree with … the assessment that I could use time away from MIT.”
His next move, though, was less straightforward. Hernandez, whose family lives in Mexico, said his situation at home was unstable, partially due to fraught relationships with his parents. He said MIT pushed for him to move back in with his them, though he deemed it impossible due to complications of moving internationally and the emotional toll of living at home.
He ended up staying with a friend in Cambridge and attending five weeks of daily therapy through the Triangle Program in Boston at the behest of MIT. He said that the daily commitments made it even more difficult to find work, already a difficult prospect for someone seeking temporary positions without an undergraduate degree.
MIT requires students on medical leave to take classes or work full time while away from the Institute, but Hernandez expressed displeasure with the policy, suggesting it was extremely stressful for students with few resources to quickly find employment.
“It’s kind of biased against … people that come from poor families because it assumes you have a stable home environment to return to.” In addition to difficulties finding work and residence, Hernandez said his finances were complicated by the loss of his high degree of financial aid, which, along with an on-campus job, he had counted on to make ends meet.
Hernandez moved to Seattle in May 2013 to live with his stepfather and began to work as an online physics tutor while still meeting with a therapist regularly.
His first proposal for readmission, submitted in November and December of 2013, included letters of recommendation from his employer and therapist, an academic plan, an essay about what he learned from his time away, and a detailed list of his activities since his hospitalization.
When he learned from a call with MIT Mental Health that his insomnia had endangered his readmission bid, he went to a sleep clinic and was diagnosed and successfully treated for sleep apnea, and he informed S^3 of the development. He said his therapist was confident that his alcohol abuse was only a symptom of his depressive episodes — one that had not resurfaced since his hospitalization — and told MIT as much. Nevertheless, insomnia and alcohol abuse were listed as the reasons for denial of his readmission proposal in January 2014.
Hernandez was upset that his application was denied due to issues — insomnia and excessive drinking — that he felt had come under control and were unlikely to plague him at MIT. Nevertheless, he continued his leave, still working as a tutor and eventually moving in with grandparents in Mexico. When he applied for readmission in late 2014, he felt confident he had addressed all the issues that had derailed his previous bid.
But in a four-way phone interview with MIT Mental Health and S^3 representatives, he was asked how he planned to control his violent tendencies, which Hernandez said had never been an issue or even concern throughout his illness, treatment, or leave. He said he told the interviewers about his displeasure with MIT’s process and what he considered their far-fetched concerns.
Unsurprisingly, he said, his application was rejected again, this time with unspecified concerns from an S^3 dean as the critical factor.
Hernandez thinks the vague medical basis of the rejection is a violation of section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires “reasonable accommodations” for illnesses including mental issues, and said he hopes to see broader changes in MIT medical leave policy in addition to the reversal of his readmission denial. He is firm in his judgment that MIT officials are in the wrong, but he still insists that they are well intentioned and that tough decisions on medical leave are still sometimes necessary.
Though he didn’t want to go into detail about his legal options, he said that he is interested in keeping a lawyer who specializes in higher education student mental health cases on retainer with any funds raised by the crowdfunding campaign, which he described as a long-shot idea suggested by his friend. As the fundraising link has circulated on certain campus lists, the vast majority of commenters have expressed support. Hernandez said three quarters of the messages he has received about the issue have described similar experiences with medical leave readmission applications.