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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

The skinniest college in America

About a month ago, I decided to take a medical leave from Middlebury mid-semester to seek treatment for my bulimia nervosa. I was a shell of a person by the time I left campus. After a sophomore year filled with salads and excessive exercise, I spent my junior fall gorging on food and forcing myself to throw it all up. Addicted to the cycle of bingeing and purging, I spent more time in the bathroom than the classroom.

My eating disorder started in eighth grade as an attempt to find control amidst a home environment of instability and parental abuse. I gained power by showing my abuser that I could do something to my body she had no control over. In college, I saw an opportunity to escape from my past; still, I could not escape my eating disorder. Instead, Middlebury’s culture of “wellness” proved to be a further catalyst for my disordered eating habits. My disease festered in an environment that values athleticism, healthy eating and perfectionism. And my restrictive habits were reinforced by other girls crippled by the same disease. 

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]The counselors at Parton were unequipped to help me combat my disorder.[/pullquote]

I sought help for the first time last January. I had a few meetings with counselors at Parton Health Center. However, with no background in treating eating issues, the counselors at Parton were unequipped to help me combat my disorder. To make matters worse, resources outside the college are slim. As Middlebury’s website warns: “Students should be aware that the closest eating disorder specialists are in Rutland, VT and Burlington, VT (approximately 45 – 60 minutes away).” With few resources close by, and a lack of insurance coverage, I struggled alone for a long time. For a school that claims to be dedicated to students’ health and wellness, the lack of resources for students with eating disorders is not only careless, but negligent. Clearly, on-campus resources are not enough for students; the administration needs to improve them.

My frustration with the school’s deficiency in resources escalated this fall. My off-campus therapist tried to help me assemble a make-shift “outpatient team” to support me throughout the semester. When she contacted Parton Health Center asking that a nurse perform weekly weigh-ins (which basically entails me stepping on a scale and a nurse writing the number down), Parton said that they could not perform the task. I was too much of a liability. Again, they referred me off campus.

For my own health and safety, I could no longer remain at school. When I met with my dean about the prospect of leaving school, he notified me of a policy that requires students who take medical leave to take the entire year off. If I decided to seek treatment, I would not be eligible for re-admission in the spring term. To add to my discouragement, I discovered that a student is only guaranteed eight semesters of financial aid, with the ability to appeal for a ninth semester if needed. Withdrawing from a semester that has been started counts as a semester toward this total, even if credits are not earned. Which means, even if I could reasonably withdraw and return, I would still lose out on a semester of financial aid and would either have to overload on classes to graduate on time, or navigate the school’s appeal process to finish my degree.

I was devastated. Coming from an abusive family, living at home until fall 2020 was not a possibility for me. I contemplated staying on campus, white-knuckling it and risking the chance of getting sicker. But, persuaded by my unique circumstances, my dean spoke with a number of people and gained permission that if I were to withdraw I would be considered for readmission for the spring 2020 semester. My dean made very clear that this would be an exception. Only once this agreement was solidified did I decide to leave Middlebury and seek a residential treatment program (where another Middlebury student soon joined me), hoping all the while that I would be able to return to school after passing through treatment. 

[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]For my own health and safety, I could no longer remain at school.[/pullquote]

After two weeks of treatment, my dean had me submit a “Medical Return Form” that my therapist filled out outlining my readiness to return in the spring. I filled out the form in November with the standard expectation that an updated version of the form would be asked for sometime in January when there was a clearer sense of how I was doing and what the treatment recommendations might be. And yet last week — after merely two and a half weeks of treatment — the Care Team convened at Middlebury and decided my case for me. I would not be eligible to return in the spring. They did not seem to care that I still had three more months before the spring semester started, more than enough time to complete residential treatment along with a few weeks in a step-down partial hospitalization program. Middlebury College did not even given me a chance. 

This experience leads me to believe that the administration is too blinded by liability to evaluate what is in a student’s best interest. The message this is sending to those struggling with eating disorders is: if you are struggling, do not tell the administration. 

This policy is incredibly unfair to students like me, who lack homes to which they can return. It neglects the needs of students whose mental health issues stem from their upbringing, and those who do not have the resources to live independently. It disproportionately affects low-income students who lose out on the tuition they have already invested. These students are forced to leave campus to pay for treatment programs because Middlebury and the surrounding community do not have adequate resources to support students.

The Middlebury that instituted this policy does not sound like a Middlebury “deeply committed to creating a diverse, welcoming community with full and equal participation for all individuals and groups.” If Middlebury College strives to take into account students’ best interests, the administration should overturn this blanket policy and assess medical leaves and readmission on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, the school should invest resources into supporting students with eating disorders: hiring a nutritionist, employing a specialist, starting support groups. 

Those struggling with mental health issues on this campus form a community that is, sadly, expanding. Still, it is a powerful one. I encourage others to put pressure on the school to provide these essential resources. To stand by those struggling and show them they are not alone.

Quinn Boyle is a member of the class of 2021.