What no one tells you about going off books

Lizzy Younger shares her struggles with the off books system

“If all had gone to plan, my commencement would be this November.”

I am currently a Senior Sophister History student. If all had gone to plan, my commencement would be this November. However, due to a series of health problems, I had to go off books for most of last year, and I am only now doing the final year of my undergraduate degree. I would venture to say that very few people actively choose to go off books. It arises from a dire problem, like failing exams and being unable to afford to repeat the year, or becoming so ill that continuing on with studies in the immediate term is impossible. My specific circumstances meant that in November of last year, I was feeling hopeless, which was worsened by the utter lack of information about my options from the College. I didn’t really understand the full implications of going off books, and the fact that there is no easily available resource explaining what it entails didn’t help.

The off books system relies on your tutor being on the ball. Fortunately mine was, and still is, fantastic. However, when I initially got sick, I discovered that I didn’t even have a tutor at that point. This was because my old tutor resigned in 2018 and I was not assigned a new tutor until I actually needed one. This led to a period of about 24 hours when I had to email increasingly obscure offices in College explaining things as best I could and begging for help. It didn’t feel very confidential or compassionate having my case passed around to so many different people before anything could be done about it. 24 hours was actually far less time than I was expecting – it seems even Trinity can be semi-efficient in a crisis. Still, the extra stress made an already tough situation much worse than it had to be.

“In hindsight, ‘extra stress’ should really just be the tagline for going off books.”

In hindsight, “extra stress” should really just be the tagline for going off books. There are many little things that made my life just that little bit more annoying, and these weren’t explained to me before I went off books. I suspect my tutor didn’t know about most of the details either, because she was very open with me about what she did know and shared everything she could with me about the process. For instance, your student card stops working immediately when you go off books. This means that if you remain in Dublin during your time out, as I did so that I could be near my doctors and receive treatment for my health issues, you can’t use college facilities like the toilets, launderette, library or even the wifi. This adds to the already exclusionary feeling of being off books by adding petty obstacles in the way of your normal daily life. The vast majority of students who go off books intend to return to college within a year or so, so is it really that much to ask that they can keep access to the wifi?

As well as this, if you have a position on a society committee you are expected to resign. I only found this out towards the end of the year, during AGM season. From what I gather, the Central Societies Committee (CSC) enforces this rule on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. However, it is hardly a nice feeling when you are already off books and disconnected from much of the college community in the first place. Societies kept me sane last year as they provided a way to feel like a semi-normal Trinity student, and I really enjoyed going to and helping organise random talks with my like-minded friends. Committee meetings also provided a semblance of structure to my days, which otherwise were quite bleak and lonely, with very little in the way of light. Having the threat of this being taken away is not conducive to someone maintaining good mental health whilst off books, which is important for students who are hoping to return to college in the near future.

“I was also unable to access the gym for the rest of the year.”

I was also unable to access the gym for the rest of the year, despite paying the sports centre charge in September. I clarified this with both the sports centre reception and academic registry at the time and was told by both to speak to the other. The charge, which is separate to the student contribution, was never refunded. I lost out on almost a whole year’s worth of a service which I had already paid for.

If you go off books for medical reasons you also need a doctor’s note to prove that you are capable to return to study, and in my case this was a note from the College Health Service. This was another nightmare for me. I was initially told that I was ineligible for an appointment with the GP there as I wasn’t registered. When I pointed out the logical fallacy here – that I needed an appointment in order to get registered, as per college’s own requirements – I did eventually manage to get a fit note a week into term. However, this meant that I was unable to register for the first week of classes this term, and only managed to do so at the end of week one, which caused more stress.

Overall, the college could do so much better for students who are off books, starting with properly explaining the system and what it entails, and removing petty obstacles that seem to solely exist to penalise students in less than ideal situations.