The Trinity off-books experience

Ben Rowsome takes us through the highs and lows of going off-books for a year

Taking a year off from college can be very challenging, especially when you’re not sure what to do for the first few months. There are not a lot of support systems in place for off-books students, and the lack of access to student counselling services, academic material, or even the library unfortunately means that a significant proportion of students who go off-books don’t return to college. According to the annual TCD Academic Registry Report, 334 students were off-books in the year 2020/2021. This gives you a sense of how many people are affected by the lack of support given. As part of my work with the Trinity Disability Service and the Trinity Ability Co-op I aim to set up a system that people can rely on to come back stronger and happier than they were before. 

If you want to find out what the respective issues are and why they should be addressed, read on! I have outlined them below alongside some tips on how to organise yourself to optimise the results of taking a year off.

The first big issue I faced this year was regarding access to academic material. My student number became invalid which meant my access to Blackboard, lecture notes and exam papers was barred. This was a real obstacle because one of my main reasons for going off-books was so that I could work on the material in my own time. Office365 failed to recognise me too, which meant I was not able to log in to any Microsoft Teams online meetings. This is an ongoing issue, in need of a solution that allows students to keep up their responsibilities with the respective offices and societies. 

“Students should continue to feel valued by the College community even if they are not physically present.”

Students should continue to feel valued by the College community even if they are not physically present. Being told by the IT Services and the Academic Registry that they could not help me because “the student number has expired” was degrading and demoralising, and I could suddenly understand why a lot of students simply don’t come back after spending a year off-books. If it hadn’t been for the close ties I had with the Disability Service and the Ability Co-op, my motivation to step foot on campus again would have dwindled massively. College’s attitude needs to change in order to keep links with their students who choose to take time off-books.

What is perhaps most appalling is the lack of mental health support offered to students who have deferred the year on mental health grounds. This is disconcerting enough under normal circumstances, but in the era of COVID, these services were an even bigger necessity. It is completely unjustifiable that a student who goes off-books on mental health grounds has their Student Counselling privileges taken off them. Besides this being incredibly disappointing, it is also entirely counterintuitive. 

An important issue experienced by many students is getting back “on-books”; this can be a very long and drawn-out process. Students are often left with no choice but to register immediately before the academic year begins, or after it has already started. This means off-books students are the last to pick modules and electives, and sometimes don’t even get given a timetable until a few weeks into the semester. On top of that, those who go off-books with assessment often get forgotten for reassessments, and also don’t get issued their exam timetables – all as the result of an admin glitch! 

“It is essential to smoothen out the process of re-entering College at the end of the year off-books so as to motivate people not to give up on their academic journey.”

Last but not least, you cannot apply for accommodation whilst off-books. The additional stress caused by this at the beginning of the academic year is completely unnecessary and demotivating. It is essential to smoothen out the process of re-entering College at the end of the year off-books so as to motivate people not to give up on their academic journey.

The Trinity Disability Service Director, Declan Treanor, and I have been  lucky enough to engage with a lot of powerful people within College, including the Senior Lecturer Dr. David Shepherd, to discuss ways in which we can target these problems, and how we can start to come up with solutions, create resources and raise awareness. A resources and information page for off-books students is now in the works thanks to Dr. Shepherd’s enthusiasm. In addition to that, we got into great talks with the Trinity Inclusive Curriculum Project throughout the year, and even got to present our case for change in the CINNTE Institutional Review which took place in March. I believe this is a terrific start to what is ultimately going to be a long-haul initiative, but every idea we can get under way helps another student to graduate!

In spite of all the challenges and logistical issues, there’s a lot you can achieve by taking a year off. It is a chance for you to rejuvenate as much as possible before going back into full-time education. I will finish off this article by giving you a few tips on how to make the most of this opportunity.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I went off-books in October 2021 because I was burnt out. After a year and a half in lockdown I found that I couldn’t study in the same way anymore; I needed that break. You deserve to give yourself that break! Go through your study material while you’re off-books in your own time and manner. Going off-books also offers a great chance to get back into your various hobbies and passions, which is another key to recovery. Make sure to dedicate enough time to what makes you happy.

Don’t let yourself fall out of a routine. For the first three months I had virtually no routine. These turned out to be some of the hardest months of my life. Lack of academic responsibilities resulted in boredom, which in turn converted into frustration and even despondency. Hence why having a solid routine from as early on as possible, for instance by getting a part-time job, is essential. 

“Whether it’s a sudden lack of motivation or challenges in your personal life, it’s about how you manage and come out stronger.”

Don’t expect everything to go smoothly all the time. Being off-books is a unique experience. Whether it’s a sudden lack of motivation or challenges in your personal life, it’s about how you manage and come out stronger. These moments will prepare you for your return to College. You’ll be able to navigate all the various challenges it throws your way, having been through them on your own, in your own time. 

Stay in contact with the college. I mean this in both a physical and a communicative sense. Communication and being on campus every so often really helped me stay tethered to Trinity, and now I know it won’t seem strange to me when I return to studying full-time again. The goal is to get the best possible start to the year, and avoid any additional stress. 

Be in the present moment. If you spend the whole year thinking about nothing but next September, you’re going to end up stressed and tired. I started reading books on mindfulness and meditation, which really helped. Figure out the thing that has been draining you the most and dedicate a certain amount of time per week to healing that part of yourself. 

A rocky start made way for an incredibly rewarding journey, without which I would not be the person I am today. Make sure you are aware of the barriers that face off-books students. You could help us draw attention to them within College. The off-books initiative is something I will most likely keep up because it’s truly beginning to gain traction now, and I really want to be a part of it to see what happens in the future. 

If you are contemplating going off-books at any point during your academic career, whether it’s to recollect after a tough mental experience, or simply to look after your general health, have a good think about what you want to achieve in that year and what steps you could take to do so. It’s not a decision to take lightly, which is why I wanted to give you an insight so that you know what to expect in order to make the experience beneficial.