Section: Opinion

On Incompletes and Completion

My appendix ruptured sometime during the finals week of my senior year at Kenyon. When, exactly, I’m not quite sure — and that worried me then and worries me still. How could I have missed my own appendix bursting? I did know I was at Knox Community Hospital that Thursday with two finals — one exam, one response paper — and one commencement ceremony left to go.

I contacted my professors, who then, along with a College nurse practitioner, contacted the dean of academic advising and support about procuring me an academic incomplete — “a postponement of the deadline for completion of a course” granted “only in cases of extreme hardship,” according to the Kenyon website — for those two courses. Swiftly and with understanding, the dean granted the request. Just a few emails, sent and received from my hospital bed. Relief, relief, relief.

This was the third round of academic incompletes I needed during my college career. My first incomplete came at the end of my freshman year at McGill University in Montreal before I transferred to Kenyon; the second, during the spring semester of my junior year here. The first two incompletes came in light of two particularly crippling bouts of depression and anxiety, and they were infinitely harder to obtain than this appendicitis-induced third.

The second incomplete lasted several weeks into the end of May after I left Gambier and went back to my hometown, where I snuck into the library at a nearby small liberal arts college to find the books I needed to work on my paper. After communicating with incredibly gracious professors about my mental health throughout the semester, the dean narrowly granted me an incomplete. It was grueling and miserable and lonely, but I got the paper done within the dean’s timeframe.

But my first incomplete had been even worse. I had returned home from McGill, so relieved to be leaving a school that exacerbated my depression and heading to a school that would hopefully help relieve it. Though I had already been accepted as a transfer student to Kenyon, I agonized over writing one final paper while dealing with my own brain and heart. I sent a long email to the Kenyon Office of Admissions hoping they — the school I knew had a tighter, more empathetic community than the one I was transferring from — would understand. I desperately tried to explain my depression and anxiety, and how I did not think I could get this assignment done (an assignment for a course I had easily obtained an academic incomplete for at McGill). I knew I had a good enough grade that I would not fail the class if I didn’t do this paper and I knew I needed to leave McGill behind to begin to heal.

A day later, I spoke on the phone with the director of admissions at the time. I sobbed in my dining room while they told me that Kenyon was surprised I had not contacted them sooner, and that Kenyon expected me to maintain my academic standing. Afterwards, in a follow-up email: “The worse case scenario would be to rescind our offer of admission given the huge drop in your academic performance.” They suggested I return to McGill and try reapplying in the fall.

In a weird way, I felt so relieved that this time my appendicitis — which Kenyon’s Health and Counseling Center initially misdiagnosed as a UTI, though that’s a story for another time — was such an obvious ailment. Of course I would need extra time to complete my assignments; I was sitting in the hospital. I could only eat red Jell-O with Cool Whip for two days.

I was not where I’d normally be during finals time: sitting in a cubby on the third floor of Chalmers, my mind anxiety-numb as I sat for hours unable to focus on my assignments. I was not desperately emailing professors as midnight deadlines neared to say I was sorry, I understood their late policy outlined in the syllabus, I would be not be handing in my essay by the due date but hoped to get it to them as soon as I could. This time, I had others with more authority on my side. When you’re sitting in a hospital bed awaiting surgery, professors and administrators tend to believe you when you say something’s up. It’s when your symptoms are harder to see that people tend to be more skeptical.

By the time my appendix burst during my last finals at Kenyon, I had made countless friends, learned exceptional things from exceptional educators, joined campus groups I cared about fiercely, completed two comps and was finally the happiest I had been since I could remember. Things were good, although my gut was not.

As I walked across the stage at my graduation one week later and one organ fewer, I was grateful I had been granted those three incompletes, but a little disturbed by how strange the last one felt.

Like many other schools, Kenyon finds it so much easier to diagnose, understand and empathize with physical illnesses, questioning the legitimacy of mental illnesses that impact students just as widely.

I understand that depression is hard to “prove,” but Kenyon should take students’ word — and brains and hearts  — more seriously than it does now.

Eileen Cartter ’16 is from West Hartford, Conn. Contact her at eileen.cartter@gmail.com.

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