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Dear MentorDoctor,

I am an assistant professor at a small college, and my primary responsibility is to teach undergraduate science classes for non-majors. I recently had a student inform me that he will have to take a leave of absence for health reasons. The student has excellent grades in my class and I'd like to encourage him to become a science major, but he doesn't know if his long-term illness will allow him to return to school in the future. What kind of advice should I give him?

Sincerely,Seeking Advice

Luis Echegoyen: It is always a shame to have health-related problems interfere with a bright student's career path. Not knowing the details of the "long-term illness," it is difficult to offer advice, except to suggest that you encourage the student to return to school eventually.

One possibility to consider is that it is a matter of disability. If it is, and if the student chooses to return to school, check out programs designed for people with physical disabilities. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds several programs that provide educational and research opportunities such as the Program for Persons with Disabilities and the Research in Disabilities Education program. There are also remote-learning opportunities that could be useful to your advisee.

Whatever can be done to help the student return to the classroom, encourage him to pursue these alternatives. We need more students with excellent grades in science these days, and we should help them achieve their goal of a quality education any way we can, even in the face of serious illness.

Isabella Finkelstein: As a biology professor I have taught both non-major and major biology. When teaching non-majors, I have found excellent students that discovered they had a passion for biology and subsequently changed their majors. Many students enter college undecided, so if your student finds that he really likes science, by all means continue to encourage him to study science.

Because you are aware of your student's illness before he leaves school, do all you can to show you care about him and his future. Having a supportive mentor is important to all students, but it is especially appreciated by students with uncertain futures. Help him understand that an interruption of his education does not mean an end. Some serious illnesses may be overcome.

If and when he is able to return to school, he should study what he enjoys -- what he plans for his future career. The faculty is usually able to adjust schedules for students with challenges. Your support and interest may have an impact on the outcome of his illness. I wish you and your student the best of luck.

James Stith: One of the most rewarding experiences we have in our profession is identifying and nurturing the diamonds we find in the rough. You have found one that is in need of support. You did not mention his particular health situation, but I infer that it is serious.

Your support and encouragement may be just the thing that he needs to build confidence, help him set priorities, and move on with his life. Too often, faculty make the false assumption that because students make good grades in a subject, they have the confidence they need to enter that field. In my experience, this generally isn't so, especially in the sciences. A supporting word from faculty or other practitioners in the field goes a long way toward convincing students they have what it takes to succeed.

I urge you to have a conversation with the student that examines the long view. Let him know that you have confidence in his ability to succeed in science, and that he should, as much as possible, consider his illness as a temporary setback. Offer to stay in touch and answer subsequent questions that he might have. In short, just be there for him. Good luck.