There are some things that are simply learned on the job. No matter how much our graduate school programs, internship experiences, and mentoring relationships might prepare us for our careers in higher education, we can still be blindsided by unforeseen events because, well, that’s life.
I lost my first student this semester. It was early on a Saturday morning in March when I received a text message from the president of a student club I advise. The text said simply that her best friend, who I’ll refer to as “Annie,” had passed away overnight. “I don’t know how or why,” the text said. “She was fine.” I called my student right away and learned that Annie, 20 years old an in her junior year, had died suddenly of natural causes, and I felt utterly unprepared for many conversations and activities that followed in the days and weeks after her passing.
The rest of that eerie Saturday, I was involved in phone calls, text messages, and emails, checking in on students and consulting with my colleagues about how we, as a staff, would appropriately respond to Annie’s death. The following week was Spring Break for the students, which made the campus seem even emptier in the wake of the tragedy.
While students were away on Spring Break, my colleagues and I got to work with meetings to plan a memorial service for when they returned, and we all commiserated in our shared disbelief that she was gone. There was Annie’s funeral, which was hugely attended by students, alums, faculty, and staff. For me, there were lots of days when I cried on the drive home from campus.
Annie was a student who had a quiet, yet powerful, presence on our campus. She was a student leader who truly led by example, always treating others fairly, getting her work done – and done well – even though she was involved in multiple campus activities. She was a student worker, campus volunteer, admissions ambassador, and board member of more than one club. Everyone knew her, and her loss had a profound impact.
I chose to write about Annie in this blog because I keep wondering if anything can be gained from her death, even if it might never make any real sense. What to do when a student passes away? What to say to her best friends and peers who are constantly reminded of her absence when they walk past her room or see her vacant desk in class? While I still don’t have any categorically “right answers” to these questions, and I will never understand why things happen the way they do, I have learned a few lessons from this experience.
One, sometimes the students really do know best. A week and a half after Annie’s passing, we held her memorial service on campus. Members of the staff handled the logistics and oversaw the plans, but the ceremony was mostly the work of the students. Annie’s best friends came together and carried out a more personal and poignant ceremony than any of us in Student Life – with our collective life experiences and masters degrees – could ever have come up with on our own. I was greatly moved by the composure and thoughtfulness that these students demonstrated in honor of their friend. It occurred to me that, while we so often concern ourselves with what we think the students need, sometimes what is really needed is for us to let them decide what is best for them in certain situations.
Two, never let an opportunity pass to tell students they are appreciated. A few days before Annie’s death, I bumped into her in the hallway outside my office. I asked her how she was doing, and asked about her plans for Spring Break. Like so many students in the week before Spring Break, she was exhausted and looking forward to catching up on some rest. We also talked, for just a minute or two, about her decision to not hold an executive board position for the coming year. In this particular club, I had advised Annie as a board member for two years. I knew she wasn’t planning to hold a position next year (which would have been her senior year), and I expressed to Annie how much I appreciated all the work she had done for the club. I told her it had really been a pleasure working with her, and I was going to miss her on the board.
Even though it was a bit on the sappy side, this was one of those impromptu student conversations that I didn’t think much about at the moment, but I’ve recalled it many times over the last several weeks. I don’t know what it was that prompted me to be so personal and candid with her in that particular instance, but it was a reminder to seize the moment and not pass up a chance to express gratitude, admiration, or encouragement to a student.
I often hear our College’s President share her favorite saying: “There are plans, and then there’s life.” It is such a deceptively simple sentiment, one that resounds with both mystery and consolation. In moving forward from Annie’s death, I continue to plan my workday tasks and programs with certain goals and outcomes in mind. But I have been reminded that life will happen along the way. Life lessons will be realized in unexpected circumstances. And we move forward, taking the good with the bad, and our education never ends.
Member At Large
The College of Saint Elizabeth