It was the beginning of her junior year at the University of South Carolina (UofSC) when Mairead Peters’ cousin unexpectedly passed away. Not only was Peters just getting settled into her new class schedule, she was now forced to navigate the school year while wading through the shock and pain of her grief.
The following semester, Peters also experienced the death of her father.
Despite losing two loved ones in such a short period of time, Peters decided to continue her studies, hoping college could serve as a distraction to the grief she now carried. To help her through this journey, Peters sought resources at her university, but found none were available.
“I had to be my own advocate and try to search for other people like me,” says Peters. “There weren’t really any groups offered at my college, and so I just had to rely on my own friends and support group, which I was fortunate enough to have. But a lot of people don’t have that. I went to a big school, and the fact that they didn’t have some type of support group already in place was pretty shocking to me.”
Peters is not alone in her experience, as recent research indicates that 25 and 30 percent of college students, if not more, experience the death of a family member or close friend in a given year. In the span of two years, that percentage rises to 40, according to several 2020 studies conducted by Dr. Chye Hong Liew and Dr. Heather L. Servaty-Seib of Purdue University West Lafayette.
After experiencing the death of someone close to them, students must not only navigate their grief, but also continue on with their studies if they decide to remain in school, in which case, according to Dr. Liew and Dr. Servaty-Seib’s work, students become more at risk of poor academic performance, lower semester GPAs, and possibly withdrawing from enrollment compared to students who have not experienced a loss. Even so, few college campuses in the United States have instituted adequate bereavement-leave policies to protect grieving students and their academic success. Unlike working adults, students attending a college or university are not able to take time away from school — often because they will miss lectures, labs, or exams. Without specific policies in place, professors are provided the ultimate discretion in the treatment of absences, even for students who are recently bereaved.
“Students who are believed and supported in their grief will be more engaged both while they are students and when they transition to alumni,” Dr. Servaty-Seib wrote in an email. “If we are truly committed to our students’ academic, professional, and holistic growth and development, we must create structures that facilitate rather than hinder their success.”
Purdue University has been addressing the needs of grieving students since 2011, when a bereavement policy — only the second in the country at the time — was enacted by the university faculty senate. The Grief Absence Policy for Students (GAPS) protects university students and their ability to make up coursework after experiencing the death of a loved one or friend.
The Purdue policy outlines qualifying requirements about the relation of the student to the deceased, the number of leave days allowed, and the additional absences afforded to students for travel considerations. Students can also petition for leave for the death of a family member or friend in the event that their situation is not explicitly covered by the policy.
When a student wants to request leave under GAPS, they first fill out an online form through the Office of the Dean of Students (ODOS) to report the death. After completing a report, the student’s instructors are notified of their absence. Upon receipt of either an obituary or a card from the memorial service following the student’s leave, the ODOS counselor sends an official notification to the instructors.
“At a minimum, students should receive the same assurance that employees have in terms of their ability to take days away for bereavement leave,” Dr. Servaty-Seib wrote. “Here at Purdue, our advocacy did begin with looking at the standard bereavement policy for employees.”
Drawing from the Purdue Paid Bereavement Leave policy for employees and the student bereavement policy at Ball State University — the only other known policy at the time — the Purdue Student Government (PSG) began drafting a resolution for a bereavement policy for students in 2010.
Before meeting with members of the faculty senate, Brad Krites, then president of PSG, leveraged his relationships with the Purdue student newspaper, The Exponent, to call for the publication of articles that featured grieving students who had fallen through the cracks created by the absence of a bereavement policy. The paper also published editorials championing support for the proposal.
After approval of the resolution by the university student senate, Krites introduced the proposal before the faculty senate. One month later, in March 2011, the resolution was overwhelmingly approved by the university faculty senate.
According to Dr. Servaty-Seib, the policy was a success, largely because it addressed the faculty concerns about consistency in applying the policy, validation of the death information submitted by students, and assurance that the process wouldn’t require more of their time.
Although the policy has been in place for 11 years now, research conducted by Hannah Darr, a student of Dr. Servaty-Seib revealed that only 11 percent of students were aware of the policy and knew how to use it, while 26 percent had never heard about the policy.
Students who were aware of the policy said they learned about it through faculty members and orientation programs. Students who were eligible to utilize the policy but didn’t said this was either due to lack of awareness or concerns about compromising their academic standing.
The study also found that Black and brown students were even less likely to know about, and less likely to utilize, the Purdue student bereavement policy, despite experiencing a much greater number of deaths while in college.
Dr. Servaty-Seib offers that Black and brown students may feel less comfortable communicating about their losses with campus faculty and staff based on prior, unfavorable campus experiences.
“They may not want to share their business for fear it will come back around and be used against them,” Dr. Servaty-Seib wrote. “These students may not trust that faculty will offer them the ability to make up work, or if they do allow it, will see them as asking for extra assistance rather than it being their right.”
Sydney Rains, vice president of the student body association and a senior at Gonzaga University (GU), is working to fill this bereavement policy gap at her university. Rains began to push for a similar bill after her own experience with the death of a loved one that irrevocably altered the final months of her junior year.
In an interview with GU’s student newspaper, The Gonzaga Bulletin, Rains explains that after she experienced the death of her father, she felt a lack of care and support from her university.
“The experience I had coming back to school was much different than what I expected it to be at a small, intimate institution that is very much looked up to in their mental health aspects,” Rains told The Bulletin. “I think that, at a school where we talk so much about caring for the whole person, it’s essential to live up to that promise by providing structure and support for students during times of tremendous loss.”
Less than two weeks after the death of her father, Rains returned to class, working feverishly to complete assignments she had missed during her absence.
“That point was when I was really starting to feel the drive to pursue a bereavement policy because my experience was just so exhausting,” Rains told The Bulletin. “It’s heartbreaking to think of other students having to go through the same situation that I did.”
After numerous meetings and conversations with university provosts, deans, and other decision-makers, Rains was able to gain enough support to back a resolution she intends to write and propose to the student body senate.
Her resolution calls for the university to develop a bereavement policy that covers absences and academic deadlines after the death of a loved one. Gonzaga’s administration operates on a shared governance system, comprised of an academic council and faculty senate. After her proposal to the student body senate, Rains plans to consult the faculty senate to get more feedback. The final step will be to present the proposed policy to the academic council, where members will vote to determine if such a policy will be developed.
Although these two universities are working toward student bereavement equity, Dr. Servaty-Seib says every institution should consider its own culture and general approach to bereavement when exploring the implementation of such a policy.
In an article published in the Journal of College Student Development, Dr. Servaty-Seib and Dr. Liew advise colleges and universities seeking their own student bereavement policy to look to existing faculty and staff policies for guidance, engage with key faculty leaders and administrators, use the media to generate awareness, and perhaps most importantly, involve students and their stories.
“The most compelling and convincing voice for a student-focused policy like a student bereavement policy may be a student,” writes Dr. Servaty-Seib. “If grieving students are open to sharing their stories and challenges, consider including them in the process. Their words can be powerful, and they may appreciate the opportunity to make a difference through advocating for future grieving students.”