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While there is no official bereavement policy set by the Provost’s Office to help students, Penn’s AMF chapter has been working to change this. 

Credit: Julio Sosa

The five stages of grief may make sense on paper, but in practice people rarely fit this mold. Everyone’s experience with grief is unique.

A student group on campus called Actively Moving Forward is working to make Penn’s policies accessible to students’ unique grieving situations. The peer counseling group is led by College seniors Drisana Hughes and Melanie Wolff and College sophomore and Daily Pennsylvanian senior reporter Pat Zancolli.

“This is a thing that happens to a lot of students, there are a lot of people who don’t come to this group who need help and there needs to be a bigger consciousness among our age group to look out for and help people who are going through this because it is an excruciatingly painful thing,” Hughes said.

According to the national AMF organization, approximately one in four college students has lost a family member or close friend within the last year. Research has shown that these students’ GPAs decrease significantly during the semester of loss.

“It is the reality of being a young adult — you have a high likelihood that you will lose someone in college. So, it is important to adjust the policies for those people,” Wolff said.

Currently, there is no official bereavement policy set in place by the Provost’s Office to help students juggle their academic commitments while grieving the loss of a close friend or family member. Penn’s AMF chapter has been working with administration to create a policy that they believe will best assist students who are grieving.

“It is trying to get that infrastructure so that kids don’t have to do what the system should do for them,” Hughes said.

The Plan

The new policy is meant to be flexible to accommodate the different needs of individual students. It is intentionally different from the policy that is outlined by the university for staff.

“Penn has a bereavement policy for staff, and it is a little bit sobering. If you lose a child you have five business days; if you lose an extended family member you have three business days. And we did not want to follow that for undergraduates at all,” Hughes said.

The members of AMF believe that students would be limited if the policy were to set a number of days that students were allowed to miss after a loss. They say that everyone has unique needs in these situations, and the policy they are pursuing reflects that.

“One size does not fit all, so we are going for a framework that everyone can start at and then find their own perfect ending,” Hughes said.

Executive Director of Education and Academic Planning at the Provost’s Office Rob Nelson is working closely with AMF to establish the protocol for students who have experienced a significant loss.

“Ultimately there is no hard and fast rule for bereavement,” Nelson said. “The extent and scale of support necessary is going to vary. AMF did a good job of calling attention to the effort that Penn needs to put in to make the support services easier to access and better explained for students.”

The current plan is to create a web page that directs grieving students to a counselor or advisor that can coordinate with the student’s professors and notifies the necessary organizations on campus. According to the leaders of AMF, this should be implemented by 2017.

“We developed a comprehensive communications plan,” Nelson said. “We want to make sure that they have an advisor to rely on to get them there.”

Nelson said that academic advisors are knowledgeable, helpful resources. Since they have an established background with their respective students, they are in the best position to help guide those affected through the series of decisions they must make.

“Often professors receive emails from their students about losing a parent and are just frozen; they don’t know what to say,” he said. “A professor might respond more easily, less awkwardly to an advisor speaking for a student.”

Advisors serve as a vital middleman between students and their professors, so that students are not tasked with having to contact the various offices that need to be notified in these situations.

“One of the hardest things is realizing that you have to notify all these people on campus about what happened which is so hard right after it happens. That is not what you want to be thinking about,” Wharton junior and AMF member Sophie Erhardt said.

There are other things students in this situation need to be thinking about.

“When students lose someone, it’s like ‘Oh my god, I have to email all my professors. I have to figure out funeral arrangements.’ [There are] so many different things both personally and academically that you have to figure out, and so really we want to have everything on the same site where students know who they are supposed to contact and that contact can reach out to the professors for them on their behalf, in order to make things easier for them,” Wolff said.

The website will also have a list of resources to direct students to other helpful organizations such as CAPS.

“Penn officials are aware that these things happen and have a path of stuff that they are supposed to do, but since it is not explicitly available how are we supposed to know where to go or how to find it or what the protocol is,” Hughes said.

Hughes and Wolff say the goal of the policy is to “streamline the process” since so many people have had such different experiences. Some people have had very good experiences, while others have been somewhat lost, they said.

“The fact that so many people have had so many different experiences going to so many different parts of Penn is concerning to us because we think it is super fixable,” Hughes said.

A lot of that variation comes from the fact that different professors treat these situations differently.

“It is really dependent on the professor you have, and we just want to make sure that all the professors are receptive to it and more understanding,” Wolff said.

“And that Penn understands that this happens a lot and tries to do something,” Hughes added.

Rescheduling around grief

Hughes experienced her loss on a Wednesday and was emailing professors about her situation that same day.

“I had a professor that I emailed four times after my mom died, and he didn’t answer one. Not only did I not know if I was getting zeros on all these exams I was missing, but also there is something so frustrating about having to email professors in the days and hours after a loved one passes away,” Hughes said.

She ended up being able to drop the class without it seriously affecting her academically, but fears that others are not as lucky. She agrees that worrying about academics should be the last thing on a person’s mind on the day they lose a loved one.

“That is so not what you should be doing,” Hughes said. “I should be calling my grandmother and my aunts and my uncles. Not my math professor.”

After her sister’s passing, Erhardt’s parents contacted the Office of the President to find out what resources were available to her, and they were directed to Student Intervention Services.

“The SIS team helps students who are grieving make transportation plans, seek academic accommodations and navigate financial obstacles. This caring one-on-one support can continue for weeks and months after the death,” Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Hikaru Kozuma said.

However, many students are unaware of this role of SIS and think that it is solely a resource for students who are suicidal. The AMF team thinks their webpage would greatly help with that misconception and point more students, like Erhardt, in the right direction.

“Immediately after I found out, someone [from SIS] reached out to me, which I don’t really think is the role of that office, but they really helped me like coordinate things in the immediate present,” Erhardt said.

Erhardt had a good experience with SIS. They notified Wharton, contacted her professors, coordinated with her sorority since it was during rush and they reached out to Career Services because it was during on-campus recruiting. They also connected her with someone at CAPS and she was able to get an appointment that same day. They then showed her the different people she could contact in different offices. However, she still felt like the process was unorganized with SIS and later obstacles she faced.

“Getting to the right people and understanding the process wasn’t as easy as it probably should have been,” Erhardt said.

Throughout her bereavement, Erhardt did not miss much class. She did not know how much class she would have been allowed to miss, and that was not something that anyone in SIS or CAPS discussed with her.

“My professors seemed understanding, but I am not sure what would have happened if I had started missing a lot more class,” Erhardt said.

A month after her loss, Erhardt had midterms to take.

“The one thing that I had particular difficulty with was I was really nervous coming into midterms in February,” Erhardt said. “I had been having issues focusing in classes, and I was just feeling very overwhelmed, so I wanted to see if it was possible to get any extra time on my tests.”

Her professors, while understanding, would not grant her extra time unless it was approved by Student Disability Services.

“[SDS] doesn’t grant extra time on exams for bereavement or grieving. So they were like if you have been seeing a therapist and they are able to say that there is another condition that is alongside the grief, then we could grant you an accommodation for that.”

Erhardt was seeing someone at CAPS, and she was able to get the extra time on exams, which she feels really helped her deal with stress and perform better on the exams.

Everything worked out for Erhardt, but she feels there was a lot of unnecessary confusion and logistics. The leaders of AMF agree.

“Some of the stuff we are trying to avoid is we have had students get directed to SDS to register as disabled. You are not disabled when your parent dies. That is not necessarily appropriate,” Hughes said. “And then there is Student Intervention Services where basically when you think someone is suicidal or dangerous to those around them, you call SIS and they will send like a police officer to your door. That is also not necessarily appropriate for some who are experiencing more of a long-term grieving period as opposed to a stagnant trauma.”

Catching up

Bennett Mohin, a senior in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, left campus for home in upstate New York when his father, who was suffering from cancer, started rapidly deteriorating.

Mohin spoke to his LPS advisor briefly but did not reach out directly to any of his professors. His girlfriend called the LPS office after his father passed away a few days after his arrival home. In total Mohin took two weeks away from school.

“I missed that next week, including multiple important assignments,” he said, “I came back the next weekend, attended a full week of classes that I have very little memory of and went back to my parents’ for spring break.”

After spring break, Mohin really felt the time that he had missed catch up to him.

“Everyone at school was really sympathetic and gave me extra time to complete the stuff I missed, but I was significantly behind, and still am, in just about everything,” he said.

For several courses, Mohin exceeded the number of excused absences allowed. But the greater issue laid in a collaborative critical writing course.

“I had a serious problem in [that] course, which I had to drop,” he said. “We had a lot of group assignments so it wouldn’t have been fair to receive credit for someone else’s work. There’s also a tight schedule for presentations and papers, so it was just too much to miss.”

Mohin’s grade dropped from a 95 (a seemingly unachievable A+) to a 60 in the five days that he took to help his mother and sister with funeral arrangements. Because it was past the withdrawal date, Mohin had to pay the full price for the class. His graduation has also been delayed as he now must return in the fall to receive one last credit.

Mohin said that though both his advisors and professors have been very helpful and sympathetic, he was expected to begin performing by the same standards as he was held to prior to his loss within a few weeks.

Neither CAPS nor SIS reached out to Mohin as far as he recalled, although his LPS advisor provided him with the information for the resources.

“CAPS hasn’t contacted me at all. I wasn’t even aware it existed until my advisor mentioned it,” Mohin said. “I haven’t had time to reach out to them either in all fairness. In my family culture, asking for help is a sign of weakness so I’m predisposed to distrust psychological services.”

“My mother and sister have been taking it it harder. I think they look to me for guidance now that it’s just the three of us. I try to maintain a positive outlook but it’s not always easy.”

What Penn already has in place

Penn Benjamins, like AMF, is a student-run peer counseling group that offers help to students who don’t necessarily feel as comfortable speaking to a formal therapist at CAPS.

“We are always here to listen, support and validate any of our peers that choose to come in,” College junior and founder of Penn Bens Roy Lan said. “Our peer counselors are trained to provide a problem solving framework to those who come in to better deal with their issues. The loss of a loved one is something that our peer counselors are trained to deal and help with.”

Lan said that although Penn offers many resources to students facing the loss of loved ones, they could be coordinated and integrated more robustly.

Penn has a network of resources already in place that can be greatly beneficial to students.

SIS also helps students navigate this network.

“SIS does not do this work alone. The team has important relationships across campus with partners including the Chaplain’s Office, CAPS, Academic Advising, College Houses and Academic Services and Student Financial Services,” Kozuma said.

Nelson said that SIS organizes representatives from various offices around a table for a case conference when a student is truly struggling. Together the various representatives discuss how to best organize the support effort for a student — whether they are facing extreme grief due to the loss of a loved one or have attempted to harm themselves due to mental illness. In this way, the process is already personalized.

“Some of the things we have noticed Penn has already. We just don’t realize that we have them when we are going through it, because there is nothing searchable,” Hughes said.

Ultimately, AMF wants to make sure that students are aware of these resources so that their obstacles with administration are not faced in the future. The group has even more plans to spread the word and they hope to incorporate this information in the pre-orientation modules for incoming freshmen.

“[These cases] show that it is not uniform and it is not understood across the body, and this website is just the first of many steps,” Hughes said. “Our stories are one of many.”

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