Grieving students benefit from rare university academic leave policies

Colleges and UniversitiesAnn HamiltonPoliticsFort Wayne (Allen, Indiana)Purdue UniversityGreen Bay (Brown, Wisconsin)Elections

College students deal with the death of family members more often than realized, and that is why formal bereavement policies are essential to help students if a family member dies during the school year, says a Purdue University expert.

"At any one time, about 40 percent of college students are grieving the death of a loved one who has died within the last two years," says Heather Servaty-Seib, an associate professor of counseling and development who studies grief and college students. "Grieving students have significantly lower GPAs during the semester the death took place, and these students can be at a higher risk of not finishing college. In addition to helping students succeed academically, having a policy communicates that the institution is compassionate and respectful toward its students."

Stories about students' personal experiences when a family member died is what inspired Brad Krites, a senior from Fort Wayne, Ind., and past president of Purdue Student Government, to work with other student leaders to propose and campaign for a policy at Purdue.

"Losing a loved one is difficult enough, and thanks to this new policy, a bereaved student can focus on his or her grief rather than contacting multiple instructors to make arrangements for missed classes or coursework," Krites says.

Purdue's new policy was approved last spring, and is official this fall. Two other universities that have grief policies are Ball State and Wisconsin at Green Bay. Now, when a Purdue student experiences a death, he or she can contact the Office of the Dean of Students so an official leave notice can be sent to instructors, ensuring that he or she has the ability to make up the work.

The Grief Absence Policy for Students excuses students for funeral leave and gives them an opportunity to earn equivalent credit or show evidence they can meet the learning outcomes for missed assignments or assessments. The policy provides consistent guidelines for how much time a student can miss based on how closely the student is related to the deceased family member as well as where the death occurred. Students who lose a non-family member also can petition for a grief absence.

"Grief is difficult at any life stage, but college students are still learning a lot about who they are as individuals, and it is critical that more policies are developed to support them in this process," Servaty-Seib says. "Another benefit of these policies is that they help normalize the experience and suggest that grieving and taking time off are understandable and acceptable. These young adults don't want to be different, so they often don't tell their peers they need support because they are just trying to fit in. Because they are just trying to be 'normal,' they also may not seek help."

This university policy also will save instructors time because it creates a uniform set of regulations everyone can use, says Lou Ann Hamilton, assistant dean of students.

"Unfortunately, there are just a few universities that provide a formal student policy," Hamilton says. "This policy was shaped by theory, research and clinical experience so students' needs were met.

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