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When a student leaves…

April 20, 2015 Cinthya Salazar Georgetown University

It’s hard for me to describe how I’m feeling right now. My answer today to the question “how are you?” has been to say, “I’m okay.” But, what does that even mean at this moment? I’m not entirely sure if I’m okay; to be honest, I just feel kind of numbed.

The past two days have presented a particular challenge for me. I’m usually a person that can easily project how I will react in certain situations and quickly develop a plan of action for almost anything. I troubleshoot and manage to respond effectively to difficult situations, even when it’s a new scenario. The last three years, working closely with first-generation college students of color, have prepared me to advise students on a variety of topics. I’ve worked with students in a great deal of distress and others suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. I’ve also been asked for advice on how to choose among job offers, make a study abroad idea a reality, speak to a Professor, break up with a partner, book a flight, come out as LGBTQ to family, choose a major, stop smoking, manage a budget, among many others. I never know what a student will share or ask once I close my office door, so I have a mental filing box with different notes and files that I refer to quickly once a question is posted. This time it was different.

A few days ago, I was added to an e-mail thread about one of the first-year students who had participated in the summer bridge program I manage. The student had decided to quit her sports team because she was feeling overwhelmed with school. This student was already in academic probation after having a very difficult fall semester, but had rejected all help and support that was offered to her. During her summer experience, I personally walked her to the Counseling Center, but after a couple of visits she decided to stop therapy. The student also stopped coming to my office and during her last visit, she asked me to discontinue my involvement. She expressed the same to one of her closest Professors and to her Academic Advisor. She simply didn’t want anyone to talk to her about her wellbeing, so I chose to respect her decision and gave her time to come around.

What I didn’t expect, naively, was to see her go so quickly. Although I knew that she was struggling academically and emotionally, I never imagined that she was going to leave without talking to anyone. She woke up one day, decided to pack her bags, and booked a flight. Without financial resources neither family support, she reached out to a high-school friend who was able to pay for her ticket and offered a place for her to stay temporarily. Then, she walked into multiple offices on campus, said she was leaving, and the e-mails came. It all happened so suddenly and unexpectedly, that by the time I got involved, I could only offer her a ride to the airport and buy her a burger while waiting for her flight. And then, off she went!

Less than 24 hours later, I still don’t know how to process what happened and I can’t stop to feel some sort of responsibility for all of this. As an educator working with college students, when is it okay to stop advising and let students make their own decisions without any participation? Should I have stopped my student from boarding that plane? How did she make her decision and what led her to it? Could I have talked her out of it with more time? Yesterday, I decided to drive her to the airport after hearing she only had $35 in her wallet and that she had purposefully broken her cell phone to disconnect from everyone. For me, it was important to ensure that she made it to her flight, with the hope that a loving human being was waiting for her a thousand miles away, but was this the right thing to do? I know I would have felt bad if I wouldn’t have given her a ride, but was I implying that I agree with her decision by helping her execute it? Do I actually think this was better for her? I still have many questions and I still don’t know if I will ever have the answers, but I can only predict that next time this happens I will at least know how it feels when a student leaves. 

About the author:
Cinthya Salazar is the Director of the Community Scholars Program and the Assistant Director for Academic and Student Support Services at the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access at Georgetown University.