June 26, 2017
As student affairs professionals, we are trained and equipped to handle difficult situations including emergencies on college campuses. We learn how to comfort the depressed, teach the stubborn, and advocate for the silenced. There are protocols and procedures to follow when there is a flood in a residence hall, a student is injured or a complaint is filed; and we must respond with a calm, level head. What we are usually not taught is that our role within each situation will be different, and the way we present ourselves during these challenging times greatly impacts everyone around us. We can practice and generalize what our reactions are going to be when something goes wrong, but unfortunately, nothing replaces the experience of a real actual crisis.
Those who have been “on-call” know the harsh realities concerning phone calls about late-night parties, intoxicated students, and even attempted suicides. The gamut of things one can encounter when on duty is copious and frightening. I still get a slight rush of adrenaline when I hear someone’s phone ring and it has the same ringtone as the on-call cell. Many of the more serious calls tend to happen at night or in the early hours of the morning, so it was a surprise to me on a particular day when I got a call in the middle of the afternoon. I had been a residential life coordinator (RLC) for about seven months, and I had been acclimated to on-call life by then, but this situation was one that we had not prepared for through training. A professor had collapsed in the middle of campus. It was in a high-traffic area, and it occurred during a class break. There were scared students, concerned colleagues, and the scene seemed chaotic to say the least.
The ResLife office professionals were asked to assist with crowd control and to keep the area clear for EMTs. We were also there to assist any students, faculty, or staff in need of emotional help. Before we departed to the location, I called the team together and I started running out the door when my supervisor sternly called my name to stop. As we locked eyes, she told me to “stay calm.” I nodded and quickly went to where campus police asked to meet me. I was filled with various emotions ranging from worry and fear to anger and helplessness. My colleagues and I were spaced in a semicircle around the professor who had just suffered a heart attack. EMTs arrived and were trying to revive him, and there was a small group of students, with whom the professor was walking when he fell, who were watching in horror with their hands on their faces. Students kept approaching us asking what was happening. Choking back tears, I urged them to keep moving in order to give space for the EMTs to do their work. I kept glancing at my co-workers. Another RLC, who knew the professor well like myself, excused herself from the semicircle and joined other faculty and staff on the sidelines who were holding each other in a small attempt to transfer enough strength to stand. I locked eyes with another colleague who gave me a silent indication to remember to keep breathing; my knees had never felt so weak.
Our campus community lost an amazing person that day, one who had been a professor at the college for over thirty years, loved teaching young minds, and took his work seriously but not himself too seriously. The campus held a beautiful celebration of life service for him where his wife, children, colleagues, and students spoke at length about how his life impacted them, and consequently, many others around the world. As a distinguished scholar on death and dying, he would probably laugh at how cheesy it all sounded.
I learned many tough lessons that day: about crises, about support, and about life and death. I will attempt not to sound too melancholy, for the lessons I will disclose have yielded from terrible experiences, yet carry a great amount of weight and importance in the life of student affairs professionals.
A career in student affairs comes with great emotional challenges and personal ramifications. Campus crises emit a magnitude of emotional accumulation that student affairs professionals absorb, and these challenging experiences have the ability to strengthen and enhance our abilities to be empathetic. We all have an ever-changing role to play during crises that affect our campus communities, and now I am able to be someone else’s rock when they need it.
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Lyndsey Aguilar is a residential life professional currently located in the Boston area. She specializes in upper-class student transitions, has presented at the national ACUHO-i and NASPA conferences, and is a 2015 NASPA Silver Award Winner for the Student Health, Wellness, and related category. Lyndsey can be reached on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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