Back when I was a new professor, I had a student in my class who left a voicemail one day. She was clearly in a panic. She had received bad medical news, and was worried about her ability to complete a major class assignment. During the message, she said, “I’m not sure I can handle all this.” Hearing that phrase definitely concerned me, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. So, I walked down the hall to talk with a colleague who had lots more experience than I did. She was very clear: call the Dean of Students, briefly explain the situation, and let them handle it.
That’s exactly what I did. For that student, and for other students I have referred over the years when they were in crisis (or I feared they might be), being contacted by the Dean of Students office is a relief. I had been worried that they’d view it as an intrusion or a violation of privacy. But, for a student in crisis, having someone with the appropriate training and knowledge reach out and offer to help them is like being thrown a life preserver when they’re flailing in the ocean.
To be clear: I don’t refer tons of students a year. But, given the large number of students I teach (and that I teach many first semester students who are adjusting to college), I do generally refer at least a couple each semester I’m teaching. Any time a student misses an exam without getting in touch, we first email the student right away to ask them to let us know they’re okay. If we don’t hear back quickly (say, within a day), I ask the Dean of Students to do a wellness check. It is very unusual for a student not to show up for an exam, and even more unusual for them not to get in touch right away explaining why, and I want to make sure things are okay. In addition, if I have a conversation with a student who seems to have more going on in his/her life than one person can reasonably be expected to bear – or where it seems like the Dean’s Office can help them get in touch with resources that might make their life easier (e.g., related to financial assistance) – then I ask the Dean’s Office to get in touch with that student.
Why am I writing this post? Because, in the past few weeks, I’ve asked the Dean’s office to check in with a few students. They’ve been very responsive and helpful. While I was reaching out to the Dean’s office, I was remembering my initial hesitance about referring students, and realizing that, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been so much less hesitant initially.
Everything above has focused on cases where I’m worried about a student’s wellness, and that leads to the referral to the Dean’s Office. There is another reason why I refer students to the Dean’s Office – issues related to academic integrity (e.g., plagiarism or cheating on an exam). Those students certainly have a different, less positive reaction to the referral, but I still think it’s in the student’s best interests. When I started as a faculty member, something that was drilled into me was that, if I don’t refer things to the Dean’s Office, that means I am both determining whether the student is responsible and what the punishment should be – and that is all being done with a clear power imbalance between me and the student. So, it’s in the student’s best interests to have an outside person evaluate the evidence related to the incident. They also have so much more experience with sorting through these situations that it’s more efficient (though still quite time consuming) for me to refer everything to them. Referring students to the Dean’s office for academic integrity concerns is also important because, in cases where a student is found responsible, it creates a record of that, so that any future academic integrity violations are evaluated with the knowledge that there have been previous ones. (Usually, the penalty for subsequent violations is more severe than for the initial violation.) When emailing with students about academic integrity concerns, I always make it clear that we can leave everything up to the Dean’s Office to decide – and, even in cases where they are admitting to a violation but seem to be doing so grudgingly, I refer it over to the Dean’s Office. Dealing with academic integrity incidents can be incredibly time-consuming and frustrating. It is one of my least favorite parts of my job. But I think it’s important, and so I do it.
Trying to get help for students in crisis isn’t exactly fun, but it can be rewarding. There are probably very few other things I do in a professional setting where I can have such a direct positive impact on someone’s life. So, while this can also take up a lot of time, I am happy to devote that time to helping a student. And, in my interactions with the Dean’s Office this semester, one thing I’ve been struck by is how many different people on campus really care about trying to help students in times of crisis. It would be easy for a student to slip through the cracks at an institution this size, but there are a lot of people working to make sure that doesn’t happen and that students get the help they need. That is really nice to see.
All of which is to say: learn how to contact your Dean’s Office and, if you suspect a student is overwhelmed, ask the Dean’s Office to check in on them. It could make a really big difference in that student’s life.