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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Student death is now part of the routine at Middlebury

Ivan Valerio ’26 passed away last Tuesday. Evelyn Mae Sorensen ’25 passed away in mid-September. Yan Zhou ’23 passed away of apparent suicide on Oct. 20, 2021. 

After three deaths in two years, student death on campus is beginning to feel like a normal part of life at Middlebury. 

While the causes of Ivan’s and Evelyn’s deaths — apart from the fact that there was no foul play involved — have not been shared, it is clear that the deaths themselves have affected the mental health and well-being of the larger student body. We call on the administration to make a more concerted effort to support students and faculty following a tragedy, but not only in the days immediately following such a tragedy. The college must commit resources, funding and attention to mental health on campus through expanding access to a variety of counseling services.

Similar to their responses following Evelyn’s and Yan’s deaths, the administration said in their initial email notifying the student body of the student's death on Tuesday morning that they plan to continue classes and other activities as usual “so that the community can remain connected.” We understand that this approach is grounded in community and public health best practices, but such an attitude inevitably contributes to moving on from the tragedy before processing its weight and normalizing student deaths as a routine part of life at Middlebury. 

When students were in the midst of the vibrant and lively student activities fair in September, the college released Evelyn’s name as the student who had passed away in Forest Hall. This experience encapsulates how normalized these events have become. The college has begun to act as though student death is an acceptable topic for a mid-afternoon email, rather than a tragedy. The initial email announcing a student death last Tuesday came at 11:13 a.m., and students were expected to begin their 11:15 am. lectures a mere two minutes later.

Professors with classes scheduled for late Tuesday morning or afternoon had to act on their feet to comfort their students in the wake of the tragic news, and they did so in varying ways. Board members noted everything from professors breaking down and crying in front of their students to professors telling personal stories about dealing with loss to some not acknowledging the news at all. 

There is no good way to announce a student has died on campus. But there are far better ways to support a community. We need more than a bulleted list of the same six resources over and over again: TimelyCare, College Counseling, Scott Center Chaplains, the Abernathy Room gathering space, Care Management and the Department of Public Safety. These are merely the standard mental health resources on campus, but student deaths should not be treated as standard occurrences. Tragedies like these call for more intensive support. 

We all feel the pain of these deaths in different ways. We do not know exactly what the student body needs at this time of mourning, and we are not really sure how we would benefit as a community from temporary dean drop-in hours or one-time offers to write notes to our loved ones. Many professors have opened their doors to students, but they were not trained in graduate school to support their students through a death on campus. The administration must provide professors with more guidance and support in dealing with tragedy in the community.

Middlebury is prepared to support students who need to drop in to de-stress for 20 minutes, but it is not prepared for students who are in crisis, or undergoing serious challenges. We call for specialized professionals to be available for students in need of intensive support, such as external grief counselors and a more diverse staff of long-term therapists. Middlebury must raise the entry-level salary for college counselors from the listed starting salary of $60,000. Doing so would attract and retain more high quality counselors at the college. It is appalling that mental health resources were not even mentioned in the college’s recently launched For Every Future campaign. Funding assistant coach positions and building renovations are a higher priority than mental health resources to the administration, and we have clearly seen the results this semester. 

We need to consider how our long-term community can be unified and built on campus. The Commons System once provided students with an assigned Dean who was on campus and available to meet with students in a comfortable, unforced environment. It also established defined communities outside of individual friend groups, classes and clubs, which benefited students who otherwise may have felt isolated. We now struggle to name a specific person or resource where students are supposed to turn when experiencing a mental health crisis or personal struggle. Likewise, Deans no longer remain with one group of students throughout their time here, weakening connections and relationships. This is especially true for junior and senior students, who belong to some of the largest classes in Middlebury history yet share only one dean among the two class years. We call for the intentional creation of such communities with ties to specific people as designated available resources to fill this gap in Middlebury life.

In a time of grief where the college has proven unable to support us, it falls on students to support one another. It can be uncomfortable to talk about mental illness, but we must foster an environment that is genuinely dedicated to supporting one another. While it is devastating that we have to support each other through such horrific events, students have shown remarkable strength and care so far. Keep your hearts open, and keep your friends close. Though Middlebury’s insularity can be frustrating at times, its closeness is an important strength of our community when faced with tragedy.

The aforementioned “For Every Future” campaign was launched by the college in between two student deaths, brushing past the obvious deficit in mental health resources on campus with glossy, full-page spreads of Middlebury students thriving at the college. Millions of dollars will go to professional development and sabbaticals; new residence halls and architectural classrooms; and student internships and experiential learning — but nothing for mental health. If the college’s allocation of money reflects its priorities, we are forced to consider the underlying question: for whose future?