Feb. 14 Recovery Sessions

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Welcome to the fall semester. To continue the healing and recovery process that we began last February after the campus tragedy, a number of recovery sessions will be held Monday through Friday from Friday, Aug. 22, through Friday, Sept. 5, for instructional and non-instructional personnel at NIU.

These recovery sessions are being scheduled for a number of reasons: Many members of the NIU community reported to us that while they were coping with the emotions and thoughts in the aftermath of the tragedy, some of them experienced delayed or lingering reactions. The recovery sessions may provide the necessary support and help in the healing process. More details…

Dealing with Aftermath of Tragedy: International Students, Faculty and Staff

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You may already have seen several helpful handouts and other materials produced by NIU and sister institutions which are designed to help faculty, staff and students deal with the tragedy of February 14, 2008. The purpose of this handout is to address questions that may arise for those who share different cultural backgrounds from those typically found in the Midwest of the US. If you consider yourself an international student or an international faculty or staff member, this resource sheet is for you. Please apply the information in this handout in considering your unique needs or situations, and if you are not sure, please contact our office.

Different cultural responses

While all humans experience great sadness in the time of tragedy, we tend to express such feelings in ways that fit in with our individual cultures. Although there are significant individual variations, Americans in the US often respond to tragedy with a need or wish to get counseling or to share their feelings openly with others, who may or may not be close friends. Americans in the US often believe that if they can express their sadness clearly and openly, they will achieve healing and comfort more quickly. For that reason, sometimes Americans will ask persons of other cultures to talk more openly about sadness, which may leave them feeling very uncomfortable, confused, or possibly even quite vulnerable.

Sometimes (but not always) people prefer to keep their feelings private rather than to reveal or express them to casual friends or strangers; instead they will want to share their feelings only with a member of their extended family or with a very trusted friend of long standing. For this reason, counseling may sometimes be a difficult option for a person from another culture to choose. In addition, sometimes those from cultures outside the US will delay their reactions to a very sad event, such as our recent gun violence on campus, and will instead experience those reactions several weeks later.

It is most important for persons from all cultures (both inside and outside the US) to recognize that there are both individual and cultural aspects in responding to tragedy, and that these responses may differ significantly.

Counseling in the US context

There are many reasons why a person in the US might consult a counselor, including developmental, academic, and psychological issues. In addition, in times of death and tragedy, grief counseling is typically available to all members of the affected community. Many (but not all) Americans in the US consider counseling normal, appropriate, and helpful rather than something to be avoided. In other cultures, it can often carry stigma or embarrassment.

What’s “normal”?

“Normal” is a term that many interculturalists believe can only be defined in the context of a particular culture. What is considered normal in the Midwest of the United States may not be normal in another country or another culture. Even within one culture, there is a great range of individual behaviors that may be considered normal. If one person’s response to tragedy is quite different from another’s, both may represent quite normal occurrences.

How might US students react?

If you have teaching responsibilities, please be aware that your US students may or may not want to talk about the recent tragedy. They may express anger, they may want to identify someone to blame for the incident, or they may be significantly distracted. They may seek validation or agreement from you, which you do not necessarily need to provide. However, it is always a very good idea to respond to students’ concerns with respect and a caring attitude. You may wish to refer them to various campus resources, listed below.

What do people expect of me?

If you haven’t already done so, please inform your family immediately that you are safe. You may also want to reach other international faculty, staff or students you may know closely at NIU and offer any practical help they may need. If you think any of them need any assistance as a result of this tragedy, please refer them to our office.

If you are a student, we at NIU expect you to study hard and get good grades on your way to completing your degree objective. As a result of this tragedy, if you need any academic accommodations because of the changes in the semester schedule, please contact your faculty advisor or department chair. If you are from another country, we hope you will represent your family and your people well; however, you do not need to feel responsible to speak for your entire country. If you have teaching responsibilities, we want you to complete your duties in the classroom fully, in a way that respects the fact that all our students and colleagues at NIU are now dealing with a most significant loss. We do not expect you to serve as a professional counselor, so please feel free to refer individuals to the campus resources listed below.

Forward, Together Forward

Thank you for all of your good efforts as a student, teaching assistant, faculty or staff member. Please contact one of the offices below if you have questions or concerns.

Resources on campus

Many thanks to the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, the Counseling & Student Development Center at Northern Illinois University, and the Office of International Education at Agnes Scott College.

Print copies of this handout are available for download here.

Dealing with the Aftermath of Tragedy

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Following our recent tragedy, the NIU Counseling and Student Development Center has put together a few tips to help when working with students. They are reposted below and are also available at http://www.niu.edu/tragedy/counseling/facstaff.shtml.

Take time to talk as a group or class.
Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.

Have students discuss “facts” first, then shift to emotions.
Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and “debating” some details. People are more comfortable discussing “facts” than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.

Invite students to share emotional, personal responses.
You might lead off by saying something like: “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”

Respect each person’s dealing with the loss.
Some will be more vocal or expressive than others with their feelings and thoughts. Everyone is affected differently and reacts differently.

Be prepared for blaming.
When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it might be useful to say: “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

It is normal for people to seek an “explanation” of why the tragedy occurred.
By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings, we always seek to understand. It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable. The faculty member is better off resisting the temptation to make meaning of the event. That is not one of your responsibilities and would not be helpful.

Make contact with those students who appear to be reacting in unhealthy ways.
Some examples include isolating themselves too much, using alcohol excessively, throwing themselves into academics or busy work in ways not characteristic of them, etc.

Find ways of memorializing the loss, if appropriate.
After the initial shock has worn off, it may be helpful to find a way of honoring and remembering the person in a way that is tangible and meaningful to the group.

Make accommodations as needed, for you and for the students.
Many who are directly affected by the tragedy may need temporary accommodations in their workload, in their living arrangements, in their own self-expectations. It is normal for people not to be able to function at their full capacity when trying to deal with an emotional situation. This is the time to be flexible.

Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus.
In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, you can encourage them to make use of campus resources. These include campus ministries, CA’s, and Counseling and Student Development Center, Campus Life Building 200, (815) 753-1206, http://www.niu.edu/csdc/.

Give yourself time to reflect.
Remember that you have feelings, too, and thoughts about what occurred, and these thoughts and feelings should be taken seriously, not only for yourself, but also for the sake of the students with whom you may be trying to work. Some find it helpful to write down or talk out their feelings and thoughts.

Come back to the feelings as a group at a later time.
It is important to acknowledge the adjustments people have made. Just because everything seems to be back to normal does not mean that everyone has finished having feelings about the loss.

Special Thanks to Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center

Resources for Teaching After Crisis

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In response to the recent tragedy, the NIU Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center is compiling information and resources for faculty as the campus community begins the healing process. This new resource page is available at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/resources/crisis.

In the days ahead this resource page will be frequently updated to provide timely links to resources and details on special programs to be offered for NIU faculty, staff, and graduate teaching assistants in the wake of the campus tragedy.

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Do you have a recommendation for a resource to share on this page? Feel free to post a comment here with suggestions.