Dokken: The Compassion Conversation

Following a year defined by isolation and loss, Dartmouth must implement compassion-based instructional and bureaucratic policies.

by Natalie Dokken | 7/9/21 4:10am

This past academic year, Dartmouth students have endured an unprecedented period of hardship and loss. Alongside the pandemic, which forced many students to go through the academic year relatively isolated from campus and their peers, students faced the loss of four of their peers — three of which were the result of suicide, according to reporting from The Dartmouth and the Boston Globe. These losses spurred outrage among students over the lackluster nature of Dartmouth’s mental health infrastructure, which many have blamed for creating an environment that does not adequately support students who are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

As someone who has struggled with their mental health during my time at Dartmouth, I am intimately familiar with the inadequacy of Dartmouth’s mental health infrastructure. During this past fall, I was forced to withdraw from a course due to a depressive episode and a string of intense panic attacks. My professor initially denied me an extension, and by the end of the process, the College had demanded access to my private medical records, asked me to write a formal statement explaining the circumstances that caused me to miss the course withdrawal deadline and forced me to attend numerous meetings with my dean. The entire process was unsympathetic to the fragile mental state I was in. As someone who couldn’t even muster the energy to leave my bed, eat or shower, asking me to do so much while still trying to keep up with my remaining classes was a ridiculous and compassionless expectation.  

From start to finish, the withdrawal process left me feeling powerless and humiliated; it was akin to kicking me while I was already down, just to make sure I knew that any mercy afforded me by the College was an exception that I should be grateful for. Unfortunately, I am also aware that this was not just a one-off incident. Rather, it is indicative of a much larger problem with Dartmouth’s mental health infrastructure: it’s inflexible and heartless instructional and bureaucratic policies. 

There are many other students like me who, when they reached out for a lifeline —whether that be a withdrawal from a class, the option to take the non-recording option for a class or even just a deadline extension — were left to navigate through unnecessary and cumbersome red tape.

For example, the Valley News reported that Elizabeth Reimer ’24, one of the students who died by suicide, had reached out in May for an extension of the NRO deadline following a mental health crisis that required hospitalization. She was denied an extension due to the College’s inflexible NRO deadline mere hours before she took her life. While I cannot speculate on the relationship between the decision to deny her an extension and her decision to take her own life, the mere fact that she was denied an extension does demonstrate the cruelty of Dartmouth’s policies. What harm does providing a student who was documented as experiencing a mental health crisis with an NRO deadline extension inflict? When students reveal they are struggling, flexible policies and deadlines can serve as important lifelines that give students who feel like they don’t have control over anything a sense of control over something.

When I was at my lowest, having two professors who gave me the time and space to heal, who allotted me as many extensions as I needed and who checked in to make sure I was doing okay meant the world to me. Despite having to withdraw from a course, despite feeling empty and ashamed by how sick I had become, despite my entire world feeling like it was crumbling around me, I knew something would be okay. 

Although I am immensely grateful for my professors’ compassion, I am also angered that extensions during times of crisis can be denied. These two professors granted me extensions not because they had to, but out of their own good will. What this means is that struggling students must not merely divulge intimate details about their personal lives to be granted extensions, but also that such vulnerability may also be fruitless. For example, I told my professors everything — about how sick I had become, that I was trying my best, that I wished I had the ability to put in more effort than I was — and yet, I had a professor deny me an extension; I had to withdraw from their course during week 9 or risk failing as a result.

While it is easy to say that this is just how the world works and maybe some people just aren’t made to be at an institution like Dartmouth, it is important to consider the implications of these statements. You are insinuating that because students are humans, because we dare to get sick and be anything other than perfect, we don’t belong here. At its core, it is an ableist and compassionless argument. I am not suggesting that professors and administration should throw order and accountability to the wayside; rather, I am suggesting that they need to implement nuanced policies that take into account students’ humanity. While Dartmouth is an academically rigorous institution, that does not give it the right to be utterly compassionless.

Increasing the flexibility of academic policies throughout the term, simplifying institutional processes such as the withdrawal process, and emphasizing the importance of compassionate extension and late policies are all important steps towards improving Dartmouth’s mental health infrastructure. Additionally, these changes are not difficult to implement. Simply increase the window of time in which students can elect the NRO and withdraw from courses, augment institutional processes to accommodate the ability of the student at the time and explain to professors what compassionate teaching looks like and emphasize why it is important. 

If this past year should have taught us anything, it is that Dartmouth has a responsibility to make sure it has policies in place that account for when students are enduring hardships such as mental health crises. While it may be convenient to think of us as robots who churn out assignments, projects and papers, we are, in fact, human. Sometimes we get sick, we lose someone we love or we get hurt. All of these things are normal parts of the human experience, and yet, the College’s rigid, one-size-fits-all policies make students feel like they are not normal; they make us feel guilty for being human. 

As College President Phil Hanlon stated in his email to campus on May 21st, “one of the hallmarks of our small, close-knit community is our capacity to care for one another.” If the administration really believes this is true, then it is time for Dartmouth to put its money where its mouth is and demonstrate a willingness to care for its students’ mental wellbeing. Recognizing students’ humanity by creating compassion-oriented policies that take into account student’s circumstances is a great place to start.

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