When Students Die

A colleague who had been worried about one of her star students who had been missing from class for a couple of weeks came into my office. “She committed suicide yesterday.” She needed to talk through it. She told me that she and two other professors had gone to the Student Services people a few days earlier—on a weekend—concerned about the student. She told me about all the ways they had tried to get to the bottom of what was going on in the days leading up to it. Any reasonable person would describe their efforts as far above and beyond the call of duty, as not just responsible but compassionate. “If I had seen her before it happened, I would have tackled her to the ground,” she said with the sincerity and desperation of someone struggling to find how after all of that effort things still went wrong. But you can’t. No tackle could wrest this student from the grip of tragedy. You try to be there for the students, to be supportive and available. But now and then a student will die.

My colleague was barely keeping herself together. “There was nothing you could have done. You did everything you possibly could have,” I told her. I told her about one of my students from the previous year. “She was raped last year. She went from being my best student to my worst student overnight.” We stood there together in my office doorway, both on the verge of tears. “We can do the best we can, but we cannot keep them from harm. There is nothing we can do to make everyone safe.”

It was just last week that another colleague vented to me about one of her classes. A student in that class had crashed his car the previous weekend. He lingered in the hospital for a few days with horrific injuries before passing away. A group of his friends were also in the same class. She described how difficult it was to face those students, how they were supposed to be giving in-class presentations, how one of the students ran out of class in the middle of his presentation sobbing, how she chased him down and sat with him on the men’s room floor. “I told them,” she said, “not to bother coming to the last week of classes. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

There is this professional distance we professors often try to maintain. It’s a delicate balance sometimes. I want to be friendly with my students, but not their buddy. I want to take an interest in their lives, but I’m not going to their parties. We talk with each other about whether or not we should accept friend requests of students on Facebook. My colleague, the one with the car crash victim, told me about dealing with the friends of the dead student. “And it really sucks,” she said, “because you’re not supposed to hug them.” “I think you can,” I responded. “I think in this case, you can hug them.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I did.”


Robert Jacobson

R&D-oriented computer scientist, mathematician, and software engineer with broad experience. I have particular interests in compilers, programming languages, and virtual machines; computer vision and machine learning; and algorithm design and mathematical programming.

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