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Rathan L. Kersey, Chair, NACADA Large Universities Advising Community

Rathan Kersey.jpgUpon reading Liz Freedman’s (2017) article about “academic grieving” in Academic Advising Today, I was struck by two things.  First, what a well-written article; the inclusion of the sample conversation helped me grasp the concepts she was trying to convey and helped me feel more confident in potentially applying those concepts in future advising sessions, should the need arise.

The second striking thing was how viscerally I recalled an experience with a student who, in hindsight, was academically grieving.  Freedman classified an experience many advisors encounter with a concise and easy to understand term.  One responsibility of an advisor is to help students make the best choices for themselves with the opportunities available to them.  Freedman reminds advisors of the emotion related to those decisions and the need to consider academic grieving as part of the parallel planning process.  To elaborate on the concepts in her article, I want to share my own experience with academically grieving students and a process to identify such students.

My Experience

When I advised at the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Education, my population included students in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program.  At UGA, this is a very competitive major with an application process and a limited pool of accepted applicants.  Close to half of all applicants do not make it in, although this percentage changes from year-to-year.  Thus, I would have many conversations with students who were in various stages of academic grieving.  One stood out.

The student had been denied entry in the initial round.  The department allowed for appeals and did set aside several slots for a second look at applicants.  Not recognizing the academic grief, I immediately set about trying to parallel plan.  When I mentioned the possibility of appeal, the student said she did not think she would have a chance and did not want to bother trying.  I endeavored to convince her to attempt the appeal for several minutes until I realized the futility and tried a different tack.

I began by asking a series of career-related questions.  I set about trying to explore one major option after another while I cleverly explained how each could lead to a similar career path.  She resisted all attempts at altering her career choice.

Changing approaches, I began to explain how she might be able to find an undergraduate degree that would enable a quick graduation and still pursue her goal of becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist in grad school.  She came back with anecdotes of students who tried to get into a CMSD grad program without an undergrad.  I found it difficult to argue against her pessimism having heard many of those anecdotes myself.

Argument after argument, rejected.  Finally recognizing the uselessness of further arguments, I somehow got her to leave and agree to come back when she had a chance to think about her situation more rationally.  Lo and behold, she did come back.  Ironically, she described an alternate path identical to one I had suggested at our first meeting.  I resisted the brief urge of “told you so” and began to explore that alternate path with her.

Oh, if I only had the four tools at my disposal that Freedman (2017) so eloquently laid out.  Utilizing Reflective Listening, “I Wonder” Questions, Metalevel Communication, and Rule Breaks might have made the conversation much different.  Although, I think I may have unknowingly used a variation of “I Wonder” questions (in my exploration of alternate paths) and Metalevel Communication (statistics, outside references).  In hindsight, I recognize that the student was grieving and could have benefitted from a different conversation than one involving parallel planning.  Now I know how to be of assistance to a student experiencing academic grieving, I was not sure how to readily identify, however, whether or not a student was academically grieving so that I could shift the conversation to a better place.

How to Identify Grieving Students

To that end, a look at a classic text on grieving, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler (2005) may be helpful.  The five stages—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—are well known.  While the stage theory of grief is not the only one that exists, its familiarity might prove useful in making a quick judgement about whether a student is academically grieving. 

Students may come to advisors in any of the five stages, but I would argue that a student would be more open to parallel planning once they have experienced Acceptance.  Words used to describe someone in the denial stage include “numb” and “in shock.”  Anger may be a little easier to recognize, as it will often manifest itself through physical signs such as a raised voice or a clenched fist (Mills, 2005).  Bargaining is often showcased through the use of “what if” or “if only” statements.  Depression can be tough to spot, but may include symptoms such as “feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness” or “feelings of hopelessness, pessimism” (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d.).

Keep in mind that every person is different.  As Kessler writes (grief.com, n.d.), “They [stages of grief] are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss” (para. 1).  As advisors, we cannot replace professional help in overcoming grief, potentially even academic grief.  We can, however, utilize the knowledge found in other disciplines to “provide support to grieving students,” as Freedman (2017, para. 3) suggests in her insightful article.

Point of No (academic) Return

I also think it is necessary for a student to reach the point of no (academic) return for the conversation to turn towards parallel planning.  A clear cessation of hope in one path allows the student to complete the grieving process and move on to other paths.  It is our role to facilitate that “cessation of hope.”  I do not mean to do this maliciously.  Rather, advisors should make it clear, when policy dictates, that the path the student was on is no longer available to them.  Advisors should then assure the student that they are available to help them find another path.

Another factor that can inhibit parallel planning is ambiguity in policy.  Ambiguity or exceptions in admission policy for limited access programs can extend the grieving process.  Advisors should strive to make connections with policy makers in order to clarify policies, get a sense of how admission decisions are made, and identify an endpoint to the process.  When I recently spoke to a department chair at my institution on these very subjects, I mentioned that it is necessary to assure a student that the current path is no longer valid before we can have that much tougher conversation about a parallel plan.  He understood and worked with me to formalize the appeal process to eliminate inconsistency in its execution.  Thanks to Freedman’s (2017) article, I now have more tools at my disposal to use when that tougher conversation comes along.

Rathan L. Kersey
Academic Advisor II
University Advisement Center
Georgia State University


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Symptoms. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression/symptoms

Freedman, L. (2017, June). When not to parallel plan: Advising academically grieving students. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/When-NOT-to-Parallel-Plan-Advising-Academically-Grieving-Students.aspx

Grief.com. (n.d.). A message from David Kessler. Retrieved from https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York, NY: Scribner.

Mills, H. (2005). Recognizing anger signs. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/recognizing-anger-signs/

Cite this article using APA style as: Kersey, R.L. (2018, March). How to identify academically grieving students. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


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