Halfway through her first semester at Pitt, Selaam Araya’s college experience came to an abrupt halt.
Araya’s father, 65, died of an unknown medical cause, and she traveled to Asmara, Eritrea — 6,991 miles away — for the burial. When she returned for the beginning of the spring semester a month later, Araya, now a junior majoring in economics and environmental studies, sought help from Pitt’s Student Government Board and her academic advisor on handling school while grieving. Neither source was aware of what resources, if any, Pitt offered.
Araya’s father came to the United States as a refugee and retired early in her childhood, and the two spent most of Araya’s after-school time together as she grew up. But hosting visitors paying respects in Eritrea provided distractions, and Araya didn’t feel the full impact of the loss until returning to the U.S. She’s still hit with moments of grief three years later.
“He was very big on politics and just being a knowledgeable global citizen,” Araya said. “I’ll find an interesting article in the New Yorker, right, and I will try to call him or send it to him, but I can’t do that.”
After returning to Pittsburgh, Araya had the added challenge of being far from her family, some of whom had stayed in Eritrea with distant relatives following her father’s death.
“It was difficult enough being away from home,” she said. “Academically, I really struggled. I had spoken to my academic advisor and made it known what I was going through… but I wasn’t aware of all the resources available to me on campus.”
Araya did some research. She found Pitt’s bereavement policy for faculty and employees — which allows for five days of paid leave within a week of the death for full-time employees and an adjustable amount of days for part-time employees — but nothing comparable for students.
Kathryn Fike, a Pitt spokesperson, neither confirmed nor denied that a student bereavement policy exists, saying “the Division of Student Affairs often works with bereaved students to make accommodations for their studies.”
Araya had not met with anyone from Student Affairs, though she searched for a bereavement policy with the help of the Student Government Board. At the same time, another student, Caroline Stohler, was facing a similar problem handling grief. She also got in contact with SGB to let them know she was establishing a club for students dealing with loss, prompting SGB to put Stohler and Araya in contact with each other.
Stohler lost her father to a heart attack in July 2014 — the summer before her sophomore year — and was having a difficult time adjusting to campus life again.
“It was hard because you come back into an environment where everyone is so happy and everyone’s excited — it’s college, it’s supposed to be a great time,” Stohler said. “And for me, I really struggled my sophomore year, even just in my classes it was really challenging for me to focus and concentrate.”
Unlike Araya, Stohler was able to find group counseling at Pitt through the University Counseling Center her sophomore year, which lessened the daily burdens of grief. When her counselor asked if she was interested in starting a chapter of Actively Moving Forward — a national organization that aims to connect bereaved students and advocate for their needs — she said yes. Stohler met Araya, who was brought on as the club’s advocacy chair, through their mutual SGB contact in September of that year.
With other chapters at Carnegie Mellon University and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the club became an official Pitt organization in November 2016 and has an executive board of six students, headed by Stohler. She said it offers a specific outlet that wasn’t available previously.
“There is a pretty good difference between regular group counseling and AMF,” Stohler said. “AMF is an organization that helps create an environment for students to meet other students who experience loss…maybe we’ll go out to eat together or watch a movie, just to create that atmosphere.”
Stohler said the support of her friends helped her through many instances, though she knew they didn’t really understand what she was going through. The social aspect of AMF integrates that same strategy: offering group support that extends beyond just meetings and event planning.
“Because it’s not as fresh anymore and I’m not going through those initial shocks and changes, I would rather have AMF here,” Stohler said. “It does create that environment where you can meet other students but you don’t necessarily need to talk about ‘oh, today I’m feeling sad,’ ‘today, I’m feeling angry.’”
Stohler said these kind of events could help students cope with the unpredictable process of grieving. She remembers sitting in a lecture about the cardiac system and different types of heart attacks, one of which was called “the widowmaker.”
“That really struck me because my mom is now a widow, and I just remember crying a lot in class,” she said.
The group held its first general body meeting Feb. 19 with five officers and four other students
in attendance. Since becoming an official club, about 50 students have expressed interest at Pitt’s spring activities fair, mental health fair and through the Counseling Center.
At the meeting, students chatted over free candy and ice cream, shared their reasons for joining and discussed their ideas. Stohler said there were possibilities of social and service events and that the club would like to create an official bereavement policy for students at Pitt.
The club is beginning to take shape as a resource of its own, a place for students with shared experiences to communicate about death, to connect and learn how to celebrate rather than mourn the lives of their loved ones. One project that the club may establish is a “Before I Die” wall, where students can write ideas about what they want to accomplish in their lives.
Stohler said there isn’t a second meeting scheduled yet, but the community service aspects of the club make it more likely that all types of students will eventually join, whether or not they have experienced loss.
Both Stohler and Araya said in retrospect, they feel remiss about not reaching out to the Counseling Center more actively or asking for help in the classroom. Araya would have, she said, if she knew the resources were there.
“When you deal with grief, you don’t focus very well,” Araya said. “I could’ve gone to the disability services for extra time on exams.”
Given her father’s life philosophy, Araya said, her involvement as advocacy chair for Pitt’s AMF chapter has a special meaning to her.
“I’m not going to sit around and mope about it just because there are, like, more productive things to do,” she said. “I think that my father would’ve thought the same way. I’m pretty sure he’d be upset if people were not being productive citizens just because he’s not here.”