Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dealing with the unexpected

I have spent the last month talking with students whose grades were not good after last semester.  In many cases, something unexpected happened to the student during the fall semester.  That unexpected happening threw the student into a tailspin that meant that law school was not the student's focus.

The circumstances vary greatly.  A close friend or family member may have been killed in a car accident.  A parent may have been diagnosed with cancer.  A long-term relationship may have ended in acrimony.  A student may have become homeless.  The student became very ill.  Money may have run out.  The list could include many other circumstances as well.

One can easily understand how these events could derail a student's attempts at studying.  My concern is that the student often tells no one what is going on and "toughs it out" rather than seek assistance.  Some students react in this way because the event is embarrassing or highly personal.  Some students choose this path because they have always been able to overcome obstacles on their own.  Some students are from cultural backgrounds that discourage one from talking about family or personal matters.  Others are so overcome by the circumstances that they just do not know where to turn for help.

Unfortunately, most of these students had options that they could have considered.  Most law schools have a variety of policies, procedures, and people to help students cope with adversity.  After the fact, it is impossible to salvage a semester.  However, at the time of the incident/tragedy, the law school may have been able to assist.

In hopes of helping law students seek help rather than go it alone, I am offering some suggestions should the unexpected occur this semester.  Each law school will differ on the services and assistance available, but a law student coping with the unexpected should consider the following:

  • Many law schools have policies and procedures that offer a variety of academic options.  The timing in the semester may determine which options apply.  Possibilities include: leave of absence, withdrawal from school, withdrawal from one or more courses to reduce the student's course load, delayed exams, paper or project extensions, incomplete grades, in progress grades.
  • Many law schools have staff members whose duties specifically include working with students who have unexpected events suddenly impede their academics.  Even if the student initially contacts the "wrong" person, these persons will be able to refer the student to the correct office.  Staff members with these duties likely include: the associate dean for academics, the associate dean for student affairs/dean of students, or the academic support staff members.
  • Choosing among options may require financial aid advice because of implications for loans, scholarships, or grants.  Some law schools have a financial aid counselor specifically for law students.  Law schools may instead use the university financial aid office on main campus for advising students about how options will affect their financial circumstances (and any deadlines that may affect financial aid).
  • If the circumstance is purely financial, the financial aid officer may also be able to document the situation for re-packaging the student's aid for eligibility for more dollars.  Emergency loan procedures at the law school may provide for quick loan dollars to cover car repairs, the deposit on a new apartment, or other smaller amounts needed to correct a problem.
  • The law school may have information on local housing to assist a student who suddenly is without a place to live.  Private parties may contact the law school with information on rooms or houses for rent.  Law schools may also have "roommate wanted" listings or a bulletin board system for posting housing opportunities.  Universities connected with the law school may have "off-campus housing" offices that can assist.
  • Student health or counseling services may be included within student's fees to provide access to these professionals.  These services may well be available at law schools connected to universities.

In short, there are ways to get help in a crisis.  I encourage law students to let someone in the law school administration know what is going on so that services and options can be explored.  (Amy Jarmon)

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