Although non-college life-events occur outside of an institution’s control, colleges and universities can create campus environments and encourage student experiences that serve as buffers against the consequences of NCLEs. This project examines the ways in which college programs and practices can provide race- and gender-sensitive support for affected students, thereby facilitating the development of key student assets that help keep students on track for academic success amid even the most challenging of personal crises.
Student Exposure toTraumatic Life-Events
Students’ lives outside of college are complex and often unknown to the university. Yet those “outside” lives can have dramatic effects on students’ college outcomes. The effects are particularly detrimental when students must deal with major events affecting their families, a situation affecting large numbers of college students. David Balk (2008) estimates that “at any given time 22 to 30 percent of college undergraduates are within the first twelve months of grieving the death of a family member or friend” (p. 5). Read et al. (2011) reported that 66% of entering students at two universities reported having experienced at least one traumatic life event recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV); the most common events were life threatening illness or the sudden death of a loved one. Students of color appear to be disproportionately affected by such life-events, especially early in one’s life (Turner & Butler, 2003). In a study of college students at selective universities, Massey (2006) found that students of color coming from segregated backgrounds were exposed to particularly high rates of challenging life events among family and friends.
Consequences of Traumatic Life-Events
The emotional and psychological consequences of such events (what I call non-college life-events, or NCLEs) can be dramatic for affected students, regardless of race, gender, or other student characteristics. Initial evidence suggests that various forms of traumatic life experiences, particularly those which have occurred recently, can interfere with students’ psychological well-being or resilience while in college (Banyard & Cantor, 2004; Turner & Butler, 2003). Traumatic life-events often lead to substance abuse, insomnia, depression, or anger (Krakow et al., 2002; O’Donnell et al., 2004; Oimette & Brown, 2003; Orth & Wieland, 2006), all of which can sap students’ energy and limit the intensity of their academic efforts – a critical component of Astin’s (1993) notion of involvement. As a result, affected students often have low GPAs or other academic difficulties (Servaty-Seib and Hamilton, 2006). Students’ maladaptive responses to NCLEs can also alienate friends, peers, and teachers, thereby inhibiting students’ social and academic integration with the institution (Tinto, 1993).