How to Support Students in Crisis

Focus on their immediate needs, but don’t lose sight of long-term goals

By Lula Torres, InsideTrack Lead Crisis Support Specialist

Linda was brought into my life three years ago. The first time I spoke with her she was quiet, nervous and overwhelmed. 

She initially told me she was concerned about a medical issue that was making it hard to finish class assignments. But the more I built trust with her, she shared that she had experienced decades of physical and emotional domestic abuse.

What to do when no one’s trained to solve that problem

More than 10 years ago, we began to examine all of the different reasons that students were dropping out of classes. So many had nothing to do with academics. And some stemmed from particularly serious circumstances — things that most student support teams aren’t trained to address. Students were struggling with things like housing and food insecurity, utility shut-off notices, emotional and mental health crises, safety issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault, and suicidal ideation. 

Our university partners were striving to support these students, but resources were strained. Often, staff didn’t know where to begin. In response to this need, we developed a Crisis Support Specialist (CSS) team. 

CSS services are available to students at any of our institutional partners, whether they’re fully enrolled or just gathering information during the application process. (In fact, we’ve found that letting prospective students know that the institution offers these resources helps get them connected and engaged more quickly.)

We tell students that we are not their therapist, and we’re not experts in every situation they might be dealing with. But we connect them with the resources in the community. And we focus on building their self-advocacy, so they can seek and receive the support they need.

A pathway to independence

A mother of three grown children, Linda was a post-traditional student already more than halfway done with her bachelor’s. Since she was retired, I dug a little deeper to understand her motivation for finishing her degree. Graduating would open up financial freedom, she hoped, and help her leave her abusive husband.

We worked together for a year, speaking weekly and sometimes more. Even as we focused on Linda’s immediate safety, we also took steps toward her long-term goal of graduation. As a result of our continuous check-ins, she started to talk with a local domestic violence prevention agency, a therapist and student advocates provided by the university. 

Coordinating these resources became a crucial part of our work together. The domestic violence agency started to safety plan with her and eventually she was able to successfully leave. Our many conversations with her academic advising team laid the groundwork for her to seamlessly withdraw from the term — even after the drop deadline — so she didn’t lose her financial aid.

Policies and approaches to help more students persist

The issues we address on the CSS team underscore what institutions can do to help students navigate crises without giving up on their education. As Linda worked to rebuild her life, we began to see that her situation was helping her university support other students in crisis. In fact, the university ultimately changed its safety policy to ensure that all students fleeing abuse (and thus taking a needed leave from school) are able to do so without their financial aid being affected.

We often make policy recommendations based on our firsthand knowledge of what students are going through. We package that feedback into trends and insights that we share with the institution — things like what time of year mental health needs might peak, or when in the term food insecurity tends to increase. 

But the advances we help institutions achieve aren’t limited to policy. Some of the most lasting work we do is helping institutions build community relationships with local organizations — like food pantries or sexual assault resources — and enhancing their own internal expertise. When we train staff in skills like trauma-informed and poverty-informed approaches to support, we offer them a new set of tools for helping students persist.

“I plan on coming back”

For Linda — like with all students in crisis situations — education was a vital step to becoming secure and self-supporting. She called me a few weeks after she moved into a new home, saying, “I’m safe and I just want you to know I plan on coming back to finish my degree.” 

Two years later, I heard from her again. She was a proud college graduate.

Student name has been changed.

Crisis support can be provided anytime, anywhere. See how texting helped one student persist in school even while coping with personal and financial emergencies. 

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