This is the second blog in a series by ICTG intern Eva Pauley. Read her first blog here.
In my previous blog post, I shared a little of my own experiences as a student at Westmont College last year during the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow. During the fall semester, I conducted a series of interviews at Westmont on the ranging experiences of these events among representatives from Residence Life (including Resident Assistants and Residence Directors), Campus Life, Situational Response Team members, and the Campus Pastor’s Office. I chose these representatives to interview because I was interested in the interactive, or intersecting, perspectives of students and the adults directly involved with the non-academic aspects of college during times of emergency or disaster.
While conducting interviews, the basic question I posed was: Based on where you are particularly situated at Westmont, what was your experience of the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow?
Foundationally, I hoped to gain more insight toward eventually answering the following subsequent questions:
I interviewed 22 people across various departments at Westmont. I was grateful for the willingness of people within the community to have these conversations as well as their honesty through their experiences during these conversations.
I was surprised by the difference in understanding of events by students and staff. After the debris flow, the distress of the students was mostly related to the evacuations and disruptions to the semester, while for many of the faculty it was related to personal loss. In general students experienced the events secondarily. Many of the professors and other faculty were more closely connected to these events.
For example, according to a counseling center staff member, the most common concern cited by students who sought counseling services following the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow was: how can I sit here studying while people down the road are looking for their loved ones? One student said that: “Homework kind of felt pointless.” One RA said, “For residents it was hardest on their focus for school. How am I supposed to study for a test with evacuations? The importance of school seemed to go down with the devastation.”
Throughout the course of the research, I narrowed my focus to student care rather than institutional resilience. I discovered a lack of resources for higher education institutional responses to collective trauma. Due to recent fires in Southern California, we see increasing importance of institutional awareness and preparedness for trauma. Further research is important for developing best practices when caring for students and providing resources for self care and communal care in the midst of increasing disasters. I believe that additional study on this topic at different college campuses who have recently experienced different traumatic events would be meaningful.
Those within the Westmont community experienced a wide range of responses related to the events, as is to be expected with an event of this nature. Different members of the community gave various insights into how they coped and encouraged others throughout the course of the difficulties. The following are a list of tips I compiled for college students to practice care before, during, and after emergencies, evacuations, or disasters based on my initial investigation.
Practicing healthy routines will help sustain you and counter any excessive reactions to threat. Considering creating a transitional barrier between work and sleep by reading, watching a show, doing yoga, or journaling.
Based on this investigation and other studies, survivors often report how faithful routines helped them to orient themselves and feel peace amid the chaos of disaster. Consider continuing devotional practices, including studying Scripture, prayer, and worship.
Ordinary self-care practices especially prove vital in times of emergency or disaster. Consider continuing in healthful routines including eating balanced meals, exercising, and creating intentional times to rest.
Survivors often vacillate between feeling desires to isolate, and that no one else really can understand what they are going through, or desires to connect with others. While connection should never be forced, it is important to keep seeking out and offer opportunities for connection with others throughout the immediate and long-term trajectory of disaster response.
Consider ways you can practice being with people without having to have answers. Survivors often report that the caring presence of another person meant more to them than information they shared.
Consider ways you can continue to check in on those around you, listen to their experiences, and point them toward helpful next steps based on what they report they need.
Communicating what has happened helps individuals and groups heal, and involves both communicating what has been lost as well as what goodness has gone on amid the chaos.
Consider ways to express gratitude to those who are working hard.
If you find you are experiencing reactions to stress that feel disturbing or worrisome for any reason, consider talking with a professional through counseling.
Consider ways to write or create a work of art about what you are experiencing - for example, keep a journal, create a prayer of lament and/or thanksgiving, or make a musical response.
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