Friends, family, college remember student who died on campus
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College Chaplain Laurie Jordan stood between a newly planted Japanese tree lilac and a small group convened in the late morning sunshine gracing the Ross Commons Courtyard outside the dining hall this past Saturday. A plaque inscribed with “Nathan J. Alexander ’17 (July 31, 1994 – April 2, 2015)” and set in granite lay at the foot of the sapling.
“We know that this will be a special place where Nathan’s memory will be honored and his enduring presence will be felt among us for years to come,” Jordan told her audience. “In these moments together, here by this tree, we want to revisit our favorite memories of him, near to the places on campus that he called home during his years at Middlebury.”
Alexander’s parents, staff from the Chaplain’s Office, and friends and faculty who were closely connected to him attended the memorial tree dedication on Sept. 19. They wiped away tears and smiled as they shared moments of silent reflection and prayer, consoling lines of poetry, and happy memories of the student, who committed suicide in his nearby dormitory room last spring.
“I think it was meaningful to everyone who was there,” said Nathan’s father, Bart Alexander, who had returned to campus with wife Joan Alexander for the event. “To be quite literal, it helped ground the experience, and helped all of us remember Nathan’s life and not focus solely on his death.”
“I was really happy with the people who turned up and shared their thoughts, feelings and stories about Nathan,” said Middlebury sophomore Maryam Mahboob, who befriended the deceased through a mutual friend in January. “Having us all come together was part of the healing process.”
“Mourning balanced by gratitude, humor and love might be the best way to describe it,” reflected Katy Smith Abbott, vice president for student affairs and dean of the college.
Whenever an enrolled student passes away, the college plants a commemorative tree accompanied by a stone bearing a plaque with the deceased’s name, his or her dates of birth and death, and the name of the tree species.
“Each year this tree will cycle through the seasons, people will find relief and shelter in its shade, they will delight in its growth. Each spring time it will blossom and its fragrance and beauty will grace the landscape,” said Jordan. “I think that will take on significance as people remember Nathan each year in April on the anniversary of his death.”
After the Chaplain’s Office and student’s family identify a meaningful, feasible planting location, Landscape Horticulturist Tim Parsons selects a suitable tree that would thrive in that spot. The dedication occurs several months to a year after the death, depending on the family’s wishes.
“The purpose of the tree dedication was to allow students, faculty and staff an opportunity to come together with Nathan’s father and his father’s wife in a moment of remembrance,” said Abbott. “Gathering at the outset of a new academic year allowed us to recognize the loss of a student to this community, and to celebrate what he brought to the campus during his time here.”
Since Alexander’s suicide, the college has continued to implement Question, Persuade, Refer, known as QPR, a nationally recognized suicide prevention program that Middlebury launched in the fall of 2014. It emphasizes the need to pay close attention to those who appear to be struggling, and to ask directly if they have suicidal thoughts or feelings. The initiative has trained over 100 people, including all of the student residential life staff, student health and wellness leaders, student affairs deans, and other residential staff.
“Direct inquiry about suicidal thinking is the best approach,” said Executive Director of Health and Counseling Services Gus Jordan. “Although the student who died last spring did not express such concerns before taking his own life, most people do alert others of their suffering and pain, and our community has reached out quickly when that has happened on campus.”
This year, the college plans to keep training students, faculty and staff under an expanded QPR program.
Middlebury is even bringing nationally renowned clinical psychologist Sally Spencer-Thomas to campus this week to work with the community on suicide prevention.
“The fact that Sally’s coming on campus is a good sign that the community is reaching out for some real expertise on what to do,” said Bart Alexander, a friend of Spencer-Thomas.
In addition, the college will evaluate stress, health and wellness on campus this year through extensive conversations with professors, staff members and students. Faculty discussed the issue in their first meeting of the year in early September.
Scheduled and drop-in sessions with a counselor/psychologist at Parton Counseling already provide students with support on campus throughout the week. As always, the Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life remains a source of assistance for students in relieving stress and finding solace through various means. These include practicing their spiritual or religious traditions, forming steady routines and weekly rituals, and connecting with peers and college professionals.
“Students and faculty seem to recognize this is something from which we have to learn,” Alexander said. “Something broke down not only with Nathan but with the cohesiveness of the community. I’ve been really impressed with the seriousness with which everybody has responded.”
Editor’s note: Julia John is an intern with the Addison Independent.