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Martha

On Any Given Day . . .

As a graduate house manager for family housing at a large land-grant University in the South, I was fortunate to be able to work with a wonderful staff of graduate students who were very diverse in race, gender, culture, and in many other ways. Our work together was critical to keeping the 3,000-bed facility that housed graduate students and their families in a safe, clean, and connected community. We had many students from different countries, and they shared different customs from their homelands.

We developed a babysitting network, a student government program for activities, and a newsletter with items that were practical and informative as well as fun. Overall, the apartments served an important need for older adults and many international students returning to the classroom as graduate students. The cost, proximity to campus, and commitment from the staff made it a place that people felt comfortable and able to “do it all” as students, spouses, parents and, in some cases, with extended family members arriving from home countries. The good news is that this university worked well to accommodate and negotiate the terms of occupancy as well as the number and relationship of people joining the community.

We spent time developing programs that would bring residents together to talk, share, and support each other. The major crises were usually burst pipes, overflowing toilets, or someone getting locked out. Overall, during the two years I was there, we only had a few interpersonal issues that occurred among spouses and sometimes neighbors. Until one day that I will never forget. I was home working on my dissertation and waiting for some out-of-town guests to arrive when I heard a panicked knock on my door. One of the graduate student staff who had responsibility for part of the apartments said, “A man is dead in apartment D-9.” I said, “What happened?” He said he was contacted by the man's wife, who was a research assistant in a lab on campus. She came home to find her husband hanging from the closet in their bedroom. She screamed and ran out to get help. The staff member was home and entered the apartment. He didn’t know the resident, but identified that they were from China. He called several Chinese families to be with the man’s wife. We called 911, and I called the campus minister and on-call person to come to our facility.

I did not choose to enter the apartment and view the body, but I did go to the wife, who by this time was in another apartment with her friends. She was crying quietly. I said I was sorry. I explained that he would be taken away and asked her what she needed at that point. She was not able to respond. I said I would come back.

We waited outside for the ambulance to come and then we entered with our support staff. The apartment was relatively empty with very few items except the basics for eating, sleeping, and dressing. No note was there and no other information was available for the police (campus police arrived with the ambulance) or any of us to understand why he chose this action. Not that it would change what happened, but we were so desperate to see if he left any signs.

I returned to the apartment to talk with his wife along with the campus-response person and minister. All she said was that her husband was doing poorly in his studies and felt as if he was bringing shame to himself and his family. She said she was doing well in her job and it was hard for him to understand why he was struggling so much. She asked where her husband would be taken and our on-call person stated that he would be held in a facility (more than likely a morgue) until a decision was made about a service or if she wanted to take him home to China. She explained that all his family members would be shamed. She said she had no money to provide for his burial and did not want to leave her work and life here on campus.

The campus ministers and others were able to assist with money for a burial. I do not remember if he was even able to return to his country, but I do know the school contacted the embassy about his death. The whole thing was very sad to be a part of, especially knowing that we could do so little at that point. His wife could not stay in family housing since she was not the primary student. She did have a support system, so we had to let her go.

We attended a small burial as a staff, and when we debriefed about the incident, we talked about ways we could have seen signs. It was a major challenge and one that none of us will ever forget. One lesson we gained is that people from other countries may not always know how to be heard or open the door for discussion leading to help. It is a challenge that needs to be addressed when we work with people of different backgrounds and cultures. Suicide is absolute. If you do not learn how to pay attention, you could be doing a great disservice to your community—especially a college campus, where people live, work, and study together.

—Martha Wisbey