Inside Higher Ed: Tragedy, flexibility, graduation

By Mitch Smith for Inside Higher Ed

May 8, 2012

A Philadelphia graduate student’s case raises questions about whether colleges should allow students a few credits shy of completing a degree course to participate in commencement, and whether a serious medical condition warrants an adjustment in policy.

B. Elizabeth Furey is three credits away from finishing her master’s degree in clinical and counselling psychology at Chestnut Hill College. She expects to complete her coursework in July, meaning there would not be a graduation ceremony for her to walk in until May 2013.

Furey has chronic Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease she has fought for six years. She’s feeling strong now, but is on chemotherapy and taking part in experimental treatments. Her prognosis is uncertain.

A former elementary school teacher, Furey decided several years ago to become a counsellor. She had to withdraw from one graduate programme because of her disease and transferred to Chestnut Hill, which is closer to her home.

She said Chestnut Hill accepted many of her transfer credits and has always been accommodating of her schedule, which occasionally requires her to travel across the country for treatment. But when she asked to participate in next week’s commencement ceremony, administrators told her that they’d think about it. Then they told her “no”.

Furey eschews the word “terminal” and remains hopeful that one of her experimental treatments will lead to a breakthrough. But cancer is unpredictable, she said, and months can be precious.

She didn’t expect to receive a degree next week, but she had hoped to hear her name called and walk across the stage. Administrators suggested a compromise, saying that Furey could wear a cap and gown and carry the graduate studies banner into the ceremony, but her name wouldn’t be announced.

Furey baulked, saying the college should follow the lead of many neighbouring institutions that allow students within three or six credits of completion to participate fully in graduation ceremonies before finishing their degree requirements. After a critical column in the Philadelphia Daily News, Chestnut Hill said that Furey was welcome to walk across the stage later this month and hear her name called. The current policy, however, will remain in place.

Furey would like Chestnut Hill to allow anyone close to completing his or her degree to be able to walk at commencement. At the very least, she wants assurances that future students with a serious illness will receive special consideration.

Sister Carol Jean Vale, Chestnut Hill’s president, said in a statement that the policy “is fair and appropriate” but that her college “will consider special exceptions to the policy as individual circumstances may warrant”. Furey will participate in the ceremony.

“I applaud them and am proud of them for reconsidering,” she said. “I believe [that] under difficult circumstances, they have now shown their true colours and are the compassionate, flexible, understanding school that I had always hoped that they were.”

Sadly, situations such as Furey’s aren’t unique to Chestnut Hill. Many colleges allow students, regardless of health circumstances, to walk at commencement if they’re very close to graduating.

Old Dominion University in Virginia generally requires students to finish all their classes before attending commencement, but Don Stansberry, the dean of students, said that exceptions are considered in extreme circumstances. Old Dominion also has a detailed policy for how terminally ill students or even the deceased can be given certificates of recognition when they aren’t able to continue their studies.

Having such policies in place ensures that every student is treated equitably when tragedy occurs, Stansberry said.

In 2009, Toronto’s Ryerson University codified a long-standing practice of granting degrees to terminally ill or deceased students. It’s a matter of compassion, said Keith Alnwick, the registrar, and a way to recognise a student’s life and achievements.

“Our motivation here is to be respectful and supportive of the student and their family,” Alnwick said. “We realise that these are extraordinarily difficult times.” But outside that policy, students aren’t able to participate in graduation until they finish all degree requirements.

Chestnut Hill’s position was originally “based on respect for the degree process and those who had invested the time and hard work to successfully complete their requirements”, Vale wrote.

But Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said there would be no problem allowing a seriously ill student to participate in graduation.

“This is an easy one,” Nassirian said. “Proof of graduation is the transcript. It’s not the diploma and it’s not the pomp and ceremony of commencement. Graduation, from our perspective, is documented on the transcript. That means you can absolutely allow somebody to walk, granted they’re not in first semester freshman year.”

Chestnut Hill eventually reversed course. But even before making that decision, Kathleen M. Spigelmyer, a spokeswoman for the college, said Chestnut Hill has always respected Furey’s persistence through her disease.

“This is not anything about not understanding her struggles to earn her graduate degree and her spirit,” Spigelmyer said. “We do have a heart and we do recognise that Ms Furey is a special person, and we’re making a special exception to this policy.”

For her part, Furey said that going public with her story was never an effort to belittle Chestnut Hill or to win a special exception for herself. Furey, who sports a near-perfect grade-point average, said she has enjoyed her time at Chestnut Hill and hopes that anyone close to a degree would be allowed to attend graduation.

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