UWRF unites to mourn the loss of three students
November 12, 2023
Isabella Chavira. Sabrina Hagstrom. Jasmine Petersen. These are the names of three University of Wisconsin-River Falls students who passed away between Oct. 3 and Nov. 3, 2023. All three students passed away as a result of their depression, Chavira on Oct. 3, Hagstrom on Oct. 31, and Petersen on Nov. 3. The deaths were met with a range of emotions, from grief to anger, and a range of responses as well, both from UW-River Falls and the students themselves.
Students expressed their emotions on an anonymous social media platform called YikYak. Many responded with support. One student said, “I genuinely love each and every single one of you. Each loss breaks my heart. Please reach out to somebody, myself included, if you are struggling.” Another: “I am willing to stay up all night talking with ANYONE regardless of whether I know you or not. I just don't want anyone else in my dorm or any dorm to die.”
Isabella Chavira and Sabrina Hagstrom passed away in one of UW-River Falls’ residence halls, May Hall, and students responded with support for its residents and resident advisors. One student posted, “everyone please check on the west side RAs, this has been a very difficult time for them to be dealing with this.”
Another: “If anyone needs to talk I'm here. I've struggled with my own mental health myself, and I won't judge. Two people is two too many, and I'm going to do all I can to make sure there isn't a third.” This was posted before the death of Jasmine Petersen.
Other students used the platform to express sadness and fear. One said, “it kind of scares me, as a freshman and knowing this is happening, dealing with my own mental health issues.”
Another: “As a may hall resident, the dorms [are] very quiet this evening, knowing what happened there's a weight in my chest.” This feeling of sorrow and loss, which has pervaded UW-River Falls for the last few weeks, was commiserated by other students as well.
One May Hall resident said, “this is taking a huge toll on some of us,” while another student said, “i've been feeling this since isabella passed away. such a heavy feeling.”
At the Student Voice, we don’t often draw attention to ourselves in our editorials, but we wanted to say to the students and faculty of UW-River Falls that we feel the indescribable weight of the tragedies that have taken place, just as all of you do.
We may not be able to understand what Isabella Chavira, Sabrina Hagstrom, and Jasmine Petersen went through, but our hearts are bleeding, even as we write this, for all of those who have suffered from depression, or continue to suffer. It’s moments like this that the words, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage,” become apparent. We all know how important this editorial is; in fact, it may be the most important editorial we will ever write.
The question on students’ minds, and our minds as well, was: what should the university do about what has happened? UW-River Falls has sent out several emails to the campus community to inform students of the deaths, offer their condolences, and draw attention to various mental health services, including UWRF’s Student Health and Counseling Services.
Many students, including us at the Student Voice, have criticized these emails as being more concerned with public relations than the loss that has occurred.
Others have said how similar these emails are, which makes them feel even more artificial. The issue, however, is most likely not the emails themselves, but that they are not enough to address these losses, or the wave of grief that has followed.
One student said on YikYak, “No one is saying this is the [university’s] fault. But sending an email a few days after the fact then ignoring it, isn’t making any of this okay.” Actions speak louder than words, and that’s what students wanted: action.
After Sabrina Hagstrom’s death, that’s what UW-River Falls did: take action. On Nov. 2, a grief counselor from Pierce County Public Health visited May Hall to meet with residents, and, in the afternoon, therapy dogs from the organization Pet Partners visited the hall as well.
On the following day, grief counselors Joyce Barker and Kathryn Van Dusartz provided walk-in counseling in the University Center. In the waiting room, students were able to share their memories of Hagstrom, and write condolences to her family.
“We will collect these items and deliver them to the family during the funeral service,” Alicia Reinke-Tuthil, the Interim Dean of Students said.
In addition, Reinke-Tuthil; Laura King, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Strategic Enrollment Laura King; and UWRF Chancellor Maria Gallo held a ‘Community Conversation’ for students to “come together and process the recent losses of fellow Falcons.”
Action was also taken in another area: Student Health and Counseling.
Many students have expressed issues with Counseling Services, especially with the wait times for in-person counseling. Some students, including a member of the Student Voice, have said that the wait list for an appointment can be as long as two or even three weeks. For someone suffering from mental illness, three weeks can feel like a hopelessly long time.
While other services, like Mantra Health Services, which offers tele-therapy and even tele-psychiatry, may be beneficial, the wait times for in-person counseling are unacceptable. The Student Voice member, who will remain anonymous, said that mental health resources at UW-River Falls feel out-of-reach and difficult to access. Wait times contribute to this barrier.
On Nov. 6, however, the Student Voice was informed that Student Health and Counseling Services is undergoing an emergency hire of a new counselor. While it is yet to be seen if this will address wait times, it shows that UWRF values Counseling Services and is working to make them more accessible. It’s regrettable that it took the death of two students to result in this response from the university, but it is a step in the right direction nonetheless.
Students took notice of the efforts.
One student said, “uwrf is doing the best they can, which is a decent [expletive] job, with handling all of these situations. I've never seen this much support for 3 students and a faculty member.” That faculty member is Andris Straumanis, a UWRF Associate Professor of journalism who passed away from natural causes on September 11, 2023. Another posted, “Everyone criticizing the river falls faculty should know that this is not normal for a college. almost no other colleges would not do anything let alone put this much effort in.”
On Monday, November 6, we at the Student Voice met to discuss our November editorial. We had planned to talk about the issues with Counseling Services, as mentioned earlier, but decided to discuss UWRF’s response to the deaths instead. First and foremost in this discussion was processing grief, and how UWRF can help facilitate this.
When the university sent out emails announcing that a death had occurred, students were given little to no time or space to process this heartbreaking news. The only option, for many, was to continue on with classes and homework, all the while with this weight on their mind.
One student posted, “I love that our campus community is coming together on Yikyak after another tragedy, but how come I never see it in person?... I hope to see this kindness spread in person everyday and not just on this app.” The university could, and should, address this by offering more opportunities for students to discuss and process their grief.
The Community Conversation was beneficial, but students need a place and time to discuss their memories of the students who have passed, and how this has affected them. The Canadian Medical Association said that “exposure to suicide predicts suicide ideation and attempts.” Boston Children’s Hospital said, “This risk, known as suicide contagion, can affect people who lived down the street from the person who died, went to school with them, or simply saw them around town.” As such, it is vital that students have a way to process their grief, and the first step to processing grief is to express it. This conversation should be as open and honest as possible, which means that, despite good intentions, faculty members should not be present. It may be beneficial for a grief counselor to preside over the event, however.
We discussed another way that the university could provide closure for students, which would be to send follow-up emails with information on students’ obituaries and memorial events. On November 7, a day after our discussion, the university did just this: Alicia Reinke-Tuthil sent out an email with a link to Sabrina Hagstrom’s obituary and details on her memorial, which was held on November 11 at Ameritina Polo Farm in Woodville, WI.
Reinke-Tuthil also said in the email, “For those unable to attend who would like to share messages and memories with the family, we will be accepting them outside the [Rodli Hall] Meditation Room.” UWRF staff then delivered the items to Hagstrom’s memorial. Isabella Chavira’s memorial service was held on Oct. 14 at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. As of Nov. 8, the university has not released a similar email for Jasmine Petersen, however.
In this email, Reinke-Tuthil also shared a link to UWRF’s new mental health website, at www.uwrf.edu/student-life/falcons-care. The website includes a list of events that were held from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9, as well as links to UWRF’s mental health services and a guide for instructors called “Assisting Students During Emotional Distress.”
We at the Student Voice praise these efforts, but exhort UWRF to continue to support students in this way not just over the course of this semester, but over semesters and years to come. UWRF’s mental health website includes walk-in counseling, dog therapy, and yoga on its list of events, and one way that the university could support students now and in the future is by hosting more of these events. Loneliness plays a major role in depression and mental illness, and mental health events, and a variety of other events as well, could help address this.
At the start of the semester, UWRF hosts a number of events: movie nights, bowling nights, nature walks, Silent Disco, and others, but, toward the end of the semester, fewer of these events are held. Isolation is harmful when someone is suffering from loneliness or depression, and campus events give students who may be experiencing this the opportunity to meet new people, or, if they are not in the mood to do so, to have fun and destress. UWRF should offer more events near the end of the semester, and possibly more events overall.
We also wanted to include an idea a student posted: “i think that the school should send out a survey to all students and ask them questions like how do they feel, where do they go to for support, do they feel supported here, what can [UWRF] do to make them feel more supported.” The university could use this feedback to improve its approach to mental health.
Then, on Nov. 7, UWRF students united in a demonstration of support that took campus, and social media, by storm. Social work students created a memorial for Isabella Chavira, Sabrina Hagstrom, and Jasmine Petersen, as well as Andris Straumanis, on the UW-River Falls sign by the intersection of Cascade Avenue and Main Street in River Falls.
According to UWRF Journalism’s Instagram page, UWRF Associate Professor of social work, Shawyn Domyachich-Lee, “collaborated with their students to create [the] memorial.”
Students visited the memorial to add flowers, notes, art, and even a hat with Sabrina, Isabelle, and Jasmine’s names written on it. The Instagram post had received over 2,500 likes, as of Nov. 8. Soon, the memorial was overflowing with flowers, so many in fact, that the UW-River Falls sign was almost hidden from view.
We at the Student Voice wanted to make it clear that this memorial, as well as the other efforts the university has made, are not to honor these deaths, but to mourn these deaths.
Shawyn said, "I believe people need a place to mourn, support each other, and be part of what I hope will instigate change on this campus to raise awareness about suicide and prevention, providing resources necessary for students, staff, and faculty.”
On Nov. 7, Chancellor Maria Gallo announced via email that all UWRF classes would be canceled on Nov. 20 and Nov. 21, which “extends the Thanksgiving break for the entire week.” The additional time off is intended to give students time to rest, recover, and process everything that has happened on campus over the last few weeks.
One student posted, “For everyone excited that we get an extra long break remember why this break is happening. So instead of celebrating not having to go to class, remember the 3 beautiful lives that were lost in the last month. Rest and reset. You are so loved.”
As many have said over the last few weeks, suicide is not a means to accomplish an end. It is a tragedy that brings pain and grief to family, friends, and an entire community, as can be seen at UW-River Falls. The memorial demonstrates that students who are suffering are not forgotten, and that the students and faculty of UW-River Falls care deeply about them.
A student posted, “I love every one of you. Please stay one more day,” and someone commented on this post to say, “Or 2. Or 3. Or 4. As many as you can and naturally will.”
There are many ways students can help spread support on campus.
Here are three simple ways. One is to reach out to their friends and classmates; many people who have depression or another mental illness suffer in silence, and the only way to know if they are struggling is to ask them. Two, is Dan’s Bandana Project, where students tie white bandanas to their backpacks to show that they will support anyone who is suffering.
The campaign’s pledge states: “I will listen if you need to talk to someone. I will talk to someone if I need to be listened to. I will help you find a counselor when you need more than listening. I will find a counselor when I need more than to be listened to.”
The campaign was started in 2014 after student Daniel Gerbec took his life in September 2012, and bandanas can be picked up at Student Health and Counseling Services in Rodli Hall, and occasionally at the University Center. Three, is to take part in the upcoming mental health first aid training. Chancellor Gallo announced that the Dean of Students Office would collaborate with Counseling Services over January 2024, to provide the training. “I hope many can take part,” Gallo said. The university will send out an email with more information.
On Nov. 8, the university offered van trips to transport students to the UWRF Campus Farm so that they could visit the farm’s horses. Sabrina Hagstrom’s favorite color was orange, and students braided the horse’s manes with orange ribbons and gave them carrots.
The event brought to mind another post that read, “Sabrina loved horses,” with the hashtag, “#rideforsabrina.” The responses from students and the university, and the support that has been shared, show that we stand with the families, we stand with the friends, we stand with the community of UW-River Falls, and we stand together.
Continue on, and, ride for Jasmine, ride for Sabrina, ride for Isabelle.
The members of The Student Voice
UWRF Counseling Services: 715-425-3884
National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988