How should Columbia respond to a tragedy? In the weeks following the suicide of first-year Columbia College student Martha Corey-Ochoa, it’s a question that’s been on the minds of students and administrators alike.
A wide range of offices, including residential life, Student Affairs, and Counseling and Psychological Services, play a role in supporting students following incidents like a student death. Christa Shen, CC ’16, said that while she and her classmates were shocked when they heard about Corey-Ochoa’s death, they felt a lot of support from the University.
“Everybody pretty much said the same thing: There are psychologists if you need them, other students, orientation leaders, the RAs,” Shen said. “It was nice to know they were looking out for us.”
Terry Martinez, the dean of community development and multicultural affairs for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, described the close relationship between Student Affairs and CPS. The two offices work together “to provide immediate counseling services for students, and coordinate with other offices and resources across the University to provide ongoing support,” she said in an email.
Immediately following Corey-Ochoa’s death on the first night of the New Student Orientation Program, CPS deployed response teams to first-year residence halls. The teams stayed in the residence halls until 3:00 a.m., and CPS also held extended walk-in offices hours for the next week.
“They have been extremely helpful and supportive for both students and staff,” Martinez said in an email. CPS described the University’s support services as “exemplary” in a statement.
Speaking specifically about NSOP, Martinez said that orientation leaders, resident advisers, and Student Affairs staff members “all knew that despite the death we all had a responsibility to provide a welcoming and supportive environment for the other new students.”
“The student leaders and staff members did an excellent job of taking care of the community and themselves,” she said in an email.
After any serious incident, Student Affairs meets with its other relevant offices to debrief and review the University’s response and communication, but there are no plans in place to change response or training protocols in the wake of Corey-Ochoa’s death, Martinez said.
Martinez added that Student Affairs would continue to partner with organizations like the Student Wellness Project, which was formed last year after Columbia College junior Tina Bu committed suicide, to support students and address issues of mental health and well-being. SWP hosted an impromptu gathering for first-years and upperclassmen the day after Corey-Ochoa’s death.
Additionally, resident advisers “were well prepared to deal with a student death, checking in on residents, and follow up conversations,” Martinez said, adding that “each staff met with their graduate hall directors and associate directors to debrief and discuss any additional outreach that may have been necessary.”
While resident advisers were prepared to help students handle the tragedy, some students felt removed from the situation, saying they didn’t notice any changes in orientation activities.
"Orientation just kind of went back to normal," Abi Chew, CC ’16, said. She added that some students seemed angry because “somebody just died and nobody’s doing anything.”
Annie Aversa, Barnard’s associate dean of campus and residential life, said in an email that “the RAs who serve first-year students did speak to their floor about the tragedy and made them aware that everyone here cares, and all they need to do is reach out.”
Corey-Ochoa’s death led Barnard’s residential programs office to hold a conversation about how resident advisers can make themselves visible and approachable to students.
“When someone takes their own life, it often increases and intensifies suicidal thoughts in those who have contemplated suicide in the past,” Aversa said in an email. “We need to follow up with any and all concerns for our students, so we can connect them to the proper resources on campus.”
If responding to a student death is one issue, notifying students about the death is another. When an undergraduate student dies, that school’s dean of students notifies the other undergraduate deans of students, sharing a copy of the formal communication being sent to students.
But when a graduate student dies, undergraduates often aren’t notified, and vice versa. The University’s central administration will typically notify all students when a student in Columbia College or the School of Engineering and Applied Science dies.
Martinez said she’s aware that some undergraduates “are interested in receiving notifications when a graduate student has passed.” Currently, there’s no such notification—when School of Continuing Education student Samantha Kwek died in January, for instance, the University only notified SCE students—but Martinez said that “it is something we are open to exploring.”
“This issue of a University-wide [notification] has also been discussed at the school level, but not from the central administration,” she said in an email.
Erida Tosini-Corea, CC ’15, described the University’s response to Corey-Ochoa’s death as “pretty good” overall.
“I got all the notifications about if you needed to talk to anybody, so that was good,” she said. “I guess—and they kind of started this last year—but I think there should be a prolonged discussion about mental health."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed several quotes from Terry Martinez to Columbia Psychological Services. Spectator regrets the error.