Modeling Compassion in the Wake of a Natural Disaster










Sammy Stevens – Nashville Regional Representative, the University of Tennessee

Early last week, cities across Tennessee suffered devastating loss as a result of a storm system producing EF-2, EF-3 and EF-4 tornadoes. These tornadoes hit overnight, carving out a 160-mile path from West Tennessee, through Nashville, and on toward the Cumberland Plateau. Students and families across Tennessee have lost homes. Many residents are still without power. Nearly ten schools were damaged, including Tennessee State University, Donelson Christian Academy, and Mount Juliet Christian Academy.

Hundreds of people were transported to the hospital because of their injuries. Twenty-five lives were lost.

While we often talk about the ethical practices in our profession, this event has served as a reminder of all the thoughtfully compassionate ways that we serve our students and communities.

“Look for the Helpers”

Over the past week, schools across Tennessee have stepped up to aid in the recovery efforts. East Nashville Magnet High School served as one of four emergency shelters in Nashville. Nashville Christian School students assisted in cleanup at Donelson Christian Academy. McGavock High School served nearly 500 hot meals to those displaced by the storm. Hume-Fogg students and staff cleaned yards across town. LEAD Academy students and counselors took inventory at donation centers, and then helped displaced families shop for the items they needed. Montgomery Bell Academy students helped families pack and move their belongings from damaged homes. Pearl Cohn Entertainment Magnet opened its doors to serve as a donation hub and resource center. Countless schools have collected food, toiletries, and other items. Colleagues from local CBOs have been “boots on the ground” volunteers for the most vulnerable members of our community.

Colleges and universities have also aided in recovery efforts. Fundraising has happened across the state, from the University of Memphis’ “Tigers help Tigers” fund for Tennessee State University, to the University of Tennessee’s nearly $30,000 for disaster relief efforts in Middle Tennessee. Two members of Tennessee Tech University’s faculty are helping to salvage documents and photos from damaged computers. Nashville State Community College provided bus passes and gas cards for those affected. Belmont University created a fund specifically for the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) to provide shelter and recovery for impacted families. Vanderbilt University, Lipscomb University, and Trevecca Nazarene University have all offered up their facilities so schools affected can finish out spring sports season.

These lists aren’t exhaustive, either. Over the next few months, Tennesseans will continue to rebuild the communities that have suffered devastating losses, and the spirit of service that has permeated the past week will carry on even after the physical rebuilding process is finished. SACAC members in Tennessee are working to ensure that this event won’t have negative implications for our college-going students, and we will inevitably call on the rest of our membership for assistance in the months to come.

Not Alone

Other communities within SACAC have been affected by natural disasters, and the disparity in coverage and resources is striking. In early January, Puerto Rico sustained even more damage as a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit the island. There have been daily aftershocks in the months since. These events also serve as a reminder that proximity shouldn’t become a barrier. We are a profession of empathetic, creative, change-makers. We can do better.

Here are five ways colleges can better serve students immediately after disastrous events:

  1. Be proactive versus reactive, but also prepare for obstacles surrounding communication. How do you maintain contact with students who don’t have phones, computers, TVs, or mailboxes?
  2. Plan to address the entirety of the college attainment process. Create policies surrounding deadlines, documentation, financial assistance, and registration. Think of where they are in the process, and what you’ll be asking of them during that time. Can you meet any of those needs?
  3. Identify who needs help, and don’t always assume it’s just the areas you’ve heard about in the news or online. If students are truly individuals in this process, then blanket emails to all students from one school, city, or county won’t suffice.
  4. Be willing to wait, and ready to listen. Ask affected communities what they need, and be prepared to meet those needs. Understand that you may not understand… but listen anyway.
  5. Be ready to provide assistance in the months to come. Flag students who were impacted. Follow-up at important points in the process. Check-in once they’re on campus.

Disruptions caused by natural disasters impact the students, parents and professionals involved in the college search process in uneven and, often, incalculable ways. There’s no one-size-fits-all response to tragedy, and no singular solution to the problems that students will face after disaster strikes. However, maintaining an empathetic and thoughtful approach to our work is certainly a good start to finding those solutions.