Tragedy, Flexibility, Graduation

Chestnut Hill student with cancer was originally told she wouldn't be able to participate in commencement because she was three credits short of degree. Officials reconsidered, but dilemma draws attention to how colleges adjust when a student is ill or deceased.

May 7, 2012

A Philadelphia graduate student’s case raises questions about whether colleges should allow students with a few credits remaining 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 counseling psychology at Chestnut Hill College. She expects to complete her coursework in July, meaning there wouldn't 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 counselor. She had to withdraw from one graduate program due to 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 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 hoped to hear her name called and walk across the stage. Administrators suggested a compromise, saying Furey could wear a cap and gown and carry the graduate studies banner into the ceremony, but her name wouldn’t be announced.

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

Furey wants Chestnut Hill to allow anyone close to their 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 under difficult circumstances, they have now shown their true colors and are the compassionate, flexible, understanding school that I had always hoped that they were."

Sadly, situations like 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 generally requires students to finish all their classes before attending commencement, but Dean of Students Don Stansberry said exceptions are considered in extreme circumstances. Old Dominion also has a detailed policy for how deceased or terminally ill students 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 longstanding practice of granting degrees to deceased or terminally ill students. It’s a matter of compassion, said registrar Keith Alnwick, and a way to recognize a student’s life and achievements. 

“Our motivation here is to be respectful and supportive of the student and their family,” Alnwick said. “We realize that these are extraordinarily difficult times.” But outside of 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,” President Vale wrote.

But Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for external relations of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said there’d 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 recognize that Ms. Furey is a special person, and we’re making a special exception to this policy.”

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


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