In 2014, a water crisis in Flint, Mich., had a major impact on Mott Community College. A year later, a horrific traffic accident that killed five international students and injured many more caused a huge amount of grief at North Seattle College (NSC) in Washington.
Presidents Beverly Walker-Griffea of Mott, who also serves on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors, and Warren Brown of NSC will discuss their experiences in helping their colleges get through those crises at a session during the AACC Annual Convention in New Orleans April 22-25.
The two of them had been colleagues at a leadership training session for new presidents hosted by AACC, which included a segment on dealing with crisis and tragedy.
“We had no idea what we would face eight years later,” Brown says. They stayed in touch over the years and provided support to one another, so after they had each gone through an unexpected crisis, they decided to host the upcoming convention session.
In Seattle, the international students had just arrived at NSC in September 2015 and were preparing for their first day of class. They were on a voluntary city tour when their chartered bus was hit by a “Ride the Ducks” amphibious tour bus.
Those who died ranged from one student who just turned 18 to a mother in her 50s, and they came from Korea, Japan, China, Austria and Indonesia, which added a layer of complexity to the tragedy. The students had planned to be in Seattle for a whole year and were studying a variety of subjects. Some were working on pre-college English language mastery.
Accident victims were transported to 10 hospitals. More than 30 students on the bus were injured, some severely. The college’s immediate response was to locate and identify the students, which wasn’t that easy because they were adults and were thus protected by medical privacy rules.
The accident highlighted “the dual nature of a college president,” said Warren Brown. “You have to be emotionally present and also have to serve as the legal representative of the college.”
The Ducks bus was later found to have been at fault, but Brown still has to give numerous depositions. The college also had to get involved in U.S. Department of State and foreign embassy procedures to notify families and repatriate bodies.
In some cases, the embassies were supposed to contact family members but refused to do so, Brown says. They felt it was more appropriate for the highest-level person involved to do that, such as the governor or college president.
Helping the injured
The next steps for NSC involved helping the injured students navigate the health insurance process. The Seattle Colleges require international students to buy health insurance when they enroll or show that they already have adequate coverage.
NSC was working with insurance companies not used to mass casualties, so that was challenging, Brown says. From this experience, he learned that it’s important to work with insurance companies specializing in the student market that have employees who speak multiple languages.
Several of the injured had long hospital stays but still wanted to continue their education. One of the most touching moments for Brown was seeing a student whose legs were crushed in the accident with textbooks on the nightstand in his hospital room.
If international students want to stay in the U.S., they must attend class – and many of the accident victims did want to continue with their schoolwork – so NSC sent teachers to them and their classmates brought them textbooks.
“For many of these students, there’s a sense of eagerness to get back to school as a way of creating a sense of normalcy after a very horrific situation,” Brown says.
Some of the most severely injured students weren’t able to engage in their studies. They lost a full academic year but were able to get their visas extended, he says. Many of them suffered concussions and had short-term memory loss. Lower-extremity breaks were common, too, which meant students were mobility impaired. Some also suffered psychological damage.
In cases where students’ home countries didn’t have strong support systems for victims of psychological trauma, the students weren’t used to talking about their feelings. So the college worked with its nonprofit partners, including a counseling program serving the Asian community, to provide therapy and financial assistance.
Just about everyone on campus was affected by the accident, so NSC made sure faculty and employees, as well as students, had access to counseling.
One organization brought therapy dogs to walk around the campus to help people through the grief process. “People who couldn’t talk to a counselor often would touch one of these dogs and start to cry,” Brown says. “That allowed people to open up and heal in a way that talking to a human couldn’t.”
Eventually, the college installed a monument on campus, consisting of a globe and five chairs representing the deceased – as a place for healing.
At the height of the Flint water crisis, many students and employees of Mott Community College (MCC) had to travel across the city on buses and wait in long lines at emergency water stations to pick up bottled water and filters, says MCC President Beverly Walker-Griffea.
And that meant they had difficulty getting to class on time. So MCC set up 65 hydration stations on campus with highly filtered, drinkable water.
MCC added a section to its website on water resources, giving the location of hydration stations and information on testing results, how to install filters, the health impacts of unsafe water, and community resources.
The college also had to switch out of its water system and put in filters for the on-campus bistro and restaurant. College employees had to be reassigned to manage the hydration stations and learn how to test water.
All that cost MCC about $500,000, which meant the college had to defer spending for other things, such as capital projects. Walker-Griffea, however, is grateful to the many community colleges around the state and nation that donated bottled water and filters, and for the foundations that supported community programs in Flint.
“It could be decades” before the water problem is resolved in Flint, she says. “We are still in a crisis.”
Although the city’s water levels are fine now, a new water infrastructure is being installed, and “when you disrupt the pipes, more contaminants, like lead, are unleashed into the water,” Walker-Griffea says. That means continual testing is needed and residents still must rely on bottled water until all the pipes area sealed.
“Before, water was taken for granted,” Walker-Griffea says. When the crisis hit, “we had to change our operations at the college and how we look at basic necessities. It’s very disturbing that we had not been alerted to this in a timely manner.”
“Trust has been broken with our governmental systems. Folks believe they weren’t treated in a manner that was respectful,” she continues. “So now we’re trying to rebuild trust so we can move forward as a community to work together to resolve problems.”
Walker-Griffea jointly taught a “Water for Life” course at Mott with DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College in Maryland, about the water crises in Flint and Washington, D.C., leadership in a crisis and “the impact of an aging infrastructure on a voiceless, diverse population.”
The water crisis has permanently changed Flint, which had already been hard hit by a struggling economy. At its height, the city had a population of 200,000; it’s now down to about 90,000, following the loss of jobs in the auto industry. “This did not help,” Walker-Griffea says.
“As a president, how do you prepare to move through something that was totally unexpected? You have to understand your community and the culture of your community,” she says.
Walker-Griffea had just started at MCC when the water crisis hit. “Flint was on the upswing; it was an optimistic place. It was a great space to be in,” she says. When the water crisis happened, “the whole culture changed literally overnight for me.”
All of a sudden, she heard people saying “this will wipe us out as a community.” Old wounds reopened, as divisions appeared among groups of people.
Residents who could afford to buy bottled water “sometimes came across as dismissive by those who lacked the resources,” notes Dale Weighhill, associate vice president for institutional advancement.
Listen and serve
Walker-Griffea advises presidents who face an unexpected crisis to listen to community members.
“Understand your role in that community. For me, it was knowing that Mott was a safe haven and that we were responsive and ahead of everything that was happening,” she says. And that means “people have to have expectations of honesty.”
“I learned when things are not making sense, you have to be the one asking questions and find out what is truly happening at the root,” she says. Once she understood that local officials couldn’t be trusted, she found “you have to question everything they are saying.”
“A leader has to remain calm and patient in weathering the storm,” she says. “And you need to realize that at some point, morning will come, and things will be okay. Meanwhile, you have to remain a leader and use your head.”