INTERVIEW by CHRIS SCHULZ | PHOTOGRAPHY by ASHLEY STEPHENSON
February 28, 2010 was a Sunday, sunny and hot. I was walking toward an Italian café on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles when Mark called to tell me that our friend Sandy had been killed the night before in a car accident near Bakersfield. I didn’t really know what to say or what do to. Who does, in that moment? All I could manage was repeating “Oh God” a couple times. I walked a block further, but then I stopped, turned around, and ran flat-out toward the student counseling center, hoping I might find something there—what, I don’t know. I had never been to the center. I wasn’t even sure where it was.
I could have used someone like David Fajgenbaum that day. David is the founder and chairman of National Students of AMF, and he is a singularly inspiring, energetic, and passionate man. No stranger to loss himself, David started a support group for grieving college students shortly after his mother died of a brain tumor in 2004. Initially just a resource for him and his Georgetown peers, word of his work spread, and in 2006, David and his colleagues incorporated National Students of AMF as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. They now have chapters on 37 college campuses nationwide and have served thousand of students.
You started National Students of AMF after your mother passed away.
I did. She had a brain tumor, which I found out about before I started my freshman year at Georgetown. Two weeks before she passed away, she said to me she was worried about if I would be okay after she was gone, and I told her I was going to be okay and I was going to start something in her memory. After she died, I started up Students of AMF, to help college students just like me, who’d lost a loved one. AMF stood for both Ailing Mothers and Fathers and her initials—Anne Marie Fajgenbaum.
And now the organization has grown tremendously, right?
Yes, definitely. It’s grown far beyond my expectations. I originally meant it to be just for Georgetown. And I mean, I wish it hadn’t—I wish it hadn’t needed to. I wish it had been just me in that room. But it flourished at Georgetown, just because of the need. Then we started getting word from other schools who’d heard about it, just through word-of-mouth. I was surprised at the desire to spread, but by the time we’d heard from the third or fourth school, we knew we had to take this thing national. Now we have chapters at 37 campuses. We’ve served 147 campuses, and we have had 500 student leaders.
Is there anything that’s different about college grief in particular?
Yes, it’s unique, because you’re dealing with what no one wants to talk about. College is supposed to be the best four years of your life; you’re supposed to be having fun, socializing, so no one wants to talk about death. There are a lot of unique issues because college students find themselves in such a new environment—most of them are away from home for the first time, they don’t know people around them and have no network, no one wants to talk about it, they feel alone or isolated. I found out that my mother had cancer just before I went to start my undergrad, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I went home every weekend to be with her, but no one knew why—I just said I was going home.
These grieving students have higher dropout rates, lower GPAs, drug abuse problems, suicidal ideation; there’s a whole field of research into grief in college students.
And so National Students of AMF helps address those particular needs.
Yes. We’re all about empowerment. Each chapter has two different branches: a support group and a service group. The support group is a student group that gets students together to talk and shares stories. It can be really helpful to see that you’re not alone, that other people are going though the same thing. A lot of what is currently available on campus is psychological counseling with a therapist, but this is about getting students together, talking to each other.
The service group is what makes us different from other support groups. It’s what gives students an outlet to channel their grief. Each service group chooses a cause that is meaningful to them, and then holds events to benefit that cause. For example, the first group at Georgetown, because my mom died from brain cancer, we raised money for brain cancer research. Another member’s father had died of a heart attack, so then we raised money for that. It’s therapeutic for people to be able to channel that energy toward something productive.
Do you find there’s a lack of counseling resources at schools, and do you ever come up against resistance from the administration?
A lot of students don’t know what’s available, and they don’t want to take the first step in finding out. In addition to our student groups, we act as a connector to in-campus counseling services. There’s also a disconnect between administration perceptions of student grief and the actual amount. There was a study that showed 35 to 40 percent of college students grieved the death of a friend or family member within the last two years, but administrators perceived that it was only 10 to 20 percent. They also recognized that peer support groups are needed, but they only provided counseling on their campuses.
We haven’t come across a lot of resistance. Most of the time, 75 to 90 percent, the schools are totally on board. They say, “We deal with this all the time,” and they’re thankful there’s a new, additional resource. They’ve been waiting for it. But then 10 to 15 percent of the schools say that it’s their business and that we can’t be a part of their campus network. Then we connect them to some of our Board of Mental Health Professionals members, who include several counseling center directors nationwide, including Duke’s, Georgetown’s, and Harvard’s, who talk with them. We tell them that we’re not trying to replace them, but we just want to augment and give an additional resource to what they already have. We help catch those who wouldn’t go to counseling initially, but maybe need to see a professional. Once we reassure the counseling center that we’re not trying to replace them, there’s no problem.
What’s next for Students of AMF?
It’s been a busy but very exciting time. We’re going through some organizational restructuring—I should give you some background. From September to February, I was in the hospital four and a half out of those six months, at first without a diagnosis. They eventually found out it was Castleman’s disease, and I was receiving chemotherapy several times a week. My doctor actually called in a priest, and I heard my last rites in November. I’ve been in complete remission since the end of February. But my time away from the organization highlighted some weaknesses we had, so now we’re restructuring how we work, so we can continue to grow over the next five years, fifteen, twenty years.
We’re also finalists in the Pepsi Refresh Challenge, which is a contest whose grand prize is a $25,000 grant. The final selection is a vote on the internet, and since we’re spread out to so many schools across the country, that makes it easier for us—it’s all in our hands now.
What can Daily BR!NK readers to do help you and Students of AMF?
The first thing is to get the word out. There are a lot of students, and a lot who are grieving, so sharing with them, setting up groups, all that is very valuable. Using social media has really been valuable as well—all our publicity has been basically word-of-mouth, so Facebook and Twitter are great ways to spread the word. Also, if anyone wants to be a student leader or volunteer. Our staff is entirely made up of volunteers, and we rely on them for everything. So if anyone wants to give some time, it won’t be just licking stamps or stuffing envelopes, it will be actual, staff-level work—coming up with marketing ideas and such. And lastly, fundraising. Because we’re all-volunteer, and we’ve got such low budget, a dollar goes a long way. A lot of larger organizations, small donations don’t do that much, but because we’re very efficient, we can get a lot with a dollar.
Sandy and I were on an improv comedy troupe together. The ten of us leaned hard on each other for the next weeks. But while the weight of our loss would have crushed me, would have crushed any one of us, with everyone carrying it together, it wasn’t so heavy. And that’s what David, his colleagues, and the students across the country who are inspired by and continue his work do: they grab hold of each other, pick themselves up, and walk, step by painful, hopeful step, toward the dawn.
And that dawn does come: a number of Sandy’s friends are now taking the first steps toward starting a chapter at the University of Southern California, which would be the Los Angeles area’s first. If you are interested in starting a chapter of National Students of AMF, more information is available at www.studentsofamf.org.