Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Death, Transition, and Resilience: A Narrative Study of the Academic Persistence of Bereaved College Students

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Maureen Wilson (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

D-L Stewart (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Paul Cesarini (Other)

Fourth Advisor

Christina Lunceford (Committee Member)


This study used narrative inquiry to focus on the lived experiences of undergraduate and graduate students who have experienced a significant death loss during their studies and have academically persisted in the face of adversity. The purpose of this research was to understand and describe how undergraduate and graduate students academically persist within higher education after a significant death loss. Providing this affirmative narrative illuminated the educational resilience that occurs following a death loss experience. Using educational resilience as the conceptual model and Schlossberg's transition theory as the theoretical framework, the overarching research question that guided this study was: What are the narratives of bereaved college students who academically persist in the face of adversity?

Participants included seven undergraduate and graduate students from three institutions of higher education across the United States. Participants engaged in two semi-structured interviews and an electronic journaling activity to share their death loss experience. Interviews were conducted face-to-face and virtually.

Composite narratives were used to present the data from this study. The seven participants in this study were highlighted through four composite characters who met monthly at a Death Cafe. Findings revealed challenges that bereaved college students experienced, including how their bond and relationship to the deceased were not always acknowledged by outsiders. Additionally, the distance from one's support systems and a lack of finances often created obstacles to grieve and mourn. Most participants experienced more than one death loss, but often expressed a deep loss that was at the forefront of their narrative. Lastly, all participants shared how they were able to push through and persevere with their academics following their death loss. This research contributes to the growing literature on bereaved college students in higher education.