COE faculty member aids in rare study on terrorism

In the early hours of April 2, 2015, terrorists in Kenya launched an attack on a university full of students. Hours later, 147 people, mostly from Garissa University College, were dead. Traumatic incidents of this type and survivor resiliency have been widely studied in the West. However, in Africa, where such violence is a growing concern, research is scarce about how students who have experienced such violence can be helped in finishing their degrees.

In one of the first studies on the topic, University of North Texas researcher Marc Cutright joined James Oteni Jowi of Moi University, in a qualitative inquiry into what practices might best help those individuals heal and complete their academic goals.

"These are young people who had been shot multiple times, lost limbs or witnessed executions of their classmates," said Cutright, an associate professor of higher education and the director of the UNT Higher Education Development Initiative. "Sadly, we'll probably continue to see heinous attacks like this. We, as researchers, wanted to know if there were lessons that could be learned that could help these and any future students in their emotional recovery so that they can continue with and finish their education."

The study, "Recovery from terrorism: Testimony from survivors of Garissa and lessons learned for supporting resilience," will be presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference December 7–9 in Wales, and also at the Comparative International Education Society annual conference March 5–9 in Atlanta.

After the 2015 bloodshed, the roughly 450 surviving students were offered the opportunity to transfer to Moi University in Kenya or to sister campuses. Most declined. Of those who transferred to Moi University, 11 completed the research interviews.

For a few, it was the first time they had been allowed to speak at length about that day.

Among the findings that will be presented in December, the researchers noticed a few interesting takeaways:

  • Counseling should be long term. All 11 students initially received counseling, but free treatment in the following months was rare. The students wanted additional therapy so they could cope with unresolved and new issues that had developed. Students also wanted peer-to-peer counseling to provide help to students who declined support from authorities.
  • Faith-based counseling can be a part of, but may not be the sole, solution. Many of the Christian students were at the chapel reciting morning prayers when the attack began; afterward, they found comfort in God and their faith. However, others blamed God for the attack.
  • A financial advocate should ensure contributions and distributions are transparent and fair.Most of the students received nothing from the millions of shillings that had been donated on the students' behalf. Several survivors who asked about this were threatened, directly and indirectly, with expulsion from school. The students felt a representative in financial dealings would prevent misuse of funds.
  • Survivors need a sense of belonging and community. Some survivors kept friendships from their time at Garissa; however, few made new friends at the new school and several said they had withdrawn from the social world. Many felt the chance to tell their stories to others would help.