The Disappearance of Samantha Green (podcast)

April 29, 2017 dawned clear and hot, more like mid-summer than a late spring day. One week after her last class and three days after finals Samantha Green walked across the nearly empty parking lot to her car. Having turned in her dorm key, she squeezed into her overstuffed Camry, started the engine, selected a music playlist, and drove away from Southeastern University. . .

never to be seen or heard from again.

Samantha was no stranger to Southeastern University when she arrived 236 days earlier for the start of her freshman year. Her parents had met at Southeastern. Graduation, a wedding, three jobs and two cities later, Samantha was born.

Though they never returned to Lakeland to live, when in town they visited campus. Occasionally, when classes were in, they stopped to roam the campus and look up old professors. When at the beginning of her sophomore year Samantha announced she was going to Southeastern University, no one was surprised.

Samantha devoured the website. She studied hard, took the SAT, and submitted her application. While visiting campus she reveled in the attention and excitement the admissions process brought. She counted down the days till Orientation Weekend.

Samantha was ready for college. A good student with a 3.54 GPA, 12 dual enrollment hours and 1100 SAT score. Connecting online, she already had met 6-7 other freshmen. With her major chosen and schedule set she was ready.

What she wasn’t ready for was the loneliness that inevitably comes from being away from family and childhood friends. She struggled with limited finances, making friends and spending enough time studying. Her first semester GPA was disappointing. Redoubling her efforts and utilizing tutoring services, she triumphantly raised her first year to 3.24. She was back, or at least everyone thought so.

Security footage is kept for only 30 days. Had it been available it would show only what we already know. Samantha walking across the parking lot, getting into her car, and driving off, alone. The OnStar system in her car never activated. Her phone never logged a 911 call. Samantha just drove away and disappeared.

129 days passed before anyone noticed she was missing. Even then, she wasn’t missed. Her Student ID number appeared on a list of no-shows. At the end of drop/add, her schedule was dropped, the housing and business offices notified, a last date of attendance recorded and “Unknown” listed as the reason for her disappearance.

Samantha is not the only one. In the last three years 749 first-year students have disappeared from Southeastern. Of those, 424 disappeared without a reason.

We don't call it a disappearance. That’s too harsh. We call students who disappear stop outs or drop outs and occasionally transfer outs. Most of the time we don’t know what to call them. Because we don’t know why they disappeared.

Rarely, is there a singular reason for their disappearance. Typically, it’s a combination of identifiable risk factors. Among SEU students, the cost to attend can prove greater than scholarships and family resources combined. Simply receiving a needs-based scholarship, such as Pell or federal work study, increases their risk of disappearance.

Being the first member of their family to attend college is a point of pride. It’s also a risk factor. So is having a middle of the road high school GPA, a low SAT/ACT test score, and having no dual enrolled hours.

Being a young man means they are 23% more likely of disappearing. If a student is black, they are 18% more likely. Combine the two, and a black man is 39% more likely to disappear.

Academic success or failure in their first term is one of the most impactful influences determining a student’s future.

Answering no, or “I’m not sure” to any of a number of four-word questions can doom a student. “Do I fit in?” “Have I made friends?” “Can I do this?” Ultimately, these questions foreshadow the penultimate question, “Is it worth it?” Is the perceived value greater than the cost, financial and otherwise? Can I do this for less somewhere else?

Before you can fix a problem, you have to recognize there is one. Then you have to decide if it’s worth fixing. To fix this problem, you have to know three things. Who are the disappeared? Why do students disappear? Why do students stay?

Do you want to know how many disappeared from your department, your school, your college, your site?

If yes, then check out the RPG Initiative dashboard.

Thank you for viewing this story. This version does not include the link to the live dashboard and reports.
If you have questions, please contact: Dr. Kenneth Reaves at kmreaves@seu.edu