by Bonnie Butcher

Dr. Mary Alice Varga has seen the ways loss can influence one’s life, through her many interactions with college student and peers. She also experienced loss in her family at a young age.

Dr. Mary Alice Varga“I knew it was very multi-faceted, and I understand how complex it can be to deal with,” she stated.

Varga has been involved in grief research since her doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee. Her involvement researching and publishing on the topic of grief is extensive, and this year she received the UWG College of Education Outstanding Research Award. Recently, she has brought her focus to the UWG student population in a new study.

“My research focuses on grieving college students and how the loss of a loved one can effect the collegiate experience,” said Varga, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Leadership, Research and School Improvement. “I have examined specific college student populations, including African-American female college students, graduate students and Arab female college students. I am also examining the use of various online platforms and social media in providing grief support for students.”

“I really wanted to understand the pulse of what was going on with grief on our campus,” Varga said. “First I talked with Student Affairs and the Counseling Center. I told them I’d love to find out what is going on and work together, and they really encouraged me.”

Varga surveyed the entire UWG student body and received almost 1,100 responses. Overall, the study aimed to measure incidents of grief on campus, the way grief affected the student, the types of support they utilized and risk of prolonged grief.

“At the end of the survey I asked students if they wanted to interview one-on-one with me to talk about their grief experiences,” Varga stated. “I had over 300 students wanting to interview with me, which is amazing.”

She is currently in the process of interviewing these students. While continuing interviewing UWG students about their grief experiences, Varga is also working with colleagues to establish reliability and validity of two grief instruments. 

“The first instrument will measure levels of attachment that college students experienced with the deceased, an important component in the trajectory of the grief process,” Varga said. “The second instrument will examine psychometric properties of the holistic grief affects college students experience.”

Varga previously received a president’s research grant as well and recently received additional funding from the Provost’s Office to continue this study and specifically look at the grief experiences of African-American females on campus.

“I am especially interested in this population because what I found in interviews with these women is that their experiences are very unique,” Varga stated. “I’m currently expanding this study in partnership with the University of Missouri. We’re now conducting research with African-American females who have experienced a loss on both campuses, and my colleague at University of Missouri is helping me understand those unique differences.”

Varga’s specific research interests have developed through a combination of factors and experiences throughout her life. While working on her Doctorate in Educational Psychology and Research at the University of Tennessee, she found particular interest in academic achievement and metacognition among at-risk students. During that time, she had a graduate research assistantship with a program called the Grief Outreach Initiative. The program trained college students to mentor grieving children in the community.

“It was amazing because it gave students the experience of working with these children while we were teaching and supervising them, and it gave the children in the community a resource and stability in a time of uncertainty,” she said.

Varga has a colleague who experienced the loss of his mother while he was in college, and he decided to initiate a peer-to-peer support group where students can come together and just talk about their grief. This grassroots initiative, called Students of Actively Moving Forward (AMF), originated at Georgetown University and has spread across the nation. UWG now has its own chapter. For more information on this organization, visit

“Most often in college, students are away from their support system,” said Varga. “Being on a college campus, talking about death and grief probably doesn’t seem like the cool thing to do, and people tend to hold it in.

“The more I talked to students, faculty and administrators, the more I realized there needs to be something done,” she concluded. “Luckily UWG is great, but a lot of institutions don’t even have policies in place to deal with this. One of my goals is to help educate campuses and faculty on the importance of recognizing grief and supporting the students.”

Posted on September 15, 2016