NAU will not posthumously recognize student at commencement

NAU rejected the pleas of the family of a deceased NAU student to have him recognized at the upcoming commencement ceremonies.

Nick Acevedo, who was a senior psychology major, committed suicide in March. While the NAU community was grieving over his death, Nick’s mother, Karen Acevedo, approached the university to have her son awarded a posthumous degree — a symbolic testament to a person’s educational attainment before they died.

While NAU does award posthumous degrees and has agreed to in this case, the president’s office declined the family’s request to announce Nick Acevedo’s name at commencement, citing that it is against typical posthumous-degree practice for the university.

Acevedo’s family was dismayed.

“I want his name announced; he deserves to be recognized. It would be such a small thing,” said Karen Acevedo via phone call.

NAU Dean of Students Cynthia Anderson denied the family’s request on April 20. After Karen Acevedo learned the university was not going to accept her request, the family pushed forward. On April 23 Nick Acevedo’s grandfather, William Noble, sent a letter to President Rita Cheng requesting NAU to reconsider its position.

“I am unable to comprehend the rationale for such a ruling, which on its face can only be described as cruel. I would implore you to reconsider this decision,” Noble said in his letter.

Noble also sent his letter to the president to the entire Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) and The Lumberjack.

“I don’t know where to go with this,” said Noble via a phone interview with The Lumberjack. “I don’t think my daughter is asking a whole lot, asking for an acknowledgment of posthumous diploma or a slight mention at graduation. And for the president to just flatly refuse, saying it’s not our policy — it’s just beyond my imagination.”

Noble said he reached out to a former chief of staff to the governor’s office to see what the family’s options are.

Noble had not received a response to his letter as of April 24.

NAU’s posthumous-degree policy outlines the requirements for earning a degree this way. The student must have completed at least 75 percent of his/her coursework, be in good academic and disciplinary standing and be enrolled in the university at the time of death. The university agreed to award Nick Acevedo his degree because he met all of these requirements.

At the same time, however, there is no mention in NAU’s policy on whether or not a student may be recognized in a commencement ceremony. According to NAU, this is the university’s practice.

“It is an unfortunate reality that several students die from illness, accidents, or even suicide during an academic year,” wrote NAU spokesperson Kimberly Ott in a statement to The Lumberjack. “It is NAU’s policy to present a degree posthumously if substantial degree credits have been earned.

“It is NAU’s practice, if requested by the family, to present the diploma to the family at a small private gathering,” the statement continues. “If the family prefers, we will also mail the diploma. NAU does not present posthumous degrees at venues where other students are celebrating their own accomplishments, such as a commencement exercise.”

Karen Acevedo said she thinks the university ought to take the extra step because of the nature of her son’s death. Nick Acevedo was involved in the October 2015 shooting on NAU’s campus. Although he wasn’t injured, he was a witness, and testified in the ensuing trial in April 2017. In May of that year, Coconino County Superior Court Judge Dan Slayton declared a mistrial, and after several delays, the retrial is slated for July 2018, during which Acevedo and others would have to testify again.

Karen Acevedo said her son, along with many others of the witnesses involved in the shooting, deserved more options for grief counseling from the university, as the event “affected him greatly” and made him “unhappy.”

“They were very receptive when I went up there after the shooting, but the thing is I asked them ‘why aren’t there grief counselors here?’” Karen Acevedo said. “And I was told that their counselors came from varied backgrounds, but that is not specific to grief counseling. I said, ‘you need to get grief counselors.’”

While Karen Acevedo said she does not consider NAU responsible for her son’s death, she did say the university owes the family this favor, for how it was handled.

“The boys have basically become the ‘forgotten boys,’” Karen Acevedo said.

Anderson, the dean of students, declined to comment to The Lumberjack after repeated requests, and referred the reporter to NAU Communications and Media Relations.

Nick Acevedo would have graduated May 12.