Mannequin prompts PA firing

Olivia Birk, a senior, was the PA of Second West Ashton.


On Dec. 13, 2013, senior Olivia Birk was fired from her position as peer advisor on Second West Ashton. Birk said she was fired after two students contacted Residence Life with concerns about her mental health and the possibility of her committing suicide.

Birk said she understands why the students were concerned but feels that her removal from the floor was rushed, damaged the community of the floor and falsely presented her as mentally unstable. She also feels that the handling of the circumstances leading up to her removal could perpetuate a fear of talking about mental health.

“It suggests that student leaders must be perfect, that they should have no room for improvement,” Birk said. “But I think the best leaders are flawed.”

In an email obtained by The Falcon, Dean of Students for Community Joel Perez said that the Residence Life staff involved in the decision to fire Birk believed that it had been made with Birk’s best interest in mind.

Birk said that she has suffered from anxiety issues in the past. Since coming to SPU, she said that she has taken steps to control and manage her anxiety through counseling and medication.
Birk said that she has been seeing an SPU-appointed counselor for more than a year. Additionally, she said that she has been receiving medication to help control her anxiety through a nurse practitioner at the SPU Health Center.
At the time of her hiring last March, Birk said that Residence Life was aware of her anxiety issues, that she was taking medication and that she was participating in regular counseling sessions.
Residence Life staff and PAs who were contacted by The Falcon declined to comment. Her counselor declined as well. The resident who first contacted Residence Life could not be reached for comment.

Additionally, Birk’s counselor and the Student Health Center said they couldn’t confirm or deny ever seeing Birk due to confidentiality laws. According to Birk, here’s what happened and some of the questions and concerns that were raised.

Initial Concerns
At noon on Dec. 10 last year, Birk awoke to the sound of knocking at her door.
“It was a stressful week… I was on call the night before and had broken up with my girlfriend that weekend,” Birk said. “So I was sleeping in.”
She checked her phone and saw that she had missed several calls from a Residence Life coordinator. Throwing on some clothes, she opened her door and saw the worried face of the on-call RLC.
“He told me to get some shoes on, that we needed to talk at the RLC office,” Birk said. “He said that he had received a call and was concerned for my safety.”
Birk believes that the safety concerns arose from her use of a mannequin as a means to cope with stress.
“I always use a mannequin to help tell my story,” Birk said. “I point to the pictures about my parents’ divorce on the back … to the fork that represents that the first time I saw my parents fight was at the dinner table.”

Birk has been using her mannequin as a way to express her emotional states since her senior year of high school.

“It’s like drawing a sad picture or listening to music,” Birk said. “It’s a therapeutic way of dealing with my thoughts and feelings.”

The mannequin started as a senior project. Over the years, Birk said it has turned into much more. After her high school graduation, Birk continued to use the mannequin to help handle the social, academic and emotional stresses of college. Often, she removes or alters the appearance of the mannequin to express what is happening in her life.

At the beginning of this school year, Birk had decided that she was going to publicly announce her sexuality to the floor using her mannequin. Birk said that she doesn’t identify with any specific sexual orientation. Though she said about two-thirds of the floor already knew about her sexual orientation, most didn’t know about the mannequin.

When she started dating her ex-girlfriend in April of last year, Birk gave her the mannequin’s right hand as part of a collage. Birk’s ex-girlfriend returned the hand after they broke up. Birk said that after getting the hand back, she wrapped it in gauze and wrote William Butler Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old,” on top of the gauze.

“I hope someday to take the gauze off,” Birk said. “Then I will re-collage the hand and give it away again.”

On the night of her breakup, Birk returned to her room and placed a paper trash bag over the mannequin’s head and tied it to the neck with twine and a heart-shaped necklace that her ex-girlfriend had given her. She also removed the mannequin’s arms. She tied the twine into a noose around the mannequin’s neck. She tied the necklace loosely on top of the noose.

“After the breakup, I felt that part of my identity had been severed,” Birk said. “I took off her arms to say that that part of me had died… The bag was to express how I was feeling inside.”

Hutton Sutherland, a freshman on Second West, was in Birk’s room watching while she rearranged her mannequin.

“I’m an art person, so I liked the mannequin,” Sutherland said. “It was cool to see her life in front of us.”

Sutherland said that she would frequently visit Birk in her room and study the different symbols and words on the mannequin and try to depict what they meant to Birk.

“It was a cool conversation piece, a way to get to know her,” Sutherland said. “It was a part of her… If you knew Olivia, you probably knew about the mannequin.”

Birk said that after seeing the mannequin the following day, a resident became concerned and asked her how she was doing. Birk told the resident that she was hurt but fine. Later, the resident asked again. Birk gave her the same response. Birk decided to dismantle the mannequin immediately after talking with the resident.

“I realized that some of the residents might be troubled or confused by [the mannequin],” Birk said. “If it was freaking people out, I didn’t want it up.”

Birk said that during fall quarter, she had had conversations about mental health with the resident who later contacted Residence life.

“Because of those conversations, she was apparently concerned for my mental health,” Birk said. “But she didn’t ask me anything about if I was suicidal, if I was emotionally stable… She just asked how I was doing.”

Birk said that this resident later contacted Residence Life with concerns about Birk possibly committing suicide. While on rounds later that week, Birk made comments about her breakup to a PA who later contacted Residence Life with concerns about her emotional stress level.

Following Up

At roughly 1 p.m. on Dec. 10, Birk and the on-call RLC walked out of the Student Counseling Center. If there is a concern about mental health, Residence Life protocol requires the student to be taken into the counseling center to talk with a counselor. Birk said that she met with her counselor. Birk said that during their meeting they talked about the nuances of suicide and how most people respond to it with panic.

“He said that as a health care professional, he understands that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, that he didn’t think it was a big deal,” Birk said. “I explained to him what the noose represented… He said that he thought that it was a misunderstanding.”

Birk said that Residence Life never attempted to meet with her counselor or her nurse practitioner. Birk said that at her request, her counselor agreed to reach out to Residence Life Coordinator Matt Cox and explain how Birk used the mannequin as an emotional outlet. The next morning, Birk met with Cox to talk about his meeting with her counselor. During the meeting, Cox mentioned that they would have to do a follow-up with Director of Residence Life Gabe Jacobsen the next day.

On Dec. 12, Birk and Cox had the first of two meetings with Jacobsen. During this meeting, Birk said that it wasn’t clear if her position was in jeopardy until she asked Jacobsen if her job was on the line. Jacobsen told Birk that he would tell her if she was going to be fired before she left. Birk was flying home to Colorado the following afternoon.

Former PA Birk  uses a mannequin to express her emotions.

Former PA Birk uses a mannequin to express her emotions.

The final decision 

On the morning of Dec. 13, Birk and Cox met with Jacobsen for the second time.  In the meeting, Jacobsen told Birk that she was fired. Birk received her official letter of termination via email on Dec. 16. The letter cited the mannequin and the comments Birk had made to the PA as the main reasons for termination.  The letter explained that the public display of her mannequin had resulted in a confrontation by one of her residents who was concerned for her safety and the possibility that Birk was going to hurt herself.

The letter, obtained by The Falcon, read, “The level of struggle that became apparent to us in this situation is high enough that it does not seem healthy for you to be working through the current issues you are dealing with while carrying the demands and pressures of the PA role. Our hope is that you will have extra time and space to give more immediate attention to your own well-being in the upcoming quarters.”

On Dec. 17, Birk sent a letter of appeals to Jacobson regarding the decision to fire her.

An email response to Birk from Perez obtained by The Falcon reads, “Thank you for you email and your well-thought out letter in regards to the decision to remove you as PA. After speaking to others about this matter the decision is not one that can be appealed… I want to make sure you understand the decision will not be reversed.”

The Aftermath

Over Christmas break, Birk said she talked to Cox on the phone. Birk said Cox told her that he had talked with only two of the women on Second West before Residence Life made a decision. Birk said Cox told her that his conversations with the two residents didn’t last more than 20 minutes each. Birk also said that after talking with residents after returning from winter break, one of the residents told Residence Life that Birk’s sexual orientation had caused tension between who knew and who didn’t. She said that she questions how Residence Life was able to determine that her role as a PA was compromised when they only talked with two of her residents and one of her healthcare providers.

“Two residents isn’t a good determinant of the whole floor,” Birk said. “Honestly, I just feel like they inferred a lot based on just a few things.”

Birk said that after getting fired she was told that she had to be moved off the floor before students returned from winter break.

Birk’s termination letter, obtained by The Falcon, reads, “Your RLC, Matt Cox, will be in contact with you to help with the details of finding another housing placement.”

Birk said that she received no help.

“I was homeless and couch surfing for about a month and half,” Birk said. “They told me that my RLC would be in contact with me to help with the details about housing placement… It never happened.”

She currently lives with two friends in an apartment on West Emerson Street.

“[Residence Life] said that this decision was made in my best interest … but I’ve honestly struggled to feed myself for the past few months,” Birk said. “I struggle to pay rent; people have had to buy me groceries… I don’t understand how that could be true.”

Additionally, Birk said that she has spent more time in the Counseling Center this quarter than she ever has before.

An English major, Birk said that she had saved over $2,000 over the course of several years to finance her post-graduation goal of teaching English to students in South Korea. Since her termination, she has spent all $2,000 on rent and living expenses.

After her termination, Birk published a post on the Second West Facebook page explaining what had happened. Shortly after reading the post, Sutherland and 17 of the 35 Second West residents signed and emailed a petition to Jacobsen protesting Birk’s termination.

The petition read, “We understand the circumstances leading to [Birk’s] termination… We do not agree with the decision to fire her because of it. We love our PA and believe that taking her away from our floor will do more harm than good.”

The letter also said that they believed that the majority of the floor’s opinions had been misrepresented.

The email response from Perez, obtained by The Falcon, reads, “I want to let you know that this decision was not an easy one and that Gabe Jacobsen, the Director of Residence, and the RLCs wrestled with it extensively. We really believe this decision has Olivia’s best interest in mind.”

The letter instructed residents to voice their concerns during at upcoming meeting between the floor and their RLCs.

“At the meeting, they said if we had questions, we could ask,” Second West freshman Thu Pham said. “But it felt like they avoided every question… Like they were using confidentiality as an excuse not to explain.”

Pham said that she feels that the floor is much more divided than it had been previously.

“Before, we were pretty together. I felt like we were a family,” Pham said. “When we got back … half the floor wanted to talk about it, the other half didn’t.”

Second West was without a PA for two weeks before the position was filled.

Birk is currently keeping the mannequin in a storage facility. She said that she hopes to bring it out of storage soon and continue using it to cope with her anxiety.

“I hope people will come to understand mental health better because of what happened to me,” Birk said. “Ultimately, I just wonder… Was this the best for me and the floor?”

Staff reporter Celina Kituku also contributed reporting in this story.

Two names have been removed from this article’s original version published on April 16th – one because of privacy concerns, and the other to honor a promise of confidentiality made to the source before publication.  

This article was posted in the section News and tagged .
Alex Cnossen

Editor-in-Chief Alex Cnossen is a junior journalism major.

22 thoughts on “Mannequin prompts PA firing

  1. This is so frustrating. I keep waiting and hoping for Res Life to get better, but it doesn’t. PA’s continue to be held at absurd standards, as if they are supposed to be perfect people/ rock stars to the adoring freshman who don’t know anyone over the age of 20. College students go through hard things, and if anything, Olivia’s coping methods are a sign that she was doing her best to take healthy steps to recovery and a flourishing life.

    It’s so hurtful to SPU fire someone over these kinds of circumstances. It is worth noting that they specifically took issue with the fact that not everyone was comfortable with her sexuality. While I realize that may be how some women felt, it should not have impacted her firing. What kind of community are we if we cannot have grace for people going through difficult situations? I feel so sorry for Olivia and the pain (both emotional and financial) that Res Life has caused. I want to see Res Life treat PA’s better, but by the number of PA’s who were fired or quit this year, it’s clear that Res Life has some deep issues it needs to work out.

    • You do not know the reasons why the PAs who were asked to step down, so don’t assume that it is Residence Life who has issues to figure out. At SPU we have a small and close-knit community. This has its pros and cons. One drawback is that people assume they always know the truth to every situation. The other is that everyone knows when a PA leaves. A PA leaving their position (by choice or not) is very common at other schools. This year is not “normal” by SPU standards because we have had 4 PAs, for one reason or another, leave. If it were any other university it would be normal.

  2. While a good portion of this angers me, what really gets to me is this: If you claim to be firing a person for their own well-being, but then leave them without food and shelter, you’re lying about your motives. Olivia most likely has cause to file suit, if she were so inclined.

  3. This is so, so troubling. I am appalled at the level to which this school will stoop to silence self expression, ignore realities of mental health and personal growth, and, as evidenced in this article, ultimately fracture developing lives because they are uncomfortable with a person’s piece of 3D art. We are left with the lesson that if your writing or art or personal way of dealing with life is too taboo, you will be dismissed. All I could think for the entire article is that Olivia Birk is an artistic genius, and I can’t wait to see her art—whatever medium—in the future.

    • Since graduating from SPU in 2011, I’ve had the opportunity to brag about its fantastic professors, high-quality education, and the general open-mindedness of the student body. As presented here so eloquently in the Falcon (thanks, guys), nothing ever prepares me for the repeated slap in the face the students of SPU receive from the Administration.
      As someone who currently works in mental health, this firing of Olivia by Res Life because of her “level of struggle” only increases that level of struggle, the one they claim they are so concerned with in the first place. Not only do I question their actual motives, Olivia is absolutely within her rights to take some sort of legal action. Only clinically licensed counselors are legally able to determine if someone is going to hurt themselves. Not only did Res Life outstep their bounds, they seemingly ignored the information her therapist gave them.

      It sounds like Olivia has found an extremely healthy coping mechanism, one that involves her floor and actually opens up the floor for discussion of positive mental health. How is that not a GOOD thing? When I was dealing with suicidal thoughts my freshman year, I would have relished having a PA honest enough to talk with me about it. It would have done me good, not harm. Consider this next time you overreact, Res Life.

      All in all, SPU Res Life, you seem to care more about your presented image over Olivia’s wellbeing (and leaving her out in the cold). This, to me, Res Life, is the antithesis of positively changing your student body, let alone the world. I’m rather ashamed of you right now.

  4. I am pained in hearing this news. Good lord, Res Life!

    As a former PA (serving for two years), Res Life Intern, and Res Life student worker, I totally drank the perfectionist/responsible/joyful kool-aid and STRUGGLED a vast majority of the time. Though I learned great deal about myself in the process, I attest that life as a PA is full of stress with the unrealistic expectations as “M” said.

    I think that Olivia is a champ for sticking it through and fighting for her convictions and identity. I admire your work as a fellow artist and I similarly use art as a means to express whatever feelings words cannot accurately explain. Way to go, Olivia!

    Even though I don’t know you, if you ever need anything like more groceries or whatever, holla at me. I’d love to meet you and help you in any way I can.

  5. What’s sad about these comments above and this entire article is that it is not written from a neutral perspective AT ALL. It’s written from a perspective of “this is what happened, let me dig for more dirt and make this department look like crap”. Of course Res Life can’t comment on anything. They are held to LEGAL STANDARDS just like the Counseling Center is.

    If any of you had any real sense, you’d recognize that there are two sides to every story. You’d also realize that someone who can’t necessarily care for themselves well shouldn’t be caring for other residents. Have you ever heard of a liability?

    Does the Falcon editor ever take into account how they hurt more people when they let crappy writers use peoples’ names and drag them into the dirt? This newspaper feels more and more like a Perez Hilton fiasco every day. Set your journalism students up for success…

    • That’s reaching pretty far to say that a troubling art piece = she “can’t necessarily care for [herself] well”. Its sad that she felt pressured to dismember it when someone started asking questions, and worse that it cost her her job and her home. So glad that an outlet exists where Olivia’s side can be represented. Thanks Falcon.

    • Liana,

      I understand that this article does not have Residence life’s perspective. However, this article did not “dig up dirt” on the issue. They interviewed Olivia, residents of Second West (the floor affected by their PA being fired), and they obtained the original letters Residence Life sent to Olivia and the girls on the floor who petitioned.

      This article is presenting THE FACTS of the situation, there is no opinion besides that of Olivia’s and the girls interviewed for the story who live on Second West and were directly affected by losing their PA.

      I am a resident of Second West and I do agree with you that some of the comments above are a bit too hateful towards Residence Life. However, I don’t appreciate you bashing the writers of this article or the people involved because the writers did as much as they could to present the facts of the situation so that the students at SPU and others could know Olivia and Second Wests side of the story; the side that was truly affected and really matters.

      There are two sides to every story, and this article is presenting the side that was truly affected by this, Olivia and the girls on the floor who lost an amazing PA. Residence life is there to support its residents, but in this case for both Olivia and our floor they did not.

  6. Hello Falcon and SPU students,

    Recently, you may have read an article concerning our floor, 2W and a situation that happened with our PA.

    As members of the floor we would like to come forward to say, please do not be so quick to judge this situation because you have read one biased article. From many members of the floor, we would like to say that the article was missing facts and it is a not neutral portrayal of the situation. The parties from the other side of the story are either unable to comment or unwilling to put forth more details out of respect for Olivia and other residents. There were many other factors contributing to the firing.

    Residence Life has their fair share of problems, but the villainization of them in this article is unfair.
    Also, Please do not make a villain out of the man who is Matt Cox. With all the facts, you would know that Matt Cox actually fought for Olivia’s job.
    Despite the fact that Matt Cox often gets unfair criticism from students because of his disciplinary role within the dorms, he continues to be so passionate towards his job and towards students. He does not deserve the lash back he has received from this.

    -Some members of 2W and Witnesses of the Scenario

    • How do you know that Matt Cox fought for Olivia’s job? More importantly this article does list Matt’s name but only in the factual statements about the meetings he went to with Olivia.
      Other than that he is mentioned again as the RLC who didn’t approach Olivia to help her with housing after she was fired. To me, he is not being portrayed as a villain and above all he is not even a main part of this article, obviously the termination letter was from faculty way higher up in residence life than Cox…

      Readers are free to come up with their own opinions on Residence Life after reading the facts of Olivia’s termination and the opinions of many girls on Second West.

  7. I am upset to read these things that have taken place. I definitely want to send encouragement to Olivia and commend her for being so full of courage as to share her personal struggles. It can be very hard to admit mental health struggles as there is still unfortunately such a stigma around that type of health issue. I believe that leaders can have both strengths and weaknesses and sometimes being able to show vulnerability takes great strength and bravery. Thanks Olivia for encouraging others that its ok to be fully themselves. Like Laura said in a comment i would have really needed that when i was a student at SPU dealing with anciety and depression as well. God bless.

  8. This story is very one sided, and i can’t imagine how the “resident” that “got her fired” feels. Its time to show extra grace to second west.

    As far as i can tell the story goes like this:
    PA expresses self with mannequin > residents see noose around mannequin’s neck > residents go to RLCs with concern > RLCs work with councilor and decide to remove PA from position.

    Res-life definitely cares for PA’s and in this case i believe they were putting the health of Olivia over the health of the floor. And of course 2w wants their friend Olivia back!

    The falcon is doing anything but fostering good conversation with Res Life. Is sad that the longest article they have ever written is a hit-piece on the schools staff, which serve the student body.

    • Bob,
      The fault in your explanation and what seems to be the reason for this article is the “RLC’s work with councilor and decide to remove PA from position” part. Olivia’s councilor cleared her for any pending serious mental health issues. Also the RLC’S failed to respond to the other 33 girls on that floor about the issue or their petition. More importantly they failed to take Olivia and her councilors opinion into account about her current mental health. That is the problem.

      • Just because 2 parties so not reach the same decision, does not mean that they “failed” to take the other sides opinion into account. Conflict resolution is messy, which is why Res Life emphasizes grace-filled-community. RL responded to the floor (by instating a new PA), just not in the way they wanted.

        I think all the comments on this page are really hurtful to the residents that stepped out in concern for their PA’s health. Shame on you all/ the falcon.

  9. Liana,
    I agree with you entirely that Res Life probably fired her because of legal standards, but to say it was in her best interest? To not admit that they were just avoiding a lawsuit? To say that it was healthiest for her when they didn’t listen to a counselor? Just come clean: We know this is going to hurt you but we’ve got to protect ourselves legally.
    Based on what the article said, Res Life claimed to be helping her, help her find housing, etc. They shouldn’t make false claims. Just be honest. So yes, they absolutely have legal standards but they should also make those clear, not just spread some “we’re helping you” nonsense.
    PS: Your angry rant sounds more like Perez Hilton than this article. At least they offered facts and didn’t personally insult people.

    • Liana,
      I agree with you entirely that Res Life probably fired her because of legal standards, but to say it was in her best interest? To not admit that they were just avoiding a lawsuit? To say that it was healthiest for her when they didn’t listen to a counselor? Just come clean: We know this is going to hurt you but we’ve got to protect ourselves legally.
      Based on what the article said, Res Life claimed to be helping her, help her find housing, etc. They shouldn’t make false claims. Just be honest. So yes, they absolutely have legal standards but they should also make those clear, not just spread some “we’re helping you” nonsense.
      PS: Your angry rant sounds more like Perez Hilton than this article. At least they offered facts and didn’t personally insult people.

  10. This is article seems one-sided. I wish we could all step back and just realize that no one involved is perfect, that no one (the Falcon, Res Life, any fellow student in the dorms) is evil. I am sure that there were people hurt by the decisions made. I am sure that the professional staff who made the decisions had significant reasons – reasons they cannot share because of privacy rules (look up FERPA… its the reason our parents cant see our grades and finances unless we let em) and basic employer ethics. I suspect that, with a little perspective, we could see that there are no sides – just people trying to live well, care well, and be a part of our community. As we head into Easter weekend, perhaps we afford everyone involved in this conversation a little grace.

  11. There needs to be a balance between an individual’s private rights and upholding university job responsibilities. Privately, a person has civil rights which protect oneself from being harassed or discriminated against without public condemnation and severe judgement, despite her questionable methods of emotional processing. When a Christian university looses its ability to balance justice with Christ-like love and compassion, then the university needs to check itself. Likewise, if a young woman who recently lost her partner and is suffering from depression needs to check herself and learn how to manage her feelings so that she can continue to perform her job duties competently. We all come undone. The real challenge is to put ourselves in her shoes and walk with her as she learns to find her transcendent source of support in difficult times. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us?

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