When people in the Mills community learned that Jennifer Boevers, who graduated from Mills last May, died on Sept. 15 from a long illness, they were deeply saddened and disturbed, but not necessarily surprised.
At 23, Boevers, or J. Lee as she liked to be called, stood about 5'5" and appeared to weigh no more than 80 to 90 pounds. Many at Mills who knew her were aware that she was sick. They knew she was struggling, and although it was not necessarily spoken of, many suspected that she suffered from anorexia nervosa, a psychological disorder which causes people, primarily women, to starve themselves and believe they are overweight even when very thin, according to 4woman.gov.
According to her death certificate, anorexia nervosa and severe malnutrition were the underlying causes of Boevers' death. Now students are questioning what the community did and is doing to help Boevers and others who suffer from eating disorders.
"I am very disappointed that the college has not acknowledged this loss," said Charity Tooze, a senior and classmate of Boevers. "This problem is a social disease and why is it always silenced or sensationalized? If you want to honor her, help other students."
Leila Khatapoush, a senior who frequently gave Boevers rides to school because she was too frail to take the bus and carry all of her art equipment, echoed Tooze.
"Why are people so quiet as a community?" asked Khatapoush. "Why can't we come together and have a memorial? An opportunity for us within that pain and discomfort to value what wasn't sick and destroyed about her. I don't understand why no one's talking about it. Truth and healing, to critically think, not hide our heads in our hand."
Provost Mary Ann Milford, Boevers' professor and advisor, said that she sent a letter of condolence to the family. According to the Office of Student Life, any further acknowledgment from Mills will come through the Alumnae Association, since Boevers graduated. Her death will be announced in the Mills Quarterly alumnae magazine next April and the association will send a letter of condolence, according to Donna Castro, director of the association. Nothing else has been planned at this time.
Boevers, who grew up in Covington, Wash. was a passionate artist and art studio major as well as a Mills honor student. Described by some as "incredibly ambitious," she took on an enormous amount of work during her senior show last spring by installing a piece of work that fused painting and ceramics.
Stephan Jost, director of the Mills Art Museum, said Boevers was an innovator.
"J. Lee pushed the limits of what undergrads are capable of," Jost said. "We are extraordinarily proud of her and impressed by her ambition."
Because of its enormity, Boevers' installation required that she be in the museum 18 hours a day, a testament to her ambition but also something that caused concern for others. Many said that although they admired her zeal, they had grave concerns about her health and how much she worked.
"She was so ambitious," Tooze said. "I thought she needed to take it easy. She would be in the museum for 18 hours a day and up on scaffolding and usually I would see her only drink milk."
Tooze said that she, along with many others at Mills, was concerned for Boevers' mental and physical health, observing that she ate little to nothing and became weaker and more frail. Tooze's concern prompted her to request an intervention from an art department professional, who she believes contacted the Mills eating disorders team.
The team meets weekly to discuss how to help students with eating disorders and consists of Director of Health Services Cynthia Turner, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dorian Newton, Director of Disabled Student Services Ruth Maysako, and Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential and Commuting Moire Bruin. An intervention can include a conversation with the student, a referral to a medical or mental heath professional, or a call to their doctor, with prior student consent, according to Maysako. Tooze believes that there were three or four interventions that took place that semester with Boevers, although Maysako and Bruin declined to comment on whether there had been any.
Maysako said that she is unable to comment on services that Boevers may have been using and that it is important to maintain confidentiality even after death. Although they do not keep statistics on the number of students with eating disorders, she said they don't see more than 10 to 20 cases per year at Mills.
Approximately 25 percent of college-age women suffer or have suffered from anorexia nervosa and seven million girls and women suffer from some type of eating disorder, according to pagewise.com. The illness afflicts one in 100 women between ages 10 and 20 in the U.S., according to anred.com. The death rate for people who suffer from eating disorders is two to three percent with treatment and 20 percent without. Approximately 60 percent of all those with an eating disorder will make a full recovery and be able to maintain a healthy body weight, according to anred.com.
Jost said that he was concerned for Boevers as well and that he knew "she was under professional and medical care." He also said that he saw Boevers as quite smart and self-aware, and as a young woman with an illness and that to think that the Mills community could have helped is not true.
"When we are struggling as a community, we often feel powerless," Jost said. "Once I accepted that Jennifer was ill and there was nothing I could do to help her, I could be museum director and focus on her education."
Others agreed with Jost and said that although they were worried about Boevers, they wanted to treat her like a normal human being.
"I didn't want to treat her like she was sick," Khatapoush said. "I wanted her to feel full of light and love. She was so sick and altered in her consciousness that no one could help her."
Boevers' hometown of Covington, where she also died, honored her memory by exhibiting her work at City Hall through the month of November.
Jost said that he would like to see the Mills Art Museum honor Boevers by having this year's senior art show dedicated to her, but it will be up to the students.
See related story on page 10.