The Cal Poly community has seen four memorials for deceased students this year, beginning with a memorial for theatre arts sophomore Brett Olson in early September. Photo by Nha Ha.
The Cal Poly community has seen four memorials for deceased students this year, beginning with a memorial for theatre arts sophomore Brett Olson in early September. Photo by Nha Ha.

Aryn Sanderson

Sociology freshman Giselle Ayala’s death two weeks ago marks the most student deaths at Cal Poly in a fiscal year in the past six years.

Ayala became the fifth student death of the 2012–13 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, when she allegedly fell from a cliff at Deltopia, an annual spring break party in Santa Barbara. In August, physics senior Jacob Van Staaveren died in a skateboarding accident. Two weeks later, theatre arts sophomore Brett Olson died at the annual Labor Day Float in Chico. An undisclosed student committed suicide off campus in February and biological sciences sophomore Brandon Huang died the same month of undetermined causes.

This is the most student deaths since the 2006-07 fiscal year, when there were eight student deaths, and in 2003-04, where there were 14. These years had a high number of auto accidents, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey, who oversees programs including University Housing and Student Life and Leadership.

Humphrey is no stranger to dealing with student deaths, though.

As Dean of Students at the University of Arizona, he saw between 50 to 75 students die in a span of three to four years, he said (by comparison, University of Arizona has approximately 40,000 undergraduate students, whereas Cal Poly has approximately 19,000).

The number of deaths at Cal Poly this year did, however, shock Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) President Katie Morrow.

“I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so many student deaths,’ but I keep reminding myself that this isn’t one enormous tragedy, it’s many enormous tragedies,” Morrow said. “Each one is a huge loss, so multiplying that by the amount of students affected just this year is really tragic.”

Morrow understands the impact of losing members of the Cal Poly community. The death of Huang in February drove her to seek counseling.

“Can I tell you a secret? I’m proud of it,” Morrow said. “I have no regrets, and I have no shame. It was exactly what I needed then. I told President Armstrong the next day, and he high-fived me and told me that’s The Mustang Way.”

The Mustang Way began in athletics and was quickly accepted by the Cal Poly student body. The initiative explains 12 standards Mustangs should hold themselves to, including leading by example and accepting responsibility.

Help is here

The Mustang Way also says Mustangs belong to “one community.”

Because of this interconnectedness and the intimacy of the Cal Poly community, each death’s impact is amplified, Morrow said.

In the wake of each death, ASI, Cal Poly administration and Counseling Services worked together to address the far-reaching impacts of losing an integrated community member.

The challenge became addressing all affected community members to publicize available help, Morrow said.

At least 50 percent of the students Morrow talked with did not have a direct relationship with the deceased students, but nonetheless were shaken, she said.

“Counseling isn’t just available for friends, it’s for all of us,” she said. “All of these emotions are so valid, and everyone deserves to get help.”

Director of Health and Counseling Services Martin Bragg directly oversees Counseling Services’ response to student deaths. The group does not generally see a huge influx of people after student deaths, though, he said.

If the deceased student lived in a residence hall, Counseling Services works with University Housing, such as resident advisers and community advisers directly, to find the best way to offer support, Bragg said.

“People react to death in different ways,” Bragg said. “There is the person who gets very tearful and outwardly emotional, but almost in a way more concerning is the person who isn’t. When I go into the residence halls and speak with them, if they’re just sitting there, and I’ve never met them before, I wouldn’t know if that’s out of character, but a person who knows them well like their RA can tell the difference.”

After Huang’s death, Counseling Services went to Poly Canyon Village, and Counseling Services went directly to Yosemite Hall, where Ayala lived, after news of her death spread.

Bragg went to Ayala’s floor to offer counseling services to those who lived in close proximity, while Bruce Meyer, head of counseling services, was available for counseling in the main lounge.

Bragg and Meyer spoke to approximately six or seven affected individuals in Yosemite Hall that day, Bragg said.

Counseling Services saw two to three more students come in to talk about Ayala’s death the following Monday and three to four more throughout the week.

“Right after something like this happens, some people are disoriented almost,” he said. “It’s hard to think, it’s hard to eat, but one thing that’s very clear is that the memorial is important for them to begin to remember their friends, to laugh about the good times and begin to deal with the loss.”

There are typically two to three counselors at the memorials in case anyone needs extra attention, Bragg said.

Ayala’s memorial was originally scheduled for April 12, but students and staff from the Department of Student Affairs changed the memorial date to April 15 to allow Ayala’s family and friends time to grieve, per their request, Morrow said.

Looking forward

“It really matters to me that we’re being respectful of the family, and the friends are being supported and taken care of,” Morrow said. “If there’s anything I can help do to support the students and carry on these memories, I’m open to it.”

After Carson Starkey died from alcohol poisoning in 2008 in connection with a hazing incident, Starkey’s parents created Aware Awake Alive, a non-profit organization focused on alcohol awareness. There are also bike racks on campus to honor Starkey’s memory at the request of his parents, Morrow said.

Morrow is in close contact with the families of the deceased, though no requests have been made for further memorials, education efforts or policy change, she said.

The only related policy change in the works is that ASI is creating a consistent policy for flying flags at half-mast for student memorials.

At the vigils for the deceased so far, all flags were flown at half-mast, Morrow said. But ASI wants to make sure there is a formal regulation in place, so that whether or not the flag is lowered does not change as student representatives come and go.

With five deaths so far this fiscal year, and more than three months to go until the year’s closed, the long-term impact on the campus community has yet to be seen.

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