Campus grieves for Berkeley junior

The Yale College community gathered Wednesday night to remember Cameron Dabaghi ’11 as a committed student and athlete who was passionate about East Asian studies and always had his friends’ backs.

Shock and sorrow had gripped the campus earlier in the day as news spread of Dabaghi’s death. Rescue workers in New York found him after he jumped from the observation deck of the Empire State Building around 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday, according to the New York Police Department. Dabaghi was 21 years old.

At Wednesday night’s vigil in Berkeley, his sister, Andrene Dabaghi ’12, said she knew many in the crowd had not expected her to speak. She decided to do so, she said, because she did not want her brother’s life to be overshadowed by its tragic end.

“What Cameron needs to know is what you see before you,” she said in her remarks. “He was loved, he was never alone, and he will always be my brother.”

The vigil was nearly silent; people gathered in rings around the podium, holding the candles that were handed out at the entrance to Berkeley’s South Court.

After an introduction and prayer by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun spoke, explaining that he had seen Dabaghi on Tuesday, when the two crossed paths in the rain.

“Cameron complimented my big umbrella with a bright red Berkeley shield,” Chun said. He had offered to order another batch of umbrellas for Berkeley students if Dabaghi liked them so much, and Dabaghi said he did. Chun said he has been plagued by one “guilty thought” ever since: “I should have given him that umbrella.”

Three of Dabaghi’s friends — Mike Maruca ’11, James Zhang ’11 and Tommy Meyerson ’11 — each spoke about Dabaghi’s intense dedication and playful sense of humor. Meyerson read the Emily Dickinson poem “By a departing light” at the request of another of Dabaghi’s classmates, as well as the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers.

Berkeley College Dean Kevin Hicks concluded the vigil, encouraging students to stay in touch with their families and to “resist making any impending deadline more important than yourself.”

In a tribute to Dabaghi’s interest in China, Chun Ho Lai ’12 played a Chinese melody on the flute. When he was finished, students approached Dabaghi’s friends in waves to offer hugs and condolences.

A GOOD FRIEND

After students learned of Dabaghi’s death Wednesday morning in an e-mail from Yale College Dean Mary Miller, Dabaghi’s friends expressed shock that the playful, outgoing and supportive friend they had known had suddenly taken his own life. After hearing the news, Meyerson said, Dabaghi’s friends and former roommates went hiking at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden to hold a vigil of their own.

“Cameron’s passing comes as a complete shock,” Meyerson said at the vigil. “What passed through his mind and weighed on his heart is a tragic mystery, and we’ll never know.”

Meyerson added later in an interview: “My heart is broken.”

It is not unheard of for those who suffer from mental illness or depression — especially men — to hide their feelings, said Dr. James Potash ’84, the director of the Mood Disorders Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. Although most depressed people exhibit warning signs, such as a lack of interest in daily activities and constant fatigue, Potash said, some appear completely fine.

“Sometimes people, even though they don’t have a lot of energy and don’t feel good, are able to sort of act as if they feel good to prevent other people from knowing how depressed they feel,” Potash said, adding that the signs of depression are often nothing more than a subtle shift in behavior. “In high school and college, people can get depressed and not really understand what it is that’s happening to them.”

‘THERE TO LEND A HAND’

An East Asian studies major who hailed from Austin, Texas, Dabaghi attended boarding school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Though he started his Yale career as a Trumbull College student, he transferred to Berkeley after his freshman year.

Berkeley students said Dabaghi was a devoted, laid-back friend who was easy to talk to. Meyerson said Dabaghi would listen patiently to worried friends and reassure them that they could get through their problems.

“You knew he’d be there to lend a hand,” Zhang added in an interview.

But friends also noted Dabaghi’s sharp, sometimes sarcastic wit, as well as his eye for planning elaborate pranks. Last year, his friends recalled, Dabaghi broke into the Berkeley dining hall and rearranged all the tables to create more space for the chairs. Meyerson also described how Dabaghi crashed the Directed Studies final exam during their freshman year.

“He took the test for about 45 minutes,” he said. “Then, right in the middle, he jumps out of his seat, dramatically rips up his test and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ ”

Eli Bildner ’10, who was last semester’s captain of the club tennis team, of which Dabaghi was a member, said Dabaghi never did anything halfway. Once, Bildner remembered, Dabaghi and a fellow teammate snuck into Arthur Ashe stadium — the 22,547-seat tennis court in New York City — during a team trip. Not only did Dabaghi play on the court, but he explored the players’ lounge, worked out in the private gym and took a shower.

“He was really hard on himself,” Bildner added. “If he lost a tennis match, it wasn’t because of a blister or a bad line call … He believed in fairness, he believed he had to be better.”

A serious and talented tennis player since high school, Dabaghi joined the club tennis team as a freshman, Tomas Rua ’10 said.

Not only was Dabaghi one of the team’s strongest singles players, Rua said, but he also entered regional tennis tournaments on his own, always hoping to improve his game. And when he became the team’s co-captain, he encouraged the team’s other members to train more intensely as well.

“Cam was incredibly passionate about tennis,” Bildner said. “It seems trite, but … for Cam, it was a way of organizing his life and his personality.”

PASSION FOR CHINESE

Friends said Dabaghi brought the same work ethic and passion he had for tennis to studying China. He began learning Chinese in his sophomore year, but he stood out not just as a language student, but as someone who developed a strong interest in Chinese society, culture and politics, said Jun Saito, a professor who taught Dabaghi in the small lecture “East Asian Capitalism.” Saito, who said he held a moment of silence at the beginning of class Wednesday, remembered Dabaghi as an active and knowledgeable participant who frequently visited Saito’s office to discuss the class and the research project he was to complete by the end of the semester.

The East Asian Studies major spent last semester abroad in Beijing, China, at Peking University, and had been accepted to Harvard Beijing Academy for intensive Chinese language study for this summer, said Anna Ershova ’11, who also attended the PKU program.

Ershova and Dabaghi had been the only two students in a Chinese language class at PKU in the fall, and they formed a kind of partnership, Ershova said: Whenever she felt overwhelmed by the workload or being in a foreign country, Dabaghi would cheer her up. Dabaghi himself never fell behind in homework, she added.

“He’d always say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a grade, it doesn’t really matter,’ ” Ershova recalled. “He was always so positive about things.”

Outside of class, Dabaghi good-naturedly agreed to participate in a mock ethnic wedding ceremony — complete with traditional clothing and dancing — during a trip to China’s Yunnan Province, Ershova said, adding that the “marriage” became a running joke among the Yale students in Beijing. They even laughed about it at a PKU reunion this past weekend, she recalled.

Zhang, who also studied abroad in Beijing last semester, said he and Dabaghi had fun traveling around the country together.

“I was always his wingman,” Zhang said. “And he was always mine.”

REMEMBERING A FULL LIFE

During the vigil, Hicks also encouraged students to treat their peers as more than just players in their own lives.

Bildner said he hopes the Yale community will take this to heart and refrain from thinking of Dabaghi death as some kind of lesson, which would diminish the student’s life.

“I think that what Cameron deserves is that we don’t take away lessons from him as a final act of violence against this kid who clearly needed less violence and more love,” he added. “The role he did deserve was the role in which he was a full person.”

Besides his sister, Andrene, Dabaghi is survived by his brother, Kendall, and his parents, Rashad Dabaghi and Janet Lindsey.

Colin Ross contributed reporting.

Comments

  • Susan

    I graduated from Berkeley in 1980. In Spring 1979, after a semester abroad, I suffered a terrible (agitated) depression. Went to mental health services, which had no openings for two or three months. So I feel utterly for Cameron’s family, and for him. RIP. For anyone considering suicide, there is medical treatment. Please seek it out.

  • Y10

    Thanks, Vivian, Greta and Lauren, for this evocative, emotional and extraordinarily sensitive piece. The YDN has done an admirable job covering what can only be described as an utterly terrible story.

  • Well Done

    I agree with Y10. The YDN sometimes fries me with its incessant way of trying to find the bad in every story (admissions pieces are the perfect example). But in this case the writers and the YDN have really stepped up. This story is handled with dignity and humanity and is a fine tribute to a fallen Yalie.

  • From Austin, TX

    This was horribly sad news to hear, and my thoughts are with his family. I hope that Yale does not glorify Cam’s death. Suicide is a selfish, senseless act. If people think that suicide can result in an honorable memorial, it might encourage them to go through with the act. Be on the lookout for copycat suicides. Once again, my sympathies to the friends and family.

  • Concerned Suicide Counselor

    While the memorial was touching, it was not an appropriate way to mourn a suicide victim. Public memorials can lead to vulnerable students committing suicide. See this resource for more information:

    http://www.sprc.org/library/aftersuicide.pdf

  • @ Concerned Suicide Counselor

    I didn’t see anything in that pamphlet that discourages a memorial like Cameron’s. It said that particularly personal expressions like poetry, art, etc. should be kept private, but I think this sort of memorial was totally appropriate.

    In a close community like Yale College — and in a community-within-a-community like Berkeley College — we all feel the ripples of Cameron’s death, even if we didn’t know him. Almost all of us have friends or professors who knew him, and we are all experiencing his loss on some level. The memorial was a way for everyone to feel a bit closer to him, and it glorified his life, not his death, and lamented his passing.

    This has been a hard year for Yale (with three student deaths, one former student death, and two dining hall worker deaths), and there have been many memorial like this. They’ve all expressed the same things — love, memories, and grief. It seems like any public memorial service, not just that of a suicide victim, could make students contemplating suicide more likely to follow through with it, because it makes them wonder how people would memorialize them. However, the fact of Cameron’s suicide was not the focus of the vigil, and it was a way for a pained community to come together and experience a tangible network of support.

  • Yalie

    I actually agree with the Suicide Counselor in comment #5. By treating a student who dies by suicide the same way you treat others who die from natural causes, you legitimize the suicide. It is appropriate and important to mourn, but glossing over the fact that it was a suicide sends a strong message– it says suicide is just like other ways that people die; it normalizes suicide. The university should say “Suicide is not okay. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help. We commemorate Cam’s life, but we disagree with his choice to commit suicide.” It needs to be spelled out. Otherwise, there will be followers.

  • Friend

    Sometimes friends and family members of people who die by suicide are at an increased risk of suicide themselves. Let’s get behind the family and get them some support! This is so sad…