‘She represents all of us’: Brigham Young University’s multicultural clubs hold campus vigil to remember student who died by suicide this week

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dion and Erin Tapahe hold hands as they listen to a song during a candlelight vigil on BYU campus, for the student who died by suicide this week, at the Tanner Building, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Provo • Her voice shook as she tried to sing, and she barely made it to the chorus of hymn No. 165 before breaking down and crying.

“O Savior, stay this night with me …,” Losa Smith trailed off.

The crowd around her quietly picked up where she left off, finishing the song together. Some wiped away tears with mittens. A few held candles that dripped white wax onto the sidewalk, mingling for a moment with the falling snow. Many had little yellow pins on their coats and backpacks that said, “You are loved.” They wore them as much for themselves as to remind each other.

The nearly 200 people — mostly all students of color — standing outside at Brigham Young University came here Friday evening to remember their friend and classmate who died this week after she attempted suicide on campus.

The 19-year-old woman was American Indian and of some Polynesian heritage, and the event was put on by a handful of multicultural clubs. At a school with a student body that is overwhelmingly white, the group leaders said they wanted to come together and sing together to grieve over a loss that has deeply affected their small community.

“She represents all of us,” said Kayla Nitta, a Pacific Islander student.

They shared stories about how the woman loved to draw Japanese anime throughout her notes from school. They talked about how she celebrated both of her cultures by eating fry bead and wearing leis. They said she was quiet and kind and told the best jokes. Mostly, they just tried to console one another.

Meeya Apelu, one of the vice presidents for the Tribe of Many Feathers club, said the student always attended the group’s annual powwow and liked sharing stories about her family traditions.

“She was a very beautiful spirit,” Apelu said. “Now we just have to lean on each other.”

One American Indian club held a drum circle in her honor. A Pacific Islander group sang in the Hawaiian language, shouting “aloha” to the sky. The president of the Black Student Union played his guitar. Losa Smith, a Polynesian student and president of the Women of Color club, sang a hymn from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church owns the school, and the student who died was a member of the faith.

It was reverent and solemn and took place outside the Tanner Building where she fell Monday. There, in front of the glass doors, her classmates piled white roses and candles with the flames still flickering.

“I think us coming together is a reminder to us that we are not alone,” said Déborah Aléxis, vice president for Women of Color.

Being a minority student on campus, she said, can be isolating. It’s easy to feel “noticeably different” when walking to class and not seeing many other students of color.

Dayson Damuni, who placed a purple lei at the memorial, said: “We’re all one family.”

People inside the building watched from lighted windows. In the atrium hung hundreds of colorful sticky notes with messages of love and support. The death has shaken this conservative campus.

After the incident Monday, Brigham Young University students questioned wait times at the counseling center. The school said it will propose adding more therapists when its trustees meet in January. Currently, it has one counselor per 1,000 students.

But the groups who met Friday said multicultural students also need more individualized support from the university. They marched around the building in honor of their friend, but they also asked to be seen.

“It’s just a way to make us more known, to make her more known,” Nitta said.

Darnel Apelu, a member of the BYU Polynesian Club and Meeya Apelu’s husband, said the student who died had “all of these different associations” with being Mormon and Islander and American Indian. He wants the school to see that.

“We wanted to organize something like this to celebrate these cultures,” he said.

Before the hourlong vigil ended and they blew out their candles, the students held hands as they joined together to sing through sniffles and sobs.

“If I cannot commune with thee, nor find in thee my light. The darkness of the world, I fear, would in my home abide.”

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Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide.