Student Death Rates Go Unnoticed

I’ve heard many reasons over the years as to why Penn State’s campus and the State College community are referred to as Happy Valley. I’ve heard that State College wasn’t hit as hard during the Great Depression. I’ve also heard that it’s because the people in the town simply smile more than average. Penn State has admitted the origins of the term are murky but attributes the name to sports writers and broadcasters in the 1960s.

Of course, despite how special this place is, it can’t always be Happy Valley.

I learned this after Courtney O’Bryan died in December 2011. The freshman had been traveling on a THON canning trip when her vehicle hit black ice, taking her life away far too soon. Her death had come at a time when she was helping others.

The entire Penn State community mourned the loss of one of its own when word of her death was announced.

I hadn’t known her, but I found myself feeling sad about her death often. I took solace in the fact that Penn Staters offered comfort and support to her friends and family. I thought that this — the way we held each other and got through it together — is how we always treated the loss of one of our own.

Except the sad truth of the matter is that most deaths at Penn State go largely unnoticed. Don’t believe me? How’s this for a sobering statistic: From 2010-2013, 36 students died while enrolled  at University Park alone.

The exact breakdown, as provided by Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Joseph Puzycki, is below:

2010-2011 – 11 total deaths

  •             Suicide (5)
  •             Accident (3)
  •             Medical or unknown (3)

2011-2012 – 11 total deaths

  •             Medical or unknown (5)
  •             Accident (4)
  •             Suicide (2)

2012 – 2013 – 14 total deaths

  •             Suicide (6)
  •             Medical or cause unknown (4)
  •             Accident (4)

I had a hard time wrapping my brain around these numbers, although they’re similar to other universities of similar size. I came to Penn State in 2010, which means that from when I was a freshman until the end of my junior year, 36 of my fellow classmates had passed away without my knowledge. How could this have happened in our Happy Valley?

The hard truth of the situation is that unless there are special circumstances, such as the deaths of Joe Dado or Courtney O’Bryan, a student death won’t be noticed much except by those who know the person.

We’re only three days removed from the four year anniversary of Joe Dado, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the spectacle of death. It’s important to remember — for every Dado or O’Bryan, five of our other classmates go nameless, vigiless, and largely unknown.

So be kind to each other, always. There’s no sense in romanticizing these numbers. But always be cognizant of the incomprehensible tragedy. You never know when your idyllic Happy Valley could cease to be just that.

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About the Author

Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a first-year law student at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. She graduated in May 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science.

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