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University News

Student dies in rooftop fall while abroad

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

Arun Stewart ’11, a student whom professors and friends described as “brilliant,” “passionate” and “incredibly hip,” died Friday in Beijing, where he was studying abroad.

He was attending a rooftop gathering with friends near Tsinghua University when he lost his footing, according to an e-mail from President Ruth Simmons sent to the community Saturday night.

“At this point, few details have emerged,” said Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, adding that the incident was being investigated by local authorities. She said the accident occurred approximately 10 miles from Tsinghua.

Stewart was pursuing a degree in East Asian Studies, following what people who knew him called an intense passion for Chinese language and culture. Driven by a desire to perform, Stewart wanted to perfect his Chinese so he could convey humor to his audience through Chinese dialogue called “cross-talk,” said Lingzhen Wang, associate professor of East Asian Studies and Stewart’s adviser.

“He was one of the very few brightest students I have ever taught,” Wang said. “I saw in this kid a very ambitious plan for the future.”

Wang, who taught Stewart twice in classes on Chinese cinema and 20th-century Chinese literature, said Stewart wanted to perform as a popular entertainer in China, using language to unite people across cultures. He was also fascinated by Chinese poetry and late imperial literature, she said, which enhanced his cultural understanding because he had read the works he was studying in their original form.

Stewart’s enthusiasm spilled beyond the classroom. He was granted a fellowship through the Department of East Asian Studies before he travelled to Beijing. Wang said Stewart and three other students went to Shanghai to do a project on Chinese food, restaurants and migrants and study local business owners. The group was working on a detailed report that Wang said was a project Stewart was completing for Brown while studying abroad.

“The interest he had in the humanities in general really made him a quite unique and outstanding student,” she said. “I just hope there are more students at Brown who will approach different cultures the way he has approached it.”

“He loved to tease and be teased,” said Professor of Comparative Literature Dore Levy, who taught Stewart and three other students in an independent study on Chinese poetry. “He had a shine on him.”

When she taught Stewart, Levy said he would come to her office before class to talk, and sometimes even to take a bite of her sandwich. “He was exceptional,” she said. “He embodied every possibility of diversity.”

Representatives of the University, including administrators and officials in the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, have spoken to Stewart’s family members, who are preparing to travel to Beijing from their home in Dallas.

The Chaplain’s Office hosted an informal memorial gathering Sunday night, which swelled with nearly 40 friends and professors, who spoke of Stewart’s humor and style. Stewart’s commitment to justice and his ability to make everyone feel important were common themes echoed by all in attendance.

“I knew how much Arun was an important person here,” Alex Arruda ’11, who was Stewart’s roommate during their first year at Brown, said after the memorial.

“Everything he meant cannot be summed up,” he added.

“I think he would have laughed hysterically” at the descriptions of his character at the memorial, said Sean Feiner ’11, a thought echoed by Flannery Berg ’11, who said Stewart had  “swagger,” but was always humble.

“If you were friends with Arun, you were friends for life,” Franny Choi ’11, one of Stewart’s closest friends and a Herald editorial cartoonist, wrote in an e-mail.  “Arun was a kind, beautiful, unapologetically genuine person. I am so blessed to have had his wit, his love and his friendship in my life.”

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