It was in the early hours of a Tuesday morning this month that Andrew Williamson-Noble, a 20-year-old student at New York University, leapt to his death from the 10th floor of the Bobst Library. He was found on his back, with nothing but a suicide note left in his dorm to give his grieving family and friends consolation or clarification.
When I first heard of Andrew's death, I could not help but detect a very strange sense of contrition within myself. What hand had I in his death? How could I, just another lowly undergraduate, have prevented such a harrowing tragedy?
In the last few days, I have been plagued by Andrew's memory. He was someone I did not know, but whom I could not wrench from my mind. Like many of the publications and Web sites reporting his death, I too sought some kind of explanation, some kind of resolution — I wanted it all to make sense.
As details from his family and friends have revealed Andrew seemed satisfied, or at least no more or less satisfied than the next stressed-out, work-encumbered college student. His Facebook page evidenced his varied social circles, and his peers attested to his wit and humor. But there still remained an underlying unease, something to which I am sure my peers can relate. In describing this sleepless disquiet in a status one night, Andrew wrote:
"There's a considerable loneliness that comes from being awake when few others are. One feels both that one owns the world, and that despite this triumph, has no one to share it with."
If you cannot understand this heartrending sentiment, then I, a nocturnal being as well, can assure you that he articulates pithily and profoundly something I experience many a wakeful night.
It was reading these words that I realized, after much inner (and at times melancholic) examination, that I do have a connection to Andrew's death. I exist within, benefit from and contribute to the academic and social environment that killed him.
Let me say, immediately, that in this column I am not attempting to psychoanalyze Andrew or give some piercing personal insight in hopes of rationalizing his suicide. Rather, I am hoping to communicate to you the importance of his life in relation to our own.
Ours is a culture that attaches extreme significance to academic achievement, to high standardized test scores, to "four-oh" GPAs, to U.S. News rankings and to institutional pedigree. It is the atmosphere of academic elitism promulgated by administrators, admissions counselors, parents, students and, most obstreperously, one's peers. It is the milieu of students who taught me to judge, to assess and to taunt. It is the binary of total success or complete failure — and I am complicit.
I cannot say definitively (obviously) that this was on Andrew's mind as he climbed the stairs of the Bobst and leapt over the plexiglass that horrific morning, but it must be attended to. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. NYU had four suicides in 2004 alone. What can be done to curb this unsettling trend?
Think globally, act globally, but first do what you can locally. The first line of business I'd proffer would be Brown's departure from the heinously overrated U.S. News and World Report rankings, with a clear statement from President Ruth Simmons that Brown is withdrawing to fight the elitism of Ivy academia. Expressing to the general public that higher education is not about exclusion would reshape the expectations of parents and students, almost certainly alleviating academic pressure.
Another measure would be an encouragement of student-faculty relationships. Bringing undergraduates closer to professors would assist in augmenting self-confidence and inclusion. My thinking is faculty dinners and coffee dates funded by the University (I do know that Brown-RISD Hillel has begun something like this through Shabbat dinners). In these more intimate settings, we can emphasize community.
The challenges facing a serious college student can be daunting, no doubt. Giving students access to professors will go a long way in eliminating the (often self-imposed) cutthroat collegiate environment.
I did not know Andrew, nor will I ever get the opportunity. But in the undulating wake of his tragic death, I can do better to strengthen my own awareness of the individuals around me, genuinely inquiring and responding to their needs. Let us not mourn Andrew's death, or over-romanticize it, but act to prevent unnecessary deaths like his in the future.
As Shakespeare subtly but so magnificently wrote in "Macbeth," "Your cause of sorrow must not be measured by his worth, for then it hath no end." It does provide for me, at least, a bit of solace.
Rest peacefully, Andrew.
Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at anthony_badami(at)brown.edu.