A Princeton Student Died. Her Classmates Want to Know What Happened.

Late in the afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 20, the executive vice president of Princeton University emailed a notice to the community announcing that Misrach Ewunetie, a member of the class of 2024, had been found dead on campus earlier that day. Missing since Sunday, she had come to this country from Ethiopia when she was a child, and her family had begun to worry when she did not show up for an appointment related to her application for American citizenship the day before. The exhaustive search that followed involved campus security, local police officers, bloodhounds, drones and divers and resulted in the discovery of her body behind the university tennis courts.

Given that an autopsy had not been released and that a toxicology report would possibly take until February to finalize because of pandemic-related lab backlogs, the administration could not provide a cause of death. But in an effort to manage anxieties, the note quoted the county prosecutor’s office saying that there were “no obvious signs of injury” and that the death did “not appear suspicious or criminal in nature.”

The implication, based presumably on facts about the case the office could not disclose, was that Ms. Ewunetie, 20, had either been the victim of an accident of some kind or that she had taken her own life. As it is now with most official communications that impart painful news to college students, the missive contained phone numbers and links for anyone seeking psychological and counseling services.

Misrach Ewunetie, a 20-year-old Princeton University student, was found dead on campus, after being missing for almost a week.Credit…Princeton University

What students wanted just as much as consolation was an understanding of what happened. All of this was unfolding at a time when a distrust of law enforcement and institutional privilege was running high, and some were not inclined to take what they were told at face value — that a woman of color was found dead on an Ivy League campus after a long search but that they ought not to be concerned about the possibility of something nefarious.

The absence of much real information left a churn of speculation. That Ms. Ewunetie’s body was found in a relatively remote spot raised more questions than it answered in the minds of some students and parents. As one professor explained, the young men and women in her classroom were outraged over what they perceived as a cynical lack of transparency.

Ms. Ewunetie, who had graduated as the valedictorian of her Catholic high school in Cleveland and received a full scholarship to Princeton, was last seen by a suitemate, brushing her teeth in her dorm, Scully Hall, at 3:30 in the morning on Friday Oct. 15. She had returned home late after volunteering all evening at an event at Terrace, one of the eating clubs around which undergraduate social life at Princeton revolves and where she was a member. By Saturday, the campus had largely cleared out for fall break.

Two data points heightened alarm among students. First, it was reported that Ms. Ewunetie’s family said that her phone had been active for the last time around 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, not on campus but in Penns Neck, a residential neighborhood about two miles away.

Second, on Oct. 15, just before she was declared missing, campus security had sent out an email with the subject heading “Suspicious Incident.” Personnel had responded to a report that “an unknown individual had removed a student’s door from its hinges.” The man was wearing the neon-yellow shirt of a repairman. But according to the room’s occupant, Mikayla Merin, no work order had been filed for any fixes to the room. A spokesman for the university said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

A sophomore and a member of a student committee in which she advocates public safety, Ms. Merin returned to her dorm to find a note on the door, still off its hinges, that read: “Be Nicer.” Security officers asked Ms. Merin if she thought it was a prank. She said she did not. Ms. Merin, who is Black, was so unsettled by the incident that she took a month off from school. When she returned after Thanksgiving break, she had her own security camera installed in her room.

Seeking to address the community’s concerns and misgivings about Ms. Ewunetie’s death, administrators sent out another letter nearly two weeks later, reiterating that authorities had found no evidence to support theories of foul play. This was not uniformly reassuring in part because the same letter went on to explain how security protocols around dorms would nonetheless be tightened, that lighting on campus would be enhanced and that security-camera programs would be expanded. “While we know that our campus is safe,” the five deans who signed the letter wrote, “it’s important that you also feel safe.”

The messaging struck some students and teachers as confounding and perhaps even arrogant. Speaking on behalf of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Association, Faeven Mussie maintained that it made little sense for the school to have so quickly come to the conclusion it did without all the relevant forensics. “We don’t know what to think or what to believe or if we’re safe here,” she said, adding that it probably would have been better for college officials to have said at the outset that they just did not know what happened and that an answer would take time.

“There’s no reason for anyone to believe it wasn’t suspicious,” Isadora Knutsen, a sophomore, told me when we spoke about the death last week.

The case all too clearly highlights the dissonance endemic to contemporary college life, where vast resources are deployed in the name of providing an emotional safety that is illusive — that uncertainty and the random inclinations of misfortune emerge all too often to unsettle. Multimillion-dollar wellness centers, content warnings on texts, round-the-clock phone counseling — these are all aimed at providing a veneer of comfort and security in a society where random acts of violence are commonplace.

Unlike other comparably elite big-city universities, Princeton is surrounded by suburban affluence, and it enjoys a comparative distance from crime. But the past year has brought other tragedies. In May, two undergraduates died within a week of each other, one “losing his life to mental illness at home in Chicago,” as a dean’s email to the community phrased it. In the second instance, the student’s family had asked that the cause of his death not be disclosed.

On Oct. 24, two vigils were held on campus to honor Misrach Ewunetie, who had been studying sociology and computer science. Hundreds came to mourn. Teachers met with students in her classes; the sociology department organized an origami workshop because Ms. Ewunetie loved origami. A conference centering on her interests was in the planning stages. For now, collective grieving would be the only option.

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