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Baker flagpole lies at half-mast on April 9, 2021.

April 15, 2021

First-Year Student Remembered as an ‘Engineer Poet’ and Compassionate Leader

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Shawn West ’24, a first-year student studying computer science who hoped to someday teach a computer to understand love, was announced dead by the University April 10. He was 18. 

As the Cornell community reels from the first-year’s death, West’s former classmates, teachers and friends remember him for his empathy, kindness and intellectual curiosity.    

Harry Feder, West’s former high school adviser at the Beacon School in New York City, remembered him as an “engineer poet” — a student with a “brilliant logical mind” with the habits of a tinkerer and of a humanist.   

West explored his interests in computers and technology in his College of Arts and Sciences computer science courses, in his free time spent developing video games and refurbishing vintage game consoles and even in Cornell’s Skateboarding Club — where West was passionate about the intersection between technology and skateboarding, said Maia Zhang ’21, the club’s president.

“Shawn was the best of us — a kind, generous, empathetic and inquisitive soul,” Feder wrote in a statement to the Beacon School community after West’s death. “Shawn was a humanist — someone who sought to bend and master technology but understood deeply that living fully necessitated being open, curious and questioning.”

West, who came to Cornell from Brooklyn, New York, lived in Ujamaa Residential College, a multi-year residential community that celebrates Black heritage. The Cornell Black Alumni Association is currently collecting donations to support students living in Ujamaa, including through sending food and flowers to the community. 

Also involved with the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making and Zen Meditation at Cornell, West was embedded in a range of disciplines, from computer science to poetry.

Prof. Charlie Green, literatures in English, who taught West’s fall semester first-year writing seminar on poetry, described West as “very friendly, engaging and just really, really sharp.” 

In a seminar of 17 students, Green remembered West’s friendly smile, contagious warmth and unwavering enthusiasm throughout the semester, even over Zoom. When given an extra-credit assignment to recite a poem, West memorized two poems with an ear for sound and rhythm, Green said.  

“Very impressively, toward the end of the semester, he chose to recite two poems from memory, which no other student tried,” Green said. “I was very impressed with his memory and the courage to take that risk.” 

Several of West’s childhood friends remembered his intellect, but more than that, they remembered his kindness and ability to connect and empathize with those around him. 

“If you were his best friend, or you barely knew him at all, he would treat you like his best friend, and I think that’s something not a lot of people do that I really admired about him,” said Elias Gerstein, a high school friend, who called West a caring and compassionate leader.

Cornell students who knew West remembered him for the same warmth. Carl Chen ’24, who had played video games with West, called him one of the kindest people he met at Cornell — a friend who would go out of his way to say hello.  

“Whenever I saw him on campus I would say hi and we would talk a little bit. He was one of the friendliest guys I’ve ever met at Cornell. He was always down to talk,” Chen said. “With most people if I see them around, I’ll just say hi. Not many other people had taken time out of their day.” 

This kindness was inherent for West, as his childhood friends remembered him for being unapologetically himself. As an avid wearer of brightly colored Gatorade Jordan 1 sneakers, West’s hobbies ranged from rebuilding old computer hardware to immersing himself in Japanese pop culture and anime music. 

According to Ryutaro Takatsu, another high school friend, West was honest and expressive about his passions. Takatsu recalled days when the two would learn anime music in their high school’s music studios during lunch. 

“He was always being himself around everyone,” Takatsu said. 

Dante Danelian, who knew West since middle school, said West’s ability to give advice and connect with those around him was unmatched. Danelian recalled West’s ability to listen and care for anyone, describing him as the most emotionally intelligent person he has ever met. 

“I’d give anything just to talk to him, because he would be the person I’d turn to right now,” Danelian said. “To not have him here for this loss, it’s been a double blow to me. His presence, even if he didn’t say much, put people at ease and made people comfortable.” 

While West offered help, he was “anything but arrogant,” Feder wrote, describing him as a gentle and sweet student who revealed an earnestness that “I wish I could bottle and distribute.”

“He was vulnerable (as we all are) and not afraid to show it,” Feder wrote. “Friends, classmates and teachers universally attest to his integrity, his helpfulness, his penchant for providing extra effort, and his deep insight.” 

As a budding computer programmer who wanted to teach computers to better understand human emotions, West had big goals for the future, from studying abroad in Japan to researching how computers can embrace human qualities, according to his friends. 

“He spoke about his future, and about life in general, as a plan,” said Alejandro Ingkavet, who knew West throughout high school. “He had big plans. Everything was planned, he was excited about life and the future.” 

Ingkavet is now creating a digital photo and video album for West’s close friends, several of whom are college first-years, to remember him through sharing pictures and videos while studying across the country. In the past few days, Ingkavet found himself rewatching a video of West giving their class’s high school graduation closing speech, lingering on West’s call for his peers to be more vulnerable and to look beyond self-interest.

“We must cast aside our feelings of importance and genuinely care for other people, not just ourselves and our loved ones,” West said in his June 2020 graduation speech. 

“Let us take heed of our tendency to distance ourselves from other stories. Instead, let us truly invest in them and become genuinely interested in the narratives of other peoples’ lives,” West told his graduating class. “This empathy will lead to our harmony.”   

Students in need of professional mental health support can call Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 607-255-5155 and employees can call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all CAPS and FSAP services are currently being delivered via telehealth. Whenever these services are closed, calls are answered by Cornell Health’s on-call mental health provider. The Ithaca-based Crisisline is also available at 607-272-1616. A wide range of supportive resources is also available at caringcommunity.cornell.edu.