‘A microcosm of light,’ Shayel Patnaik is remembered by family and friends
Shayel Mohanty Patnaik was found dead in the East End construction site on Sept. 22. Patnaik, a senior majoring in history at the College of Arts & Sciences, was 21 at the time of his death.
Remembered by many of his closest friends as a “microcosm of light,” Patnaik was involved in a number of community service programs on campus, including the Gephardt Institute’s Each One Teach One tutoring program, the College Prep Program and gave campus tours to prospective students. A Memphis, Tenn. native, Patnaik was planning on teaching after college, before finishing his post-baccalaureate and applying to medical school.
“Shayel was an informational vacuum cleaner,” Patnaik’s stepfather, Dr. Lyle Bohlman, said at a Washington University-hosted memorial service on Saturday. “He could gather information like nobody I’ve ever seen, and he could talk like nobody I’ve ever seen. He was sincere, and he truly cared about people.”
Over 250 people attended the memorial service that was held in Patnaik’s honor Saturday, Sept. 30 in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge. Chancellor Mark Wrighton delivered opening remarks before 10 of Patnaik’s close friends spoke about their own memories of him, followed by a closing statement from Bohlman. A livestream of the service was projected in the Laboratory Sciences Building to accommodate for overflow guests.
Patnaik was described by many as the life of the party, the person you could always rely on for a laugh and a great conversationalist.
Zach Hong, a senior and close friend of Patnaik’s since their freshmen year at Washington University, talked about the enthusiasm that Patnaik had and his compassion for everything he became involved with.
“He was so kind and caring and passionate and family-oriented. He couldn’t sit around too long in one place,” Hong said at the memorial. “He was always falling asleep in Olin. And, at first, I just thought, he wasn’t motivated, he wasn’t organized, but it was actually the opposite of that. He just cared about so many different things, and he was so passionate. And while I was always worrying about the organic chemistry test or the MCAT, he was always acting on his passion. And that’s something that I’m going to carry with me.”
Junior Ro Baker shared with those in attendance at the memorial a list of lessons that Patnaik bestowed on her that ranged from silly to sincere, but drove home the point that he was a truly genuine friend. His fifth lesson was to “laugh like there’s no tomorrow,” which, according to Baker, was a rule Patnaik lived by.
“Shay’s laugh will forever echo in the chambers of my heart as the sound of a revolution,” Baker said. “The sound of a revolution led by love, light and humor. He used to say all one needs is a good laugh and a nap. I think we can all take those words to heart even in the darkest of days.”
Another close friend of Patnaik’s, senior Chukwuezogo Onejeme, spoke at the service and recounted a time during their sophomore year when he and Patnaik went around the day before Valentine’s Day serenading random passersby.
“Shayel hit the high notes,” Onejeme smiled, “I would always describe Shayel as a microcosm of light…always dancing, always smiling, always singing.”
Director of Admissions, Julie Shimabukuro, who worked closely with Patnaik through his involvement in the Office of Admissions, also spoke at the memorial. She said that Patnaik always seemed to know when they needed help and came in willingly, usually working past hours and forgetting to record his time.
“If we could admit students to Wash. U. on their smiles alone, Shayel would have been admitted in a heartbeat. Shayel always looked for ways to help even before we asked him. He wasn’t very good at keeping his timesheet,” Shimabukuro said with a laugh. “But he always had this knack for knowing when we needed help the most.”
Shimabukuro spoke for everyone in the University’s admissions office, saying that they remembered the conversations that they had with Patnaik the most, as he really took the time to get to know each and every person individually, down to their personal lives and their families.
“Shayel had an endless capacity for thought, like a whizzing beam of light. To spend a few minutes catching up with him was to have my whole day illuminated with new ideas,” Shimabukuro said, sharing words from a colleague in the admissions office.
Shimabukuro recounted a time when Patnaik asked her for advice when he was considering the possibility of living overseas—knowing Shimabukuro had lived in Japan for some time.
“We had this great conversation, and he asked me amazing questions. He made me feel special. By the end of our conversation I thought to myself, ‘Who is helping who here?’,” Shimabukuro said. “Whenever you talked to Shayel, you just felt like you were on top of the world.”
Amir Hassan, a 2017 graduate of the University, was a friend and colleague of Patnaik’s through their work for the student group Partners in East St. Louis. Hassan is currently living in Sierra Leone and could not attend the service but wrote a direct letter addressed to Patnaik which was read aloud by junior Morgan Hartman. In the letter, he shared a few words of wisdom that Patnaik said to him when they were volunteering.
“Isn’t it beautiful, how people can come together to make something important happen—how we can come together to build something incredible and really make a huge impact in the lives of these students?” he remembered Patnaik telling him.
“You brought a sense of ambition that helped guide us forward, what ultimately helped to transform our club into a larger movement that so many wanted to be a part of,” Hassan wrote. “Your determination to bring people together for a greater good—to serve the less fortunate by investing the privileges and resources we had as Wash. U. students in local youth—is part of what made you such a natural, compelling leader.”
Patnaik’s stepfather shared some of Patnaik’s own personal beliefs, saying that he truly believed that students went off to college to grow into the best version of themselves, but that he wished more progressive individuals would return to their smaller communities to help them grow as well.
“He really believed that people left their hometown, and they went off to centers of learning and they gathered lots of talents and became very sophisticated individuals,” Bohlman said at the memorial.“ It always bothered him that why don’t we have progressive enough people in our cities to attract people back to their hometown. Back to the streets of their childhood, back to the places we came from.”
Bohlman said he believes that Patnaik would want his fellow classmates to discover what it is their passionate about and use their education to implement change.
“His charge to you would be to go get your education and focus on what you want to do and figure out how to do it,” Bohlman said. “You know creativity, is the engine of innovation. And Shayel wanted more than anything to bring innovative programs to each community.”
In honor of Patnaik’s memory, Washington University and Patnaik’s family have created the Shayel Mohanty Patnaik Scholarship fund to support one College Prep scholar at the University each year. The College Prep Program is designed to work with the greater St. Louis-area, first generation high school students to prepare them for success in college.
“This scholarship has been an extraordinary opportunity for Shayel’s desire to come through,” Bohlman said, describing it as “the most outstanding thing that’s ever been done for Shayel.”
The scholarship will provide opportunities to kids that Patnaik may have known in his life and allow them to explore further education, which Bohlman believes Patnaik would “be completely into.”
“I think his energy will live on, and that’s the only way I can make any sense of this is that through the a lot of people his energy will live on,” Bohlman said. “And he would want that because he believed that energy goes on and on and can never be created or destroyed. And it will never be destroyed.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Zach Hong spoke at the funeral, not Kevin Hong.This article has also been updated that Patnaik knew Shimabukuro from the Office of Admissions, not the College Prep program.