‘It was an injustice’: VCU students assess mental health impact after student deaths

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Sahara Sriraman, Staff Writer

The deaths of freshman Adam Oakes on Feb. 26 and junior Cody Woodson on April 5 left an impact on VCU students. Some say these tragedies harmed their mental well-being.

Charlie Dil, a computer science sophomore, said they knew Woodson personally. They were teaching assistants for a computer systems class, and he was a TA for one of their freshman classes. 

Dil said they felt “frozen” after Woodson’s death and that they’re now frustrated that everyone seems to have moved on. They felt VCU did not do enough to prevent the deaths of Oakes and Woodson.

“There was a shooting less than 24 hours before then, so it really feels like it’s on VCU,” Dil said.

On April 4, a 17-year-old was shot on the 400 block of Gilmer Street, where Woodson was shot 26 hours later, according to the Richmond Police Department. Both investigations are ongoing and RPD is looking into if the shootings were connected.

Dil said both student deaths were difficult to deal with and made them feel overwhelmed.

“Even if you don’t know somebody, having a death of someone who’s so close in age to you and at school with you is just really heavy,” Dil said.

Attending regular virtual sessions with VCU’s counseling services helps Dil cope with recent tragedies, they said.

“It’s helped me definitely move past the being frozen and just being able to move on and still do other things,” Dil said.

Charles Klink, the senior vice provost for VCU Student Affairs, stated in an email that VCU’s process to support the families of Oakes and Woodson includes contact through the Dean of Students office. 

“Information about individual counseling or counseling for groups of individuals is shared with those who have been impacted and we also push out this information to the general university community,” Klink stated.

Jihad Aziz, the director of VCU’s University Counseling Services, said it’s common for some college students to become depressed and anxious. He said this has become worse over the past year due to the pandemic.

“Anxiety has really sort of skyrocketed during this period of the pandemic as well, as well as people are feeling isolated and lonely,” Aziz said.

Students mainly approach VCU’s counseling services about anxiety and depression, according to Aziz. Counselors haven’t seen an increase in student visits since the deaths of Oakes and Woodson, he said.

“It affected my perception of Richmond and how unfair life can be because you can just go at any moment,” said Computer science senior Jeremy Nguyen.

He said, however, that students might not seek mental health treatment if they are mourning a death or if it provokes them to reflect on the past death of a loved one.

“It’s not necessarily a mental health issue if people are grieving, per se, so they may seek services or assistance elsewhere and not the counseling center,” Aziz said. 

VCU’s Health Promotion and Well-Being Center, also known as The Well, provides mental health tips on its website for students along with appointments with mental health professionals. 

The Well’s website also includes a list of student resources, including videos, apps and articles, to assist students with a variety of personal issues such as sleep, stress and mental health. Spokespeople at The Well declined to comment on mental health surrounding student deaths.

VCU students who didn’t know Oakes or Woodson personally have also been affected by these nearby tragedies.

Muniza Siddiqui, a junior graphic design major, said she was around Gilmer Street, where Woodson was shot, about 15 minutes before the VCU alert went out. 

“He was just walking outside, taking out trash and then he got shot, and that could happen to any one of us,” Siddiqui said.

Siddiqui is a part of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority and said that as someone in a Greek life organization, Oakes’ death was jarring.

“I just kind of feel kind of at fault a little bit because things could’ve probably been done a lot differently way earlier and such a bad tragedy happened,” Siddiqui said.

She said although she hasn’t utilized VCU’s counseling services, she plans to in the future to cope with these tragedies.

“I’m very paranoid to walk alone at night now,” Siddiqui said.

Computer science senior Jeremy Nguyen said Woodson was a TA for his programming class this year. Nguyen said the week after Woodson’s death was difficult because he was thinking about him.

“To me, it was an injustice that he moved through his life doing everything right, he worked hard and was really nice, but he was taken away by the hands of a stranger,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said after the two deaths, he was reevaluating the safety of living in Richmond after graduation, especially because there were 11 shootings the week of Woodson’s shooting, according to RPD. 

“It affected my perception of Richmond and how unfair life can be because you can just go at any moment,” Nguyen said.

The College of Engineering organized the Cody Woodson Computer Science Scholarship in honor of Woodson, which will be awarded to engineering students who demonstrate his commitment to education and dedication to supporting others. 

Woodson always surpassed expectations by mentoring, supporting and encouraging others, Barbara Boyan, the dean of VCU’s College of Engineering stated in an email. The College of Engineering’s scholarship in honor of Woodson will be funded by donations, which can be made through the college’s website.

“Cody Woodson was an exemplary student,” Boyan stated. “Not only did he excel as a scholar, but most importantly, he excelled as a leader.” 

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