Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the 2016 Commencement issue of The Tufts Daily with minimal edits.
During the early morning hours of Saturday, April 2, 2016, first-year Alex Bhak passed away in a tragic accident in downtown Boston. He is survived by his mother, father and younger sister, Maya.
The Office of the President sent out an email to the Medford/Somerville campus community that day noting that the circumstances surrounding the death were still under investigation, and detailing that Counseling and Mental Health Services, as well as the University Chaplaincy and the Dean of Student Affairs Office, would be available to provide support for students. That evening, the university held a gathering in the Crane Room to give community members the chance to gather and process the news together, according to the university message.
In the wake of the news, a group of Bhak’s close friends painted the Cannon the following day in his honor, marking the ground beneath it with a quote from one of his favorite movies, “Fight Club,” which read, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
Funeral services were later held on April 10, 2016 at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Bhak’s hometown of New York City, and included a visual tribute, as well as words from University Chaplain Reverend Greg McGonigle and Bhak’s friends and family members from home and Tufts. The university provided a shuttle service to and from the services for 35 students, according to McGonigle.
Additionally, the University Chaplaincy, in cooperation with the Dean of Student Affairs office and some of Bhak’s close friends, held a candlelight vigil in Goddard Chapel on April 14 to correspond with Bhak’s birthday, as a celebration of his life and to remember the boy described by parents and friends as someone who was “happy to be happy.”
“[At the vigil,] we viewed a memorial visual tribute provided by Alex’s family, heard reflections by President Monaco, Dean [of Student Affairs Mary Pat] McMahon and International Center Director Jane Etish-Andrews, and listened to remembrances by Alex’s friends,” McGonigle said. “We then moved out onto the [Tisch] Library roof for a candlelight vigil and more remembrances, and we shared a reception in Alex’s honor.”
Bhak was, by all standards, a multifaceted and vivacious character, according to his friends.
“I don’t know where to start [with Alex],” Hisaam Mirza, a close friend of Bhak’s, said about his disposition. “He was a really, really nice guy, really generous, at times hilarious … he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
It was on the fourth floor of Miller Hall where Bhak unpacked his belongings for matriculation and forged close friendships with his neighbors, including Mirza, a rising sophomore, who had planned to live in West Hall with Bhak next year.
“He was in the room next to me, and we met on the first day of orientation week…” Mirza said. “Just by virtue of the fact of living next to each other, we started hanging out more … What slowly started out as a friendship of proximity became something more meaningful, more like a bromance.”
He went on to explain that among those who knew him, Bhak was strongly associated with physical fitness.
“[Alex] was really dedicated to the gym … if he was walking into Carm[ichael Hall], he was in his gym gear, either grabbing a snack before the gym or coming back from the gym,” Mirza said.
The gym is precisely where rising sophomore Harrison Rubin believes his friendship with Bhak blossomed. Rubin explained that he and Bhak were part of a group of 10 students who worked out together consistently, which Bhak called a “really big team with really big rigs.” Almost every day, the group would exercise together for close to two hours, during which Bhak would coach his friends through elaborate workout routines that he had constructed, Rubin said.
“I met Alex during my first week of school here, at the freshman carnival, and we pretty much hit it off … and we became pretty close friends from working out. After that, our relationship took off,” Rubin said. “ I used to go to his room all the time, play FIFA with him, party with him, eat with him, go into Boston with him … we bonded over our love of Star Wars and celebrated our nerdy sides a little bit. We tried to one up each other … I wanted to buy a light saber, he already had two of them.”
Rubin sported a wristband printed in honor of Bhak, which read “happy to be happy” — a product which has been distributed across campus as a reminder of Bhak and his legacy.
“I never ever heard him talk negatively about anyone … [he was] just a really nice guy…[and] he was a coach to many,” Rubin said.
For Anna Tolette, Bhak’s girlfriend of five months, it was his generosity and genuine care for those around him that set Bhak apart from others. She explained his calm, rational presence often assuaged her stress and trepidations, and that he liked to surprise her with small, thoughtful tokens.
“One day, I was feeling really sad … and he literally came back [from Harvard] with a whole box of warm Insomnia cookies for me … he was just genuinely the nicest, most generous person I had ever met,” Tolette, a rising sophomore, said.
According to Tolette, Bhak was a huge foodie, known as much for his weightlifting sessions at the gym as his love of late-night Domino’s Pizza.
He was also fiercely proud of his diverse heritage, creating a pie-chart for Tolette to highlight his Korean-Indian-Polish-French and potentially German background, and ensuring that he took her to try “real, authentic” Korean barbecue, she said.
Tolette also explained that Bhak had a great passion for music and poetry, showing her a few of his own compositions on occasion. She said that Bhak’s roommate had been teaching him how to DJ, walking him through how to spin everything from the electronic dance music (EDM) tracks he so loved to the music of Hozier, an artist that he and Tolette bonded over at Boston Calling last September. Bhak also loved drawing and reading; Tolette laughed when she recalled her spring break trip to Florida with Bhak, where he took out Plato’s works for light beach reading.
“He is all of the best parts of both his parents, which is really amazing. They are the most wonderful people you will ever meet,” Tolette said. “They lost their son, but they were spending more time making sure I was okay. The last people in the world…[who this should’ve happened to].”
For Tolette, Mirza and Rubin, as well as many of Bhak’s other friends, a critical part of the grieving process has been the support they have found in each other, their tight-knit group of friends and from other members of the community.
“It was one of the hardest things we have ever had to go through and hopefully will ever have to go through,” Mirza said. “The fact that we have each other truly helped us get through. Everyone felt this. Sympathy is one thing. Empathy? It’s a whole other entity.”
For now, Rubin seeks solace in his memories of playing FIFA in Bhak’s room, while Mirza fondly remembers strutting down College Avenue with Bhak on Halloween, dressed as Harold and Kumar. Tolette wears the necklace Bhak gave her for Christmas and speaks with Bhak’s younger sister every day. They all remember Bhak as the happy-go-lucky, bright presence he was during his life, and as Mirza explained, see a piece of him in everything they do.
“He has influenced us in ways I cannot describe. His mom said that Alex was ‘happy to be happy.’ I don’t think there is a more apt way to discuss his existence or legacy or memory … he loved … his experience at Tufts more than anything,” Mirza said. “He really liked his group of friends, was in a really happy relationship. He was really happy with his social life, routine, all the people he was meeting. He was incredibly happy here, and I think everyone in the community contributed to that.”
The Bhak family has created the Alex Bhak Memorial Fund to preserve Bhak’s legacy and to honor him through aiding others. “[The fund] intends to celebrate the life of Alex Bhak through education and research grants and scholarships,” according to the fund’s page on YouCaring.com.