Marahyah Ilah Richardson, a first-year student at Occidental College, died Jan. 27. She was 18 years old.
Known by friends and family as “Ilah” and “Richie,” Richardson was born Jan. 29, 2001. Originally from Los Angeles, Richardson left California for high school, attending the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, CT. There, she participated in theater, working tech and later taking the stage to act.
At Occidental, Richardson was a member of the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) and lived in Pauley Hall. She planned on studying Chinese and linguistics as a Group Language major. In her first semester, Richardson served as a first-year class senator for the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate and worked as a program assistant for the International Programs Office (IPO).
Julie Kimiko Santos, associate director of IPO, first met Richardson during an informational session at MSI Summer 2019. Kimiko Santos said Richardson immediately struck her as vibrant and vivacious and that Richardson’s impression was so strong, Kimiko Santos tracked her down after the session to see if she would be interested in being a student worker for IPO.
“Just… vibrant. Magnetic,” Kimiko Santos said, describing Richardson. “Someone that is real. You want to meet them and get to know them. When I met her, I instantly knew she was special.”
Kimiko Santos said Richardson’s presence in the IPO was far more impactful than what some might imagine of a typical student worker.
“She would be here every day,” Kimiko Santos said. “She was part of our team and like a coworker.”
Wafa Abedin (junior) and Jordan Walker (junior) served alongside Richardson on ASOC Senate as vice presidents of internal affairs and finance, respectively. Richardson was an especially vocal and reliable member of student government, according to Abedin.
“What sticks with me the most right now is Ilah’s resilience,” Abedin said. “Everyone on Senate always had an excuse, but she was always smiling and happy and making sure that other people around her felt supported.”
Walker said Richardson took her role as an advocate for students seriously and remained committed to her values.
“Ilah was real. She would support whatever she felt was right,” Walker said. “She really was above a lot of the immaturity of Senate, she was above all of that. She didn’t care, it didn’t matter to her.”
According to Kimiko Santos, Richardson carried not only a sense of resilience, but a steadfast confidence and certainty. She was always asking other IPO staff members how she could help. Beyond her work ethic, Kimiko Santos said, Richardson had contagious enthusiasm and a deep love for her friends. Kimiko Santos, who crafts handmade jewelry for the Handmade Oxy fair, remembers a moment when Richardson wanted to purchase a pair of earrings for a friend.
“The amount of time she spent looking at every single color, every single bead, showed how much she cared for her friends,” Kimiko Santos said. “She was super thoughtful and cared so much.”
It was this consideration that made Richardson an exceptional student advocate, according to Linda Schraeder, ASOC finance manager.
“What’s right for [Ilah] is what’s right, and you don’t find that many people that are like that,” Schraeder said. “She genuinely cares, and not just about her peers, but about people.”
Schraeder said she was excited to see how Richardson would continue to flourish after returning to campus this semester.
“When I saw her second semester, I just had a sense that [her personality] would blossom,” Schraeder said. “She didn’t have enough time, and that’s where I start to get sad about it.”
Director of Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement (SLICE) Marcus Rodriguez said Richardson was authenticity personified.
“With grace and sensitivity, she pushed others to be better,” Rodriguez said via email. “There was a clear purpose in her approach and her passion was contagious. Ilah was a true advocate with a powerful voice that inspired.”
According to ASOC president Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić (junior), Richardson impacted many at Occidental.
“She has touched more people in her brief youth than most do in their entire lifetime,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said via email. “I am convinced that, had she been given more time, she would have shaken the world to its core.”
In response to news of Richardson’s death, community members from Occidental, Loomis Chaffee and beyond donated to a GoFundMe fundraiser created by ASOC president Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić (junior) on behalf of Richardson’s sister, Kawanyah. The fundraiser has since raised $30,269 from 569 donors as of Feb 17. A celebration of life memorial took place at Herrick Chapel Feb. 3, where classmates, teachers, professors and friends gathered to share memories of Richardson.