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Caltech grads recall suicide victims

Moment of silence honors two classmates, part of a nationwide rise in campus mental health problems.

June 13, 2009|Gale Holland

Under mottled gray skies, Caltech students graduated Friday in a ceremony punctuated by a moment of silence for two of their colleagues who died in separate suicides in the weeks before commencement.

Senior Jackson Ho-Leung Wang, a mechanical engineering student from Hong Kong, died in his dorm room less than 48 hours before he was to collect his diploma in front of Beckman Auditorium on the Pasadena campus, officials said.

His suicide came three weeks after that of junior Brian Go, a computer science and applied and computational mathematics major from Maryland, friends and school officials said.

Both young men were good students and there was no known link between the two suicides, although Wang may have been aware of Go's death. "It looks like a copy-cat thing," Caltech spokesman Jon Weiner said.

At Friday's ceremony, some students wore blue lapel ribbons or donned blue sashes to honor Go and Wang, but there were few other somber signs during a festive morning of marches, picture-taking and awards.

In recent years, campus mental health problems have been rising nationally, a product of the growing stress of university life and the increasing number of students who arrive at college already under treatment for mental illness, university psychologists and officials say. Across the country, about 1,300 college students a year commit suicide, experts say.

Caltech has extensive counseling and suicide prevention services, and students seek help with problems ranging from mood and anxiety disorders to breakups.

"The fact is, suicide is a risk at this age; it's frightening, it's scary, but it can happen to anyone," said Kevin P. Austin, Caltech director of health and counseling services.

During Friday's ceremony, Board of Trustees Chairman Kent Kresa called the deaths "a heartbreaking experience" for family, friends and the college community as he asked for the moment of quiet.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the commencement speaker, offered condolences to family and friends of the two students. "Tragedies like this affect all of us," Chu said.

Chun-Che Peng, 22, a mechanical engineering student from New York, described Wang as one of the smartest people he knew, "the best of the best."

"We want this to be a celebration of his life and achievements," Peng said of his friend, who was a pianist with the Caltech Chamber Music ensemble.

Go, who was called "Bigo" by some of his friends, was the president of his residence hall, Page House, and a "fairly big figure" on campus, said Garrett Lewis, 20, an applied physics and political science major from Albuquerque. "Everybody knew him and everybody liked him," Lewis said.

Weiner, the Caltech spokesman, said the campus planned to hold a memorial for the two students this summer.

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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