The Five College community loses a vibrant spirit

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Tom Leatherman remembers
Samya Stumo

Samya Stumo died tragically on the Ethiopian airlines flight that crashed near Addis Ababa Sunday. Her loss is a tragedy to her family and all who knew her. 

Samya was infectiously vibrant and lived her life to the fullest. Her exuberance and enthusiasm were contagious and her spirit often buoyed those around her. She was joyful, kind, spirited, and fearless. She was truly a “one of a kind” individual whose life and career held such great promise.

At age 24, Samya had already seen more of the world than most people see in their whole lives. She was intensely curious about so many things. She sought deep experiences and to try to understand the lives of people from all over. Despite the harsh reality and immense injustices of the world around her, Samya remained hopeful about making the world a better place. Samya always wanted to make a difference – in big ways through her work and career (that was just beginning) and in the little ways through how she treated all people, and especially her ever-expanding networks of friends. She cared deeply about family and friends. Much of what made her special were the values instilled in her by her family; values of personal integrity, independence, social justice, self-respect and respect for others.     

I have received a number of emails and remembrances from other friends of Samya’s, who have described her as “the most alive person I ever met,” “the joy, love, sense of justice, fearlessness, and kindness that she emanated,” and “a wonderful, kind and spirited person who lived life to the fullest and optimistically saw endless possibilities before her.” “Samya was a radiant soul who generously shined her light on all those around her. She will be greatly missed.”

I first met Samya (at age 17) in 2011 in her Freshman year at UMass. I think it was in the first week. She was so excited - anxious to be involved in everything – fun loving, always on the move, always overextended. She had spent a year in Peru on a Rotary fellowship the year before she came to UMass and it had further piqued her interests in cultures, people, and Peru.  Her grandmother Laura Nader is a well-known anthropologist and it made perfect sense that she would major in Anthropology and Spanish.  While at UMass, Samya was deeply involved. She was a member of several organizations (UMass Pre-Medical Society, Toastmasters, Campus Kitchen) through which she volunteered on campus and in the community. She was a Residential Assistant (for UMass Residential Life), an assistant to the Five College Program in Culture, Health and Science, a student caller for the UMass Annual Fund, and the President of the Anthropology Undergraduate Club. She also served as a mentor for the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program.

Samya garnered many awards while at UMass. A partial list includes the Salute to Service Scholarship, Robert C. and Margaret A. Cole Undergraduate Research Award from SBS, Research grant from the Commonwealth Honors College, the William F. Field Alumni Scholar award, and two awards from the Department of Anthropology, the Sylvia Forman Writing Award and Nathalie F.S. Woodbury Distinguished Service Award.

Samya spent a summer in the high Andes of Peru in the community of Nuñoa with me, Morgan Hoke (a PhD student from Northwestern at the time) and others. She was a natural field worker who loved the beauty of the altiplano, cared about the people, and was a delightful team member. She conducted field research and wrote an honors thesis addressing the health needs of rural indigenous peoples – and succeeded in part because of her wonderful sense of humor and the way she treated local people in the community with great respect, integrity, and compassion. Morgan, Samya and I were working on a book chapter based in part on the research from that summer. She had been in touch from east Africa just a few days before the crash.

She presented her research in a talk at the American Anthropological Association conference. She also presented her research at a poster session of the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting where she won the prize for Best Student Poster, a competition of all student posters, including those of Ph.D. students.

 After completing her BA in Anthropology and Spanish at UMass, Samya completed a Master’s in Global Health in 2018 at the University of Copenhagen where she received a fellowship. In January 2019, she began a position as an Analyst for ThinkWell, a global health systems development organization in Washington, D.C.. Samya was passionate about transforming systems of global health to make people-centered, high quality health care a reality for all people around the globe. I spoke to her in December when she was applying to work for ThinkWell - she was so excited because she believed in their mission and that was important to her. She sent me several links so I could learn more about the group and their leadership. She was in route to her first project for ThinkWell in East Africa at the time of the crash. In her short lifetime, Samya impacted many people all over the globe. I feel honored to have been part of her life.

Tom Leatherman
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Massachusetts, Amherst