‘Loss of words’: UW-River Falls community mourns death of three students in a month

Flowers and notes hang on memorial
Flowers and personal notes hang on a University of Wisconsin-River Falls sign on the campus's west side for three students and a professor who died earlier in the fall semester on Tuesday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Billie Donahue was a junior at University of Wisconsin-River Falls when she met then-freshman Isabella Chavira in psychology class last year. 

Donahue, originally from Andover, had just transferred to UWRF and Chavira was one of the first people she became friends with on campus after Chavira complimented her Chicago Bulls jersey. They started seeing each other almost every day and would hang out often outside of class.

“The thoughts that come to mind when I think of Isabella is happiness,” Donahue said. “She can put a smile on anybody’s face from just being in the room.”

Everything changed on Oct. 3 when Chavira died.

“I got a phone call from my friend saying hey, Isabella passed away and I couldn't believe it,” she said. “I dropped the floor. I was like this can’t be happening.”

Chavira, who is from Bloomington, was the first of three UW-River Falls students, all women, to die within weeks of each other this fall. Chavira was 19. Sabrina Hagstrom, who died Oct. 31, was 21. Jasmine Petersen, who died Nov. 3, was 18. Obituaries for all three say the three lost their battles with depression.

A national survey on mental health issues in college student populations found 41 percent of students last year experienced depression and 20 percent said they experienced major depression.

“I knew she had depression, had really bad anxiety,” Donahue said about Chavira. “But I wish she would have reached out to those people who are really close to her, care about her, who would sit there and let her talk and just be that ear for her.”

The women’s deaths have rocked the tight-knit campus of about 5,000 students, many of whom are from Minnesota. The university has extended Thanksgiving break in response.

“You could feel, like, the darkness on campus, that darkness was everywhere. You can tell teachers were affected. Students were hugely affected,” Donahue said. “Nobody knew what to do.”

A person holds a goat
UW-River Falls sophomore Isabella Chavira, originally from Bloomington, Minnesota holds a goat at a local farm near campus in September 2023. She died on Oct. 3.
Courtesy of Billie Donahue

Students create memorial in honor of three students

A few days after the most recent death, discussion in junior Emma Harens’ social work class centered on how the losses were affecting campus. 

“We were all kind of upset that it was going unnoticed. There was no memorial, there was nothing. So we decided, like, midway through class that we're going to walk to the grocery store down the street and get some flowers and paper and create a memorial,” said Harens, who grew up in St. Cloud. 

She and others put up the names of the three students and one associate professor, Andris Straumanis, who died unexpectedly earlier in the semester, on a UW-River Falls sign.

“There needed to be somewhere that people could go to find some closure and feel comfort,” Harens said. “We need to support each other so we don't lose any more of our peers.”

The memorial is located on the west end of campus along a main road. It’s also near May Hall, where Chavira used to live.

“We decided to do it by the main roads so that people on East Cascade would see it,” said sophomore Ella Marshall, who helped put together the memorial. “And people coming from Main Street, like the Falcon Center, and coming from like the highway would be able to see it. So we wanted to have it more on display.”

A memorial stands on campus
A memorial for the deaths of three students and a professor stands on the west end of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus in River Falls, Wisconsin on Tuesday.
Nicole Ki | MPR news

UWRF community adorns memorial with flowers, personal notes

Since the memorial went up on Nov. 7, students have adorned the campus sign with flowers and personal notes. One of the notes left at the memorial read “Thank you for having such a profound impact on my life. I will never know how much you were hurting, but I will always be grateful for you showing me kindness, even in your darkest times.”

People have added other tokens for the deceased, like beanies and gnomes.

“I think that really shows the community coming together,” said Marshall, who’s from Champlin. “It really felt special to see people going up there and enjoying it and visiting it.”

The university said in a statement that they are “focused on extending compassion and support to those affected by these losses” and offering counseling services and other resources.

A person fixes a sign on a memorial
University of Wisconsin-River Falls sophomore Ella Marshall fixes a sign at a memorial on campus for three students who died within the span of a month on Tuesday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Donahue has tried to visit the memorial but only made it within viewing distance because it’s still “touchy” for her to walk in the area where Chavira used to live.

“It’s just a loss of words,” she said.

But she appreciates that students have embraced the memorial, letting Chavira, Petersen and Hagstrom know that “we remember you, that your voice is heard.”

Donahue will always remember her dear friend Chavira as a loving, caring person that always brought a bright energy to any room. And she hopes students on campus focus on their mental health and know that they’re not alone.

If you or someone you know is struggling, please know trained help is available. Call or text 988 to get connected with a counselor or visit to start a chat.