Family and friends celebrated the life of Mills College alum Courtney Donnell at an on-campus memorial service Oct. 6. Donnell, who graduated from Mills in 2008 and passed away on Sept. 23, was remembered for her strong intellect, sensitive spirit and bright smiles.
The Chapel was filled during the community-organized ceremony that included alumna, friends, family, colleagues, and professors. Donnell’s favorite flowers, both orchids and yellow roses, were placed throughout the room with blue covered altar with candles and picture of Donnell beside it.
“I light this candle in a great deal of humility and honor that Courtney’s family decided to honor Courtney here at Mills College,” said Joi Lewis, Dean of Students and Vice Provost, who attended the ceremony and sang the hymn “To God Be The Glory,” in remembrance of all the good works by Donnell.
Donnell’s professors spoke fondly of a brilliant student and social activist both on campus and in the greater community.
“Courtney had great dreams, and worked diligently,” said Daphne Muse, who mentored Donnell as a Director for the Women’s Leadership Institute. She described how Donnell attended the National Council of Research on Women conference, where she met with Eleanor Horne, a member of the NCRW board of directors. Muse also talked about donating funds to support a young woman in India for a whole year of schooling in honor of Donnell.
Ethnic Studies Professor Vivian Chin also spoke about having Donnell as a student, and remembered their long conversations and her meticulous class assignments.
“Courtney was an alchemist,” she said. “Who could change a five-page assignment to a ten-page delight. She was a kindred spirit.”
Chin read from Donnell’s thesis work, ” ‘Remember, every memory that you must meditate…Thank you for echoing with me’. ”
Donnell was also the recipient of the Ethnic Studies Outstanding Scholarship Award, and worked for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. She was an intern for Representative Barbara Lee and the Greenlining Institute.
The ceremony also included a guitar song of “Amazing Grace” by Donnell’s godfather who asked the crowd to sing with him.
Donnell’s godmother, Angela Echiverri, also spoke. “I miss her and her mama. Courtney was joy for the whole family. She was a very simple person, a wonderful person.”
A reception followed after ceremony in the Student Union where family and friends could place and view pictures throughout the room on poster boards. The mood throughout the ceremony and reception was tense, but also joyful in celebrating the life of Donnell as a student, person, and as an activist.
Donnell was reportedly struck and killed while walking on westbound Interstate 580 just east of 14th Avenue the morning of Sept. 23, in an accident involving six cars. The California Highway Patrol said the police report would not be released due to a request from the family. Donnell’s stepmother, Lisa Simms, said the father of Donnell’s father had requested that more information regarding the death be kept confidential from the press.
Despite the shocking nature of Donnell’s death, Erika Macs, Director of Spiritual Life, suggested the experience be a way to find healing in such tragedy by recalling all the amazing accomplishments of Donnell did in her life both in and outside the Mills Community.
Donnell received the Ethnic Studies Outstanding Scholarship Award upon graduation from Mills College in spring 2008 on her study of LGBQT communities and their involvement in accepting church communities.
She was also a fellow at the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program at Princeton University in 2007, and interned under House Representative, Barbara Lee (D). She was also a participant at the Women’s Leadership Institute, and a roundtable fellow of the organization coordinating the program’s 21st Century Constitution Initiative.
Macs read from a 1991 poem by Rashini, a social-eco activist, to help those who were grieving:
“There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy and fragility out of whose depths emerges strength,” she read.
Her friends most remembered Donnell for her kind heart and unconditional love she had for all people. Catherine Judge, a Mills student in 2006 and best friend of Donnell, spoke tearfully about her passing.
“Courtney, the day we lost you I thought, ‘The movement lost a leader, a scholar, an activist, a healer.’ ” said Judge. “I don’t know if you understood how much you meant to me.”
A Mills scholarship is in the works in honor of Donnell as family and friends were able to donate money during the reception.