Community mourns loss of alum who was popular photographer on campus

Soorya Avali ’14, who graduated in May and was featured in one of the Rice News videos about unconventional students, died unexpectedly in Dallas, where he had recently started his first postgraduation job as a business analyst. The cause of death has not been determined yet. Avali was 21.

“Many Rice students, faculty and staff knew Soorya well from his leadership, his volunteer activities, his extraordinarily beautiful photography and of course, his ever-present spirit and all-encompassing friendliness,” Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson wrote in a campuswide email. “Our thoughts and sympathy go out to Soorya’s family and to his friends at Rice and beyond.”

Soorya Avali

Soorya Avali (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

A member of Brown College from Columbia, S.C., Avali had a Bachelor of Science degree in materials science and engineering and was very vocal about his love of Rice.

“When I was looking for colleges, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for,” he said in the video profile. “I came to Rice and I didn’t have to ask for directions, unlike other places. People saw me holding a map. They came up to me and asked if I needed directions. That was the one thing that really made the difference for me.”

Just last weekend Avali was sharing his enthusiasm for Rice by speaking to a group of incoming freshmen at a send-off event in Dallas organized by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. More than 200 new students, parents and alumni attended, and Avali provided insight and advice about the Rice experience.

A self-professed avid photographer, Avali was seldom seen without a camera. He bought his first camera during his sophomore year with the $800 he received for winning Brown College’s Jackie Schnell Award his freshman year after being nominated by his peers as an outstanding freshman and also for his academic achievement.

“Obviously in the beginning I wasn’t very good,” he said about his photography in the Rice video profile. “But that’s all photography is. You just keep taking pictures … learn your camera, and then you get better.”

Avali didn’t take a photography course until his senior year, and he found it to be a “very different and very interesting experience.”

“I’m an engineer, so I approach things in an engineering kind of manner, like learn how things work, then kind of like repetition, keep building outwards from there,” he said.

Avali took thousands of photos, many of which were posted on his Facebook page. A number of students hired him to take their graduation photos, which helped pay for two trips he took to Europe this summer. He also helped create the Humans of Rice University, a photo collection on Facebook modeled after the Humans of New York, which garnered him a mention in USA Today. A couple of his photos were published in Rice News, including a close-up of a squirrel’s eye in which a reflection of Lovett Hall can be seen.

“He took pictures of everything and everyone,” recalled Jenny Rozelle ’00, who met Avali in her role as a resident associate at Brown. “Soorya definitely lived life to the fullest.” She said a number of students told her this week that Avali inspired them to get into photography, to travel to new places and to enjoy every moment. “He was smart, involved, friendly and proud of both Rice and Brown College,” Rozelle said.

When not taking photos or studying, Avali found time to serve as internal vice president for Engineers Without Borders, as campuswide coordinator for Beer Bike and as an adviser during O-Week.

In addition to the Jackie Schnell Award, Avali won Brown College’s Paul and Ruth Pfieffer Award, given to seniors who exhibit the personal qualities and engage in the kind of activities that make Brown a vital and meaningful community, and Brown’s Brelsford Award, which recognizes students who demonstrate extraordinary citizenship in various areas of college life.

As news of Avali’s death spread via email and social media, José Aranda, a master at Brown, hosted a gathering Tuesday night for the Brown community to share their feelings. “About 30 students gathered to talk and connect over their friendship with Soorya,” he said. “Soorya was intentional and deliberate with his kindness. He conveyed a spirit of generosity and energy with everything he did. His love of photography was really just an extension of his curiosity and affection for those around him.”

Krista Comer, also a master at Brown, is currently in Australia and was unable able to attend the gathering, but she shared this thought via email: “Soorya was widely known and beloved, and his photographs were a signature feature of Brown College events.”

Steve and Laura Cox, who served as Brown masters during Avali’s first three years at Rice, were also unable to attend the gathering because they’re out of town for the summer. They wrote, “Soorya’s unbounded energy and constant good cheer permitted him to pursue wildly divergent enthusiasms. In many of these pursuits he developed considerable skill. (Steve left their weekly racquetball matches exhausted while Soorya retired to the weight room.) In all of these pursuits he won new, close friends, friends that marveled at his selfless wonder at what the world had in store. We were incredibly lucky to share three years at Brown with him. He served the college as a remarkable example of one that did not wait for the world to come to him.”

In the Rice News video about commencement, Avali thanked “everyone that loved me and supported me,” noting that he would not have made it this far without their help. He also expressed his excitement for the Class of 2014. “You’re all amazing people. I’m just so happy to have like gotten to know you through my entire Rice experience.” He added, “It’s not goodbye. It never really is. The world’s honestly just too small of a place for it ever to truly be goodbye.”

Hutchinson noted that counselors from Student Wellbeing and from the Rice Counseling Center are available for students who need assistance coping during this time of sadness. “Please reach out to each other to make sure that every member of our community receives the support they need as we grieve and try to understand what cannot be understood,” he said.

A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Brown Commons.

The video above profiles Soorya Avali as an unconventional student.


Soorya Avali appears toward the end of this video about the 2014 commencement.

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.