Why Do So Many Students Commit Suicide at UC Irvine's Social Science Plaza?
Greg Houston

Why Do So Many Students Commit Suicide at UC Irvine's Social Science Plaza?

No one gave Maxwell Chorak a second thought as he got off at one of the bus stops near UC Irvine and walked across campus on June 10, 2014. He resembled a disheveled grad student checking in for an evening of studying, blending neatly with the thin crowds that walked on a near-lifeless Ring Road. The footpath, normally lined with students selling $2 boba and spam musubi, was nearly abandoned that day as students prepared for their finals.

Chorak headed for Social Science Plaza, a collection of five-story buildings all Anteaters must pass through at some point in their academic career. They stand in an uneven, irregular courtyard, with a fountain that's always turned off nowadays in an effort to save water. The 25-year-old climbed one of the plaza's exterior stairwells, a spiral of steps coiling its way up to the top; mult iple warning signs are bolted to the stone walls at each landing. "We can help," the signs read in a relaxed, sans-serif font, and feature the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Everything about the scene, from the signs' typography and rounded edges to the stairwell's cream-white tone, seemed designed to calm anyone. From his vantage point, Chorak saw a courtyard next to Social Science Plaza emptier than usual. It was the last week of classes for that school year, and students were either in lectures or taking tests.

It was warm and quiet as Chorak reached one of the higher tiers of the stairwell and leaped. There was no final scream, no note left behind.

Students saw Chorak as he fell and immediately called 911. UCI's campus police arrived moments later, declaring him dead at the scene. Already primed for tragedy after a late-May shooting rampage at UC Santa Barbara, school administrators quickly closed off the area, drawing a far-reaching perimeter to keep students away from the tarp covering Chorak's body. Counseling was made available on the scene for anyone who needed it.

After some investigation--who was he, could he have been pushed, why was he even at the university--the Orange County coroner removed Chorak's body. The following day, UCI issued a statement that he wasn't affiliated with the university and no one knew why he was even there.

But, under the plainest understanding of the word affiliated, that statement was not true. Chorak had been released roughly three hours before he died from the UCI Medical Center in Orange. He had been held there for 11 days to undergo examination under California's Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, a set of laws that did away with state mental institutions in the 1960s but allows for individuals to be held against their will for treatment if they're a danger to themselves or others.

Physicians gave Chorak a bus voucher upon his release; he left the hospital only with the clothes on his back. He had actually spent much time on campus, and he knew exactly where to jump: Social Science Plaza, the place that distraught UCI students and visitors have turned into a macabre monument.

The structure where Chorak took his life
The structure where Chorak took his life
Dustin Ames/OC Weekly

If Irvine is the epitome of master-planned suburbia, where studied appearance speaks of a forced tranquility, then UCI is its apotheosis. The campus is famously symmetrical, a collection of concentric circles rounding the campus' central park, a green space constrained by a perfectly circular foot- and bike-path that sends students off into six academic quads evenly spaced around the circle. Beyond the lower quads that make up the university's oldest buildings, there is another, more obvious ring: Ring Road, the university's main thoroughfare and where the majority of student activity occurs. This layout is almost human in design: a central spine branches off into each of the schools, the facilities arranged with its nerves radiating out toward the rest of the world.

It's the sort of design William Pereira, UCI's architect and one of the city of Irvine's original planners, loved. While the popular story is that the school was designed to quash any possible student dissent through its lack of a central meeting place and its placement on rolling hills that block vision and tire marchers, the campus is actually a perfect example of how Pereira envisioned a college setting--geographically symmetrical and balanced, a symbol of the equal cooperation between the different spokes of the university. Peace through design.

Pereira envisioned the university as a sort of tiered urban village sans student housing. The original buildings were constructed in the late '60s and early '70s, as designed by his firm, and adhered closely to the master plan on which he and the University of California regents had decided. They can be easily identified by their sterile-looking, rippled cement outcroppings that shade long rows of smaller windows.

But Social Science Plaza stands contrary to Pereira's initial intent. It's awkwardly placed on the outer perimeter of Ring Road, shifted slightly counterclockwise from where it should be to keep the campus symmetrical, with a parking structure a short two-minute walk away that was thrown in as an afterthought; collectively, the area is known as the Social Sciences. The buildings are flanked by the Middle Earth dormitories (the only group of housing units to sit near the center of the campus), the Social Ecology buildings and the university's main plaza. The surrounding area--full of trees, buildings and trailers masquerading as classrooms--is noticeably more claustrophobic than the other parts of campus, where the quads are airier and brighter.

Built in the mid-1990s, the Social Science Plaza stands as a symbol of Pereira's paradise lost. The architecture is anachronistic, matching neither the brutalistic, Planet of the Apes-immortalized modernist future-chic of the Pereira era or the sharp, clean edges and gargantuan windows of more recent additions, built in the New Urbanist tradition. Compared to those two styles, Social Science Plaza is plain, made up of simple straight lines and gradual curves. From afar, the exterior walls blur together, a solid mass of stone and masonry, but up close, students can see the cinderblock-sized chunks of stone that make up the buildings' façades. Their primary identifiable features are support columns, off-white extremities reaching from the second floor of each building into the concrete of their foundations. On the inside, the buildings are some of the most cramped on campus, with narrow, straight hallways lined with countless doors into offices or conference rooms. In several of them, you can touch both walls at the same time.

To be blunt, Social Science Plaza is ugly. It's almost preordained that these buildings have recently attracted the worst kind of attention, as UCI's preferred site to commit suicide. Of the five on-campus suicides in the past decade, four took place at Social Science Plaza, the adjacent parking structure, or in the nearby Social Science Lab. And it hasn't been just students; out-of-towners and patients from the school's psychiatry department are also drawn to the area for reasons known only to them.

A sign inside a social science stairwell
A sign inside a social science stairwell
Dustin Ames/OC Weekly

The first suicide to occur in get attributed to the Social Science Plaza was in March 2007, a little more than a decade after the buildings opened*. Just after midnight, a senior in good academic standing--whose name school officials have never released--was found in the stairwell of a building with a gunshot wound to his head. Investigators determined it was a suicide, and despite the student's dramatic end, the campus stayed quiet. No public memorials were planned; New University, the school's newspaper, never published an article on the matter.

Students at the time barely even remember it happening. "You figure it would have been a big deal, but I don't remember any vigils or anything like that," says Ben Ritter, who was editor in chief of the New University when that suicide occurred.

It wasn't until four weeks later that the dead student finally warranted a media mention--first in the Orange County Register as a lead-in to an article about student mental health, then in an op-ed in the campus newspaper on the same subject. The suicide's last mention happened nearly a month later, in a letter to the New U editor. "Why have the murders of 31 and the suicide of another on a campus in Virginia warranted a campus-wide message and vigil, while the March 30 suicide death by gunshot in a social sciences stairwell of a member of UCI's own student body goes unmentioned," wrote doctoral candidate Brook Haley. "We were called upon to cope openly with the Virginia [Tech] tragedy; is there no need to cope with the death of a fourth-year undergraduate who must have had human connections here--roommates, classmates, professors and friends? Or did the distance and sensationalism that marked the Virginia events call more for a public response than a largely unnoticed nighttime end to a UCI student's life in a quiet stairwell?"

The second death first actual suicide at the plaza took place nearly five years later, shortly after midnight on Jan. 22, 2012. While it garnered a wider reaction in Orange County, on campus, it was more of the same silence. That night, UCI students found 18-year-old UC San Diego freshman Andy Chau on the ground next to the Social Science parking structure. The Santa Ana native had attended a wrestling meet earlier that weekend and stayed to visit with a pal.

Friends released a memorial video shortly after Chau's death. Angry Asian Man, one of the most popular and influential Asian American blogs, as well as several San Diego publications, wrote about the incident. Those who knew Chau and outside observers were surprised to the point that early in the investigation, rumors swirled that the student hadn't jumped, that he instead fell off the roof of the structure during an impromptu wrestling match.

On campus, the reaction was muted. A small shrine was erected, but after Chau was buried at the Peek Funeral Home in Westminster a week later, it faded away. A police investigation found no foul play.

A year later, another death took place at the parking structure--but this time, the campus reaction was different. Christien Rodriguez was well-known and -liked on campus. The 22-year-old spent his time founding a transgender support group, working as part of the Irvine Queers, speaking on behalf of the LGBT Resource Center's Speakers Bureau, and serving as a resident assistant in the dorms.

In the early evening of March 8, 2013, Rodriguez jumped from the top story of the Social Science parking structure. Multiple people saw him fall and immediately called the police. They lingered on the scene to give their statements to law enforcement, who cordoned off the area.

"There was a mix of both [people who saw him fall and people who were curious]," says Jessica Pratt, a former editor in chief of the New U. "The people who saw what happened were visibly shaken and concerned about what happened."

Unlike the first two suicides, Rodriguez's death threw the campus into shock, prompting an outpouring of emotion. Students painted a section of the parking structure in rainbow colors in his memory, though a custodian scraped the paint away hours later. An emergency fund was created in his honor to provide relief for LGBT individuals who found themselves in financial crisis, since Rodriguez had to leave school six months before graduating because of rising fees.

Three campus groups banded together to host a memorial a week after his death. Dozens of mourners attended, including residents of his dorm, fellow activists, friends, professors, people he had just barely met and Rodriguez's mother. Mourners, many in tears, watched videos of him speaking and performing poetry. They told stories and wrote notes as they listened to music from his iPod--and then those flowers and candles faded away.

Why Do So Many Students Commit Suicide at UC Irvine's Social Science Plaza?
Dustin Ames/OC Weekly

The spectre of suicide has hung over UCI from the beginning. In 1959, Myford Irvine was found dead with what the coroner deemed were three self-inflicted gunshot wounds. The heir to the Irvine Ranch was ready to transform tens of thousands of acres into modern-day Orange County. With Myford's passing, his niece, Joan Irvine Smith, became the family's main voice on the Irvine Co. board of directors. The following year, at her urging, the board donated 1,000 acres to the state of California to build what would become UCI.

Students past and present process each death in their own way. Gallows humor is one method; on Twitter this past summer, a student wrote, "So either I stay at UCR and get kidnapped or go to UCI and commit suicide? what is life LOL." Alternate histories about campus landmarks is another; a plaque at Aldrich Park marks a central bell tower called the Centrum that Pereira wanted to be visible for miles. But Pereira scrapped it, citing a lack of funding and flooding issues during construction. That was just a cover, goes another version, for the real reason: professors worried that students would continually fling themselves off it.

Earlier generations created urban legends of Anteaters who met tragic ends still get passed down. The most popular claims that in the 1970s, a ballet dancer killed herself in her dorm room in Mesa Court's Prado building due to the pressure she felt from an upcoming audition. Students swear she hung herself from a fan, that the fan's spinning made her silhouette pirouette in the window--never mind that there is no mention of such a death in newspaper archives.

Another story takes place off campus. Drive along the stretch of Campus Drive that stretches through the wilderness preserve on a foggy day, and you may meet the ghost of a woman who was struck by a car while jogging. If you're driving alone, she may appear in your back seat as you glance in your rear-view mirror. Or, as other stories go, you might meet her searching for her dead children on the side of the road. No one can really get the story straight, but this particular urban legend is a staple of the genre documented by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand as far back as his 1981 book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Despite its gruesome recent history, the Social Science Plaza has yet to make it into the canon of UCI folk tales. The modern deaths there nevertheless haunt UCI, which tries to move on as quickly as possible after each incident; after Chorak's death, there wasn't so much as a flower placed or a votive candle lit in his memory. No marker for any of the departed stands, nor is there any plan to erect one. Asked to comment on Social Science Plaza's proclivity for tragedy and whether the university ever thinks of commemorating the deceased, UCI senior director of media relations and publications Cathy Lawhon wrote in an email, "Speculation on these tragedies serves no constructive purpose."

The school's administration instead focuses on the living. While counseling services are stressed at the campus, students who need immediate help can get it; after this chain of suicides, the university has made additional efforts to curb any risk. For its students, administrators are hopeful such services can be expanded soon and more mental-health professionals hired as adequate space is found. The university's tallest buildings now have signs posted next to exterior entrances with counseling numbers. After Rodriguez jumped to his death, UCI installed suicide bars on the top floor of the Social Science parking structure. Most of the windows on the lower floors have screens attached, preventing anyone from climbing through.

But other factors almost guarantee Social Science Plaza will continue to attract an undue amount of wayward souls. UCI's largest school by far is Social Sciences, with more than 5,000 students as of 2014. To receive a bachelor's degree from the university, each student must take social and behavioral science courses, many of which are taught in the buildings. Even if students avoid those courses, the plaza is home to one of the campus' larger lecture halls, where introductory classes of nearly every subject have been taught. The Social Science Parking Structure is also one of the most visible buildings on a campus with no real visible centerpiece. Lacking a towering central symbol akin to Berkeley's Sather Tower or the University of Texas Tower's Observation Deck, the parking structure is visible from the University Town Center across the street and near the closest thing to a cultural campus center, the flagpole entrance plaza.

As for Chorak, who was never a UCI student, we may never know his attraction to the plaza. He arrived at the campus, after more than a week on a maximum dosage of Haldol, a medication whose side effects include suicidal thoughts and which likely wreaked havoc on Chorak's mind.

Whether he was completely lucid or in a drug-addled stupor will remain a mystery, but we do know one thing: Chorak's family says he had once visited the very building where he ended his life, taken there by a person he knew. He had a prior history of suicide attempts, both from overdose and from attempted jumps from iconic landmarks--he once threatened to jump off the Bay Bridge. When Chorak and his companion wandered around Social Science Plaza, the companion said something strange, almost a dare: If either of them were to ever commit suicide, that's where they would do it.

And then one of them did.

*An earlier version of this story placed the March 2007 suicide at Social Sciences Plaza. The suicide actually took place at Social Science Lab. The Weekly regrets the error.

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