Erick Kang’Ethe, a junior at the University of Massachusetts, will be remembered for his kindness and compassion toward his friends and his community.
On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the University informed students that the computer engineering major had passed away outside of McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Kang’Ethe graduated from Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester in 2017 before attending UMass.
According to a GoFundMe funeral fund started by members of his family, Kang’Ethe was the son of Rosebell Kinyanjui and nephew to Anthony Kinyanjui. As of Nov. 5, the fund is almost halfway to its $20,000 goal.
Kang’Ethe is remembered by friends and mentors as a passionate soccer player and photographer who had a talent for working with technology.
Soon after starting at Doherty Memorial High School, Kang’Ethe became involved in a Worcester-based youth leadership development organization, Cultural Exchange through Soccer, which looks to support people who have immigrant and refugee stories. Laura Suroviak, the founder of CETS, said Kang’Ethe “contributed a lot” to the organization in the relatively short amount of time he worked there.
“We all knew Erick as a really sweet and gentle, fun but soft-spoken person,” Suroviak said.
On Saturday afternoon, CETS volunteers and members, including a few younger children Kang’Ethe mentored, met in Worcester to have a space to process their loss.
“This is a huge loss for all of us. He was on a path to really amazing things,” Suroviak said. “Anyone who knows him knows he is a very loving and caring person, and he would want us all to reach out to others and support each other.”
Dee Wells, the founder of Future Focus Media in Worcester, was making an anniversary video for CETS in spring 2016 when he met Kang’Ethe.
“He just came up to me and said he was interested in becoming a better photographer,” Wells said. That summer, Kang’Ethe interned at Wells’ company.
Kang’Ethe had an affinity for black and white photography, Wells said. Kang’Ethe was also really interested in capturing people playing soccer or sharing a laugh.
During the past summer, Kang’Ethe photographed players at the Worcester World Cup, which Suroviak said is a “gift to the city” to celebrate all the immigrant communities and provide a big festival for them.
“When we first met him, we knew that he had art in him. He was an artist,” Suroviak said. “We enjoyed seeing how he saw the world through his photos.”
Chris Robarge, a staff member at the Worcester World Cup, said Kang’Ethe’s death was “absolutely heartbreaking” in a Facebook post.
“He was one of the nicest, most polite, helpful, quietly positive people I have ever met,” Robarge said. “This is a devastating loss for his family, our soccer community, our immigrant and refugee community and really for the city at large.”
According to Wells, Kang’Ethe was a “worldly person” and that he was mature beyond his years.
“He had a different perspective, knowing the struggle the rest of the family made by moving to Worcester,” Wells added. “His legacy will certainly continue. We knew him, we know him, he’s a friend.”
During his college search process, Kang’Ethe was “ecstatic” when he found the right fit at UMass, Wells said.
Kayleigh Skolnik met Kang’Ethe the day after their freshman move-in at Hampshire Dining Commons and the two became close friends.
“Within the week, I was avoiding getting shot by nerf guns in his room, and we were eating dinner together every night with our group of friends,” Skolnik said. “It was our little niche, and we had found home.”
When Skolnik’s family visited from Maryland during their first semester, Kang’Ethe immediately told Skolnik’s younger sister that she “was the better sister.”
“She was only nine at the time, but she somehow got along with Erick and all of our friends just like I did,” Skolnik said. “He was really great with her. He also has a younger brother, my sister’s age, so he really understood the protectiveness I have over her.”
Sara Walter, who met Kang’Ethe during their first year at UMass, said they had so much in common and quickly became friends.
“We were so alike that we just got close,” Walter said. “He really was like a brother to me.”
Kang’Ethe played intramural soccer, Walter said, and taught her to play the video game FIFA. When asked what his favorite team was, Walter said it was “definitely Barcelona.”
“He was weirdly good at it [FIFA] and would go to the tournaments on campus,” Skolnik added.
“You could count on him to be playing soccer or taking photos of people playing it,” Hasini Jayawardena said. “FIFA was his sh–.”
Hannah Welsh, who also became friends with Kang’Ethe during their freshman year, remembered how Kang’Ethe “was always kicking around a soccer ball.”
“Sometimes, if I was doing homework in the common room, he’d come in and try and do all these tricks with [his soccer balls]. Sometimes it was successful, and sometimes it was just funny to watch.”
Jayawardena added that Kang’Ethe was her “tech guy” and helped her buy a new phone and would fix her laptop whenever it broke down. He could “fix almost anything,” Walter said.
“He’s an Android person, he hated iPhones,” Walter said. She added that Kang’Ethe preferred the cameras on Androids and his love for Android was an ongoing joke between them.
“He was incredibly smart and one of the most hard-working people I have ever met,” friend Pravini Silva said. “He was planning on having a career in the cybersecurity field after graduating.”
Kang’Ethe also brought his interest in technology back to his work with CETS. During an internship with MassMutual, Kang’Ethe learned about web-building and applied those skills to help out CETS.
“We don’t have a website, but he had been guiding and mentoring me [over the past three or four months],” Suroviak explained. “Now, I’m at a loss.”
Above all, Kang’Ethe’s friends remembered his caring personality, sense of humor and style.
Silva said that for people who never met Kang’Ethe, she would want them to know he was someone that everyone liked.
“Everyone who met Erick loved him. His sense of humor, charm and impeccable style made him an unforgettable person to everyone that interacted with him,” Silva said. “He brought happiness and joy into his friends and family’s lives.”
While she said it was sad to know she wouldn’t see him in the dining halls or walking around the engineering quad anymore, Silva said she would remember the “happy positive memories” for the rest of her life.
“It would always brighten up my day whenever I talked with him or saw him,” Silva said. “One of my favorite memories I had with him was walking downtown after class on Fridays to get bubble tea. He got me obsessed with bubble tea.”
“He always, and I emphasize this, always smelt great and dressed great,” Jayawardena said, adding that Kang’Ethe was always “full of positive affirmations.”
“He was so f—ing dependable. You could depend on him for anything. He was truly a great guy, and I mean that with my whole heart,” Jayawardena said.
Skolnik described Kang’Ethe as her “ultimate hype man” who would tell her she looked “amazing” or “fire” whenever she dressed up for any event.
“He was one of those people you trusted to tell you the truth about the way you looked, so he wouldn’t tell you he looked good unless he meant it,” she added.
Welsh said Kang’Ethe was “so thoughtful and so patient,” and would always go out of his way for each of his friends.
“He was funny, he was always great to be around,” Walter said. “Literally always laughing. He’d always do things to make me laugh.”
Walter said she and Kang’Ethe could go a couple weeks or even a month without talking, but “coming back it was like time never passed.”
“His presence is felt in the people he loved,” Skolnik said. “I will forever remember the impact he had on me.”
Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @KathrineEsten.