Willie Zuniga HM ’17, a mathematical physics major with a concentration in philosophy, is remembered by friends and faculty as kind, friendly, and supportive. Zuniga passed away on Thursday, Feb. 2 in his suite at HMC; his cause of death is unknown.
“Willie was the kind of guy that made it clear that he wanted to interact with you and that he wanted you in his universe,” Sam Martin HM ’17, one of Zuniga’s close friends, said. “He always had a big old smile on his face. Whenever he’d see you, he’d just give you this big old greeting. Even a short just ‘yo, what’s up’ interaction was enough to make your whole day better.”
Zuniga was known to both friends and the community as either “Willie the Wiler” or “Prof. Willie” because of his ability to make friends and his readiness to help anyone on campus.
“He was this guy who … loved what he was studying all the time, even when it was hard for him, but also a good friend who you really wanted to hang around forever,” said HMC physics professor Greg Lyzenga, who taught Zuniga in several classes.
Zuniga was an active member of Chicano Latino Student Affairs (CLSA) and the HMC Society of Professional Latinxs in STEM. Viviana Bermudez HM ’18 first got to know him as a CLSA mentor.
“I remember how he always expressed his willingness to help with any and every situation,” she wrote in a blog post on Feb. 5. “I knew I could count on him for anything.”
Zuniga was the first person in his family to attend college, and Lyzenga remembered that “he had a tremendous cheering section.”
He was also an inaugural member of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Program, an initiative that aims to increase faculty diversity at the 5Cs by supporting underrepresented students as they pursue careers as professors. Zuniga hoped to pursue a doctorate in physics and become a professor “who could have a meaningful impact on students lives,” according to HMC’s website.
“I must be aware of the issues that hinder underrepresented groups to success and combat those issues on campus when I see them come up,” Zuniga wrote about the fellowship in an article published on the HMC website in June 2015. “It really helps motivate someone when they have a person in their life who went through what they’re going through, and who can be there for them as a mentor and a friend.”
Zuniga was named a proctor for Atwood Residence Hall at the beginning of his senior year, but Annisa Dea HM ’17 said people had considered him a de facto proctor for some time.
“He would take care of others, and just make sure that they were okay,” Dea said.
Matthew Calligaro HM ‘20 agreed.
“He was one of the most approachable proctors. He made us feel more comfortable adjusting into Mudd,” Calligaro said.
Friends and faculty hope to take lessons from Zuniga’s positive outlook on life.
“Just about anybody can learn from him how to stay positive and how to be a person whom people will look forward to seeing,” Martin said. “He was a fun and exciting guy to be around.”
Zuniga is survived by his mother, father, and two younger brothers. His parents have set up a Gofundme page to fund Zuniga’s funeral and burial plot. As of Thursday, Feb. 9, it had twice exceeded its $10,000 goal. Those wishing to contribute can do so here: https://www.gofundme.com/willie-zunigas-memorial-funding.