Leah Bell PO '18, a psychology major from Louisiana who hoped to become a nurse practitioner to help babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, died on May 6 in a boating accident while studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Leah was a brilliant light in our lives – smart and wise, with a unique sense of humor and joy,” her mother Elizabeth Bell wrote in an email to TSL. “She could find hilarity in the mundane, and when she found it her laugh sang loud enough for all to hear.”
Some of Bell’s close friends, including Ben Gregory PO '18, Kelly Ragsdale PO '18, and Kelly Scharlach PO '18, all of whom she met through her first-year sponsor group, remember her as bright, quirky, and always wanting to help others.
“She was very unique in the fact that her purpose in life was to do good for others as opposed to the average person who might first think [of] personal happiness, and she was very appalled that people questioned that about her because it was just so intuitive to her to be doing good for others,” Scharlach said.
“She didn’t have the same ambition here that other people have. She didn’t want to be CEO or win prizes,” he said. “She just cared about having a small happy life with the people she cared about.”
Bell “was really committed to constantly being the best version of herself and was very aware of her own faults and wanting to correct them,” said Maggie Lemons PO '17, Bell's first-year sponsor.
Pomona College psychology professor Patricia Smiley, who taught Bell in one of her child development classes, said she “had strong bonds with her friends and really clear ideas about wanting to help people.”
“It’s a very painful loss because she was so focused and so alive,” Smiley said. “I looked forward to what she was going to be.”
After Bell’s success in her child development course, Smiley recommended she work in the campus laboratory of Stacey Doan, a Claremont McKenna College assistant professor of health psychology. At the Applied Life and Mind Laboratory, Bell worked on a book Doan was writing, analyzed data, and wrote abstracts for conferences.
Bell had plans when she returned from Denmark to do a Summer Undergraduate Research Program with Doan to “determine whether children with certain dispositions are more sensitive than others to experiencing increased cortisol levels in response to stressful events,” Smiley wrote in an email to TSL.
Doan characterized Bell as “one of the brightest students that I ever met.”
“I mean it in lots of different ways,” she said. “She’s very intelligent. But I also thought that there was a luminosity [about her]. When she talked about things she wanted to do, it’s never like ‘I want to go to medical school’ or like ‘I want to get excellent grades,’ which is very common for college students. She was very much like ‘I want to do this in order to help these kids.’ In that way, I also thought she was bright.”
Bell was also an active member of the 5C Mental Health Alliance, a club that works to create a safe space for the discussion of mental health issues.
Sherwin Shabdar PO '18, co-president of the alliance, knew Bell for about a year and said she was a warm, caring person. Shabdar worked with Bell to put on Student Speak, an event in which students talked about their experiences with mental health, and 1,100 Candles for Suicide Awareness, in which the group lit 1,100 candles on the steps of Frary Dining Hall.
“She had a lot of curiosity about the world and a desire to make the world a better place,” Shabdar said. Bell was inquisitive and had a wonderful sense of humor, he added.
While Bell’s friends enjoyed her company for years, Smiley said she was just getting to know the ambitious student and looked forward to working with her when she returned from studying abroad.
“We miss her (and) the senior class is mourning her,” she said.
Bell is survived by her parents, Elizabeth and Jeff, and her sister, Rebecca. A memorial service for Bell will be held on Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2:00 p.m. in Little Bridges Hall of Music.
Gregory and Scharlach will be giving speeches and Ragsdale will be singing a favorite song of Bell's, “Rainbow Connection” by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher.