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Purdue Is a Warm, Welcoming, Vibrant Community; Varun Chheda’s Murder Is a Shock

A former student of Purdue University reflects on his time on the campus as he mourns the death of Varun Chheda.

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(A 20-year-old Indian-origin student, Varun Chheda, was found dead in his dormitory at Purdue University in the US state of Indiana on Wednesday, 5 October. Chheda was a data science senior from Indianapolis and lived in McCutcheon Hall on the western edge of the university campus. The police arrested Chheda’s roommate Ji Min “Jimmy” Sha, a junior cybersecurity major and international student from Korea, for the murder.)

Varun Chheda could have been any of us. He was a student residing at McCutcheon Hall, where I spent the first two years of college life, and he was known as a kind, respectful young man who excelled in his classes and enjoyed playing chess and video games in his spare time.

Varun's murder was a senseless act of violence that didn’t just take a promising young person’s life, future, and potential, it also violated the safety he was promised as a campus resident and a student at Purdue. 
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As I am sure other students and alumni are trying to fathom how this could have happened on our campus, this tragedy gave me pause to reflect on my own experience at Purdue. Starting my freshman year at Purdue, it was my first time in the US, first time living away from home in Kolkata, India.

I flew into Chicago O’Hare, and I remember looking out the window, watching the city pass by as the bus took me, and other newcomers to our campus in West Lafayette. When the city blurred into corn farms and windmill-scattered country roads, my excitement subsided, and I began to question what exactly I had gotten myself into.

Luckily, what I had gotten myself into was a welcoming, warm, and vibrant community at Purdue. Living in the McCutcheon dorm and West Lafayette let me experience a new, global world packed into a small college town.

I met and befriended many students like me, who were coming from different places and backgrounds but all searching for community, acceptance, and a bit of adventure. I believe we found this in the dorms, dining halls, and academic buildings on campus. 

Campus food and clubs were just some of the ways that showed me Purdue was open and accepting to new cultures, and that we as students were encouraged to be as just welcoming to each other.

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The multinational student body and faculty felt representative of an increasingly globalised and connected world, and this open and free setting for higher academic studies made me believe in the promise of the university to create leaders and agents of positive change.

Purdue was indeed a place of learning, not just about subjects and academic fields, but also about life and everything it had to offer. I feel fortunate that I was able to experience new cultures, foods, sports, languages, and so much more through connections and relationships I made there. 

I felt at home with the friends I made. We experienced college life and learning together, struggling through study prep and exam weeks, exploring, and enjoying life on campus in between them. One of my friend groups was part of Cru, an on-campus Christian organisation.

Despite their religious affiliation, they included me and others in pick-up games, dinners, and trips without the pressure of assimilating to their religion or culture. There was a mutual respect and curiosity to learn and share cultures, as well as to have meaningful conversations and debates.

We also exchanged culture through sports, where I was introduced to American football through Purdue Boilermakers – the university's football team – and in turn introduced my friends to cricket. They still keep up with India’s T20 matches, and we have running commentary on Messenger and WhatsApp.

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On some holiday breaks, my friends invited me to spend time with their families and communities, and I was able to partake and learn about the significance of American traditions like Thanksgiving dinner, which was incredible even for a vegetarian, with dishes like cornbread, stuffing with cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole.

My family and I were able to return their hospitality when one of them visited Kolkata during his exchange summer abroad, by showing him around several touristy spots in the city, taking him to Eden Gardens for an IPL match, and getting street chaat.

To this day and I’m sure beyond, there are American weddings happening in the Midwest where everyone from all backgrounds turns up to hits like “Mundian To Bach Ke” and “Gud Naal Ishq Mittha.”

Students I met during my time at Purdue became my friends, and I’ve been grateful to be able to grow up with them and watch them pursue their dreams and start their families.

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Some of my fondest memories include roaming the halls of McCutcheon for late-night vending machine runs, sharing snacks with my roommate and our floor neighbors, finding creative ways to play table tennis with more than four players, and enjoying game and movie nights with fellow residents.

It’s strange thinking back to my time that seemed almost idyllic while trying to understand how such a horrible tragedy could befall on someone who was going through his own formative years.

A college campus should be a place where you can trust your child to grow and learn, and a dorm is where you as a student should feel safe and at home. When I first heard about Varun, I felt great shock and sadness that this could happen in a dorm where I felt so at home, on a campus where I felt safe.

There is no getting over a senseless murder like this, but there is getting through, by coming together as a community, honoring our fallen Boilermaker, and extending kindness and understanding to each other.

For me, Purdue is where people from all over the world come to grow as thinkers and doers, and it’s always been a place of welcoming, support, and acceptance.

As we grieve for Varun, my hope for Purdue students, staff, and alumni is that we support each other and find meaningful ways to honour his life and legacy.

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To my fellow Boilermakers – I hope you find and extend peace and kindness during this time and onward. To Varun and his loved ones – I know words can never make sense of or take away the pain and injustice you’ve experienced.

He was a brother, a son, a grandson, a friend, a student – but above all he was a human being who deserved to live out his dreams and passions. My heart is with him and with you, as are the hearts of many.

(Ratik Dugar graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Statistics in 2015. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Murder   Indian Student   Purdue University 

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