As Jennifer Espinola faced a crowd of more than 100 in the Marshall Student Center’s Oval Theatre, she named each of the 14 students who attended the alternative summer break trip in Costa Rica with USF graduate Aly Lakdawala and told them one thing — “I love you all very much.”
Students, who went on the trip as part of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, helped organize a memorial service for Lakdawala Wednesday night.
Since May 16, those students have been dealing with the loss of their friend, who went missing during a swim in the Pacific Ocean and was found dead May 21 one nautical mile from shore.
Espinola, director of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, supervised the trip along with her husband, Wayne. It was Espinola’s first time going overseas with students.
“It was one of the most supportive and most caring groups of people that I’ve ever been around,” she said during the service. “Watching you all look out for each other, and taking care of each other and reaching out and checking on each other — It was like family.”
Espinola said she wants the group to remember their trip to Costa Rica and how Lakdawala influenced their lives.
“It really gave us a chance to be our best selves … I’m going to commit myself to living intensely with the love and passion that I’ve seen Aly live and I will cherish that forever,” she said.
The group left May 8 for Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, where they volunteered five hours a day at an orphanage. It was the third out-of-area volunteer trip for USF graduate Raffaele Macri, who was Lakdawala’s roommate on the trip.
A slideshow of funny faces and smiling orphans demonstrated the good Lakdawala did in the week leading up to his death.
“We played soccer with them — We played patty-cake with them the whole time,” Macri said. “We just had a chance to bond with the kids. I want to say within the first two hours one of the kids actually started calling me his brother.”
Macri, who has been one of the few students to speak about the trip, said it has been difficult dealing with the publicity.
“Just to let somebody else know who doesn’t know him — that’s where I start crying again,” he said. “I’m just willing to prepare myself for whatever time it takes. I mean, he was, he is my brother. We were very close.”
Macri, one of the speakers at the service, reminisced about fun times he and Lakdawala shared, particularly those at an awards banquet for the center in which they were both so involved.
He and Lakdawala rapped at the banquet and a video of their performance was shown at the service.
Macri and other students said Lakdawala pushed people to have fun and do things they wouldn’t normally do.
“He always wanted everyone to be a part of the group,” he said.
University President Judy Genshaft opened the service with remarks about Lakdawala’s influence on and involvement at USF.
“Aly made a big difference at USF,” she said. “He helped shape all of us.”
Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith said Lakdawala’s impact reminds him of what is called the six-degree theory, which suggests that each person is connected with everyone else within six people.
Smith said Provost Ralph Wilcox told him about Lakdawala when news broke of his disappearance. Later that day, someone told Smith that their office’s student assistant was Lakdawala’s roommate.
“So you didn’t need six people (for him),” Smith said. “But that was just a small sampling — I read the newspapers and read blogs and read so many comments about the impact Aly made on so many people.”
The Florida Default Law Group in Tampa, where Lakdawala worked, told Christy Burke, program coordinator of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, that they wanted to make a “significant contribution” to Tara Hall, a boy’s boarding school, in honor of Lakdawala.
Lakdawala volunteered at Tara Hall during an alternative spring break trip to South Carolina.
Burke said part of the song, “For Good,” that was played during the service reminds her of Lakdawala: “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
Students spoke about Lakdawala on camera in a video booth. The video will be given to Lakdawala’s family along with a book of note cards with memories written by students at the service.
About 10 students spoke on stage during an open mic session to share memories and express their thoughts about Lakdawala.
“Aly is someone who cannot be replaced,” said Hiram Ramirez, who was Lakdawala’s roommate and led the service.
Ramirez said a prayer in Spanish and three other individuals recited a prayer in English, Urdu and Arabic in honor of Lakdawala’s passion for diversity.
Wearing a T-shirt with a picture of his son and Lakdawala’s motto, ‘Hug it out,’ Lakdawala’s father spoke at the end of the service to thank everyone for their support and for organizing the service.
“I will wear his ring forever,” he said, holding his hand up. “He is up in the heavens cheering and making the angels laugh.”