“Shasta Weekend” is usually an exciting trip for students to have fun and spend time with friends. But this year’s trip turned tragic after a University of Oregon student was found dead early Saturday morning.
Authorities identified the student as Dylan Pietrs, a 21-year-old business administration major from Denver and a member of Phi Gamma Delta, which is commonly known as FIJI.
“Shasta Weekend” is an annual event attended by hundreds of UO students at Shasta Lake in Northern California. According to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, the specific cause of Pietrs’ death will be determined in the next week by a post-mortem exam, but authorities suspect no foul play was involved.
The sheriff’s office said students found Pietrs Saturday morning in a sleeping bag inside a small tent.
Pietrs’ friends remembered him as honest and caring.
UO student Jason Agtarap recalled when he first met Pietrs through a program called “Semester at Sea.” The program allows students to take classes on a ship and visit multiple countries.
Agtarap said Pietrs approached him as he ate dinner alone and started up a conversation with a joke, and the two became close friends.
“The entire time I had known Dylan, I had known him to live so deeply. He was someone who would always ask how you’re doing, and not because it was polite, but because he genuinely cared,” Agtarap wrote in an email to the Emerald.
“I treasure all of the late-night conversations we shared while stargazing on the Indian Ocean, and even though he may have left us, I know he’ll never stop exploring this world,” Agtarap wrote.
“Shasta Weekend” is not endorsed by the University of Oregon, said UO spokesman Tobin Klinger. Students, mostly members of Greek life from UO, Oregon State University and other schools such as University of California Davis, spend a weekend at Shasta Lake in houseboats and tents on the shore during different weekends in the spring.
An Emerald reporter at the scene recalled the series of events Saturday morning. Around 9 a.m., people were getting ready for another day, joking and laughing, when the news began to get around that a Phi Gamma Delta member had been found unresponsive.
After several students flagged down an emergency response boat, the news only took 10 to 15 minutes to spread throughout the students in attendance. Within half an hour, students stopped applying sunscreen, began turning off their music and waited to hear if the unresponsive student was OK.
As news of Pietrs’ death spread, the houseboats and campsites fell silent. Students were stunned.
“It totally changed the mood, it was super upbeat and after, we were just wondering where to go,” said UO student Christina Crolla, who didn’t know Pietrs personally but was on the trip.
Emily Ray, a UO junior who was camping near Pietrs’ tent, said the news caused the usually upbeat tone of the weekend to drastically shift.
“People were holding their friends close and praying, and a lot of people were crying,” she said. “All the boat captains and riders made the decision to load up the boats and return a day early. I was so proud to be part of a student body that would do anything for one of their fellow classmates regardless of whether or not they knew him.”
Although no one officially announced that the trip was cancelled, all thoughts of continuing the weekend were quickly dismissed.
“We had to pack up and leave; it’s a respect thing. I didn’t want to stay there,” Crolla said.
People were ferried back to the marina between 11 a.m. and mid-afternoon. The authorities assisted in the ferrying process.
Crolla said the boat ride from the campground to the marina was silent.
Following early media reports of the death, the UO Division of Student Life released a statement on Saturday evening acknowledging the tragedy of Pietrs’ death, but also condemning the Shasta trip as a whole.
“As devastating as this sudden passing is, it is important to point out that this tragedy is connected to an unauthorized tradition among many college students,” the statement said. “Students from many institutions have a history of demonstrating poor life choices during visits to Lake Shasta. These activities are contrary to the values of the university and fraternity and sorority organizations.”
The university’s statement triggered an uproar on social media, and by Sunday morning the UO Division of Student Life amended its original statement without announcing the revisions. Klinger acknowledged that the social media backlash contributed to the revision.
Jill Niedermeyer, a UO junior, wrote in tweet on Saturday, “Taking time to call out students for their ‘poor life choices’ is blatantly disrespectful on the day of his passing.”
As a student studying public relations, I am frustrated with the way UO chose to handle the statement regarding the death at Shasta this weekend. Taking time to call out students for their “poor life choices” is blatantly disrespectful on the day of his passing.
— Jill Niedermeyer (@JillNiedermeyer) May 20, 2018
Agtarap was also upset about the statement. “To those who knew and loved Dylan, it was an insensitive and unjust tribute to his impact on this campus, and within our hearts,” he said.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday, the UO announced on Twitter that it updated the post and regretted the “insensitive tone of the earlier statement.”
The Division of Student Life has updated its statement on the passing of a student at Lake Shasta. We offer our deepest condolences to the friends and family of the student, and we regret the insensitive tone of the earlier statement.
— University of Oregon (@uoregon) May 20, 2018
After reading the statement, Justin Hanes, a senior public relations major, wrote an email to Vice President for Student Life Dr. R. Kevin Marbury, Dean of Students Kris Winter and President Michael Schill, calling on them to apologize for the initial news release.
“They need to take full ownership of the comment in their press release,” Hanes said. “The comment invalidated everything else they said previously. It’s like writing something really meaningful and then saying ‘but.’”
On Sunday afternoon, Marbury released a statement apologizing for the original statement. Marbury wrote that the intent of the original message was to “quickly respond to a tragic situation” and to “provide resources to support the community members affected by Dylan’s passing.”
“That statement should have reflected that our focus was and remains on assisting Dylan’s family and friends as they deal with this news,” Marbury wrote. “We have heard from a number of you and greatly appreciate your perspective that the statement came across as insensitive. As the leader of the Division of Student Life, I offer my apology.”
The national headquarters of Phi Gamma Delta tweeted an official statement Sunday extending condolences to Pietrs’ friends and family. “Our thoughts are with all those who have been touched by this tragic loss,” the tweet read.
Phi Gamma Delta extends its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Dylan Pietrs, our undergraduate brother from the University of Oregon who died during a camping trip on Saturday, May 19. Our thoughts are with all those who have been touched by this tragic loss.
— Phi Gamma Delta HQ (@PhiGamHQ) May 20, 2018
The UO chapter of Phi Gamma Delta also tweeted a statement Sunday offering their “deepest sympathies” to Pietrs’ family, saying “even as we deal with our own loss of a good friend, we know that their loss is much greater.”
— FIJI Oregon (@OregonFiji) May 20, 2018
Students affected by this tragic event can call the UO student after-hour support and crisis line or schedule an appointment with the University Counseling Center at 541-346-3227.
Ethan Brenner contributed reporting to this story.