Campus cherishes UNC junior’s memory
Her first heartbreak happened when she was in second grade.
It was her teacher, Mr. Cook. He fostered her love for learning, and when the time came to leave his classroom at the end of the year, she didn’t want to go.
UNC Junior Rachel Sylvia Thompson, 20, died Friday from complications brought on by medication she was taking for her cystic fibrosis. She had withdrawn from school this semester to receive treatment for her disease.
Thompson lived a life spent cultivating a love of literature and religious studies — passions that first formed in elementary school.
“When she had to leave second grade, she cried and cried,” said Lynda Thompson, her mother.
Thompson was an English and religious studies major, with a minor in creative writing. She was co-president of Religion as Explorative Learning Integrated in our Community (RELIC), a multifaith group on campus.
For Christmas, Rachel gave her father a Billy Collins poetry book.
“We could discuss his poetry we had just read and just as easily watch an episode of Family Guy and laugh at all of the inappropriate jokes,” said her father Gary Thompson. “It shows her lack of pretense.”
Rachel was a true Tar Heel who loved to learn, and her parents said it was hard for her to withdraw from UNC this semester.
“She loved it,” Lynda Thompson said. “When she had to withdraw, her heart broke that day.”
She was a private person, but between her time with RELIC and the friends she made through her creative writing and poetry classes, Rachel carved out a tight-knit community of friends.
“She really thrived at Chapel Hill — she found herself there,” Lynda Thompson said. “She found other people interested in literature and religion. She really enjoyed the community, the relationships.”
Her friends made all the difference during her time at UNC, Gary Thompson said.
“Everyone at Chapel Hill embraced Rachel,” he said. “And I’m grateful for the time she had there.”
Hannah Cunningham, Rachel Thompson’s roommate last year and co-president of RELIC, said Thompson was a rare type of person — passionate about promoting tolerance and open to everyone on campus.
Thompson was in charge of publicity for RELIC and helped organize field trips to places of worship.
“She did all our flyers — she photoshopped a yarmulke on a chicken for Passover,” she said. “She helped a lot with our transition from a living-learning community to a special interest housing group to a student organization. She single handedly wrote the bylaws — without her, we would not still be together.”
Ashley Shaver, a junior who knew Thompson since elementary school, said she was a one-of-a-kind person who never let her disease be an obstacle, as long as she knew her.
“She really showed her strength,” Shaver said. “I wouldn’t know what it was like, but I can imagine it’d be hard growing up with that. She never let that defeat her or change who she was.”
Cunningham said her favorite memories of Thompson are from when the two were in their dorm room, debating life’s biggest questions.
And when Cunningham visited Thompson at hospice last week, they read a book of Thompson’s poetry. One of them was about the religion of a granola bar.
“It’s really rare. It’s nice to see,” she said of Thompson’s tolerant disposition. “She was awesome.”
When Cunningham visited her in the hospital last week, Thompson looked at peace.
In a Facebook post earlier this month, Thompson wrote to her friends to say how significant they were to her.
“The most important thing in life is relationships, and without your friendship, life would be empty,” she wrote. “To everyone I know from attending UNC, you have given me an opportunity to thrive … In short, I want to tell you all how much I love you.”
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