A former UMass grad student died last week from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 30. Her friends believe racial bias played a role in her death. And, they say, it’s something she experienced during her years in Amherst.
Rana Zoe Mungin was a social studies teacher at a middle school in Brooklyn. She graduated from the UMass Master of Fine Arts writing program in 2015. Molly McArdle was a fellow student and friend.
"Zoe was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met," she said. "Zoe was also one of the most talented writers I’ve ever encountered."
In mid-March, Mungin developed a fever, chest pain and coughing. Her family said she tried to get tested twice for COVID-19 at a Brooklyn hospital, but was turned away.
Her symptoms worsened and she went back to the hospital by ambulance. She was placed on a ventilator and tested positive.
Mungin’s family and her friend Molly believe the fact that Mungin was black was a factor in the delay of her care.
"I find it extremely painful," McArdle said. "It makes me extremely angry. You know, there's a lot of what-ifs that we don't know the answer to. Like, what if she'd been tested when she first asked and was admitted?"
The UMass English Department issued a press release, describing what happened to Mungin as part "of the long history of economic and racial barriers to healthcare faced by black women in this country." It praised her and said she "pushed the needle here at UMass on conversations about institutional racism.”"
Classmate and friend Caroline Belle Stewart said Mungin had a rough experience in the mostly white MFA program.
She said another student told Mungin "they didn't want to read her story because she writes about black people. She was screamed at in workshop when she tried to talk about racism. She was intimidated by the institution when she spoke out against it."
Mungin filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, but it was dismissed because the commission was unable to conclude the law had been broken.
UMass English Professor Noy Holland was Mungin’s thesis advisor.
"My first impulse when this came up was to try to defend the institution and defend the program and I have learned a lot about that impulse since then," she said. "I think it’s impossible to imagine Zoe didn’t experience exactly what she said she experienced."
Molly McArdle said there’s more she wants people to know about her friend.
"Zoe hosted a hockey podcast. She was a fabulous cook and could make the most beautiful cakes," she said. "Zoe was deeply committed to her nieces and nephew. She loved the musical Hamilton and the 1995 adaptation of 'Pride and Prejudice.' She loved Harry Potter. She hosted Harry Potter costume parties. She was passionate about her students."
Mungin’s family said they are planning a funeral, but amid coronavirus restrictions, it’s hard to pick which 10 people can attend.
LISTEN: Rana Zoe Mungin reading one of her stories.