Donika Celaj, a senior and psychology major at Fordham College at Rose Hill, died on Feb. 21 due to a sudden illness. She was 21.
“Donika’s passing is a terrible blow to her family, loved ones, and classmates,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “The death of someone so young and full of life is profoundly painful, and a source of unspeakable sorrow and loss to everyone who knew her. I know you will join me in keeping Donika’s family, loved ones, and friends in your thoughts and prayers today and in the days ahead.”
Celaj (who also spelled her last name “Cela”) was born on Nov. 13, 1997, in Yonkers, New York. In 2015, she graduated from Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy, a public middle school and high school in the Bronx. At Fordham, she was a commuter student who traveled to the Rose Hill campus from her apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
Fordham College at Rose Hill senior Lara Carrion forged a close friendship with Celaj that began during a first-year English class.
“She would make faces at me across the table. One day she emailed me her number. We were friends ever since,” she said.
“She was crazy, she was selfless, she loved basically everybody. She loved to eat, she loved to drive, and she loved to listen to music,” said Carrion, who lives off campus in the Bronx.
“She would burst into my house and the first thing she would say is, ‘Where are we eating?'”
They would go for pizza or sushi, or sometimes, since Celaj was Albanian, they would go to the Albanian restaurants near Arthur Avenue.
As a commuter student, Carrion said, Celaj didn’t have a huge number of friends on campus. “But the few friends, she did have, she was ride or die for them.” Over winter break, when Carrion was having some issues with her family on Long Island, Celaj drove from the Bronx to pick up her friend. True to form, they went to eat.
Carrion said her friend was looking forward to going to Albania this summer to hang out with her cousins. And she was very close to her younger brothers and her parents.
“She always wanted to do the best for her parents,” Carrion said, adding that they were very protective of her and wouldn’t always allow her to do the things typical college students do. “But she would rather make sure that her parents were happy.”
Celaj’s professors described her as an involved, hardworking student.
“Donika was a reflective young woman who was finding her voice at Fordham,” said Mary Procidano, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology. “Though she sat toward the back of my classroom, she was consistently engaged in our discussions. She was a valued presence in my classes, and we all will miss her.”
Celaj not only studied psychology but also had an interest in art. This semester, she took two studio visual art classes at Fordham.
“She was an excellent student who was self-motivated in her work, serious, and focused,” said David Storey, associate professor of painting and director of visual arts at Rose Hill. “Donika was also a student who was able to recognize that even an assigned exercise could transform into a compelling work of art—and I believe this was always her goal.”
Another friend, Fordham College at Rose Hill senior Maye Yassin, recalled the way that passion emerged in Celaj’s friendships: her fierce loyalty toward her closest friends, her way of making people in a room laugh, her “silly” sense of humor.
“No matter how much time passed in between us seeing each other, every time we would first see each other, she would run up and give me the biggest hug and lift me off the ground and say, ‘I missed the ’fro!’” Yassin said, referring to her own curly hair. “She just loved people so much, to her core … and you could feel it.”
Celaj is survived by her parents, Gzim and Ariana Celaj (Nokshiqi); her brothers, Fisnik and Lorik; and an extended family.
Visitation was held for Celaj on Sunday, Feb. 24, at Pleasant Manor Funeral Home in Thornwood, New York. Funeral services were held at Pleasant Manor on Monday, Feb. 25, followed by interment at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Students struggling during this difficult time can reach out for help at the numbers below.
Rose Hill: 718-817-3725
Lincoln Center: 212-636-6225
Rose Hill: 718-817-4500
Lincoln Center: 212-636-6267
Students may also contact a commuter assistant, resident assistant, or resident director at any time to request assistance or to talk; they can also contact Public Safety at 718-817-2222 for assistance at any time.
—Nicole LaRosa contributed reporting