Carly Verbeke (1995–2020)

ASU English community mourns our student

In the midst of an academic year filled with many griefs, the Department of English community was hard-hit by the loss of Carly Verbeke, a BA and then MA student in our accelerated master’s in English literature program and The College’s fall 2019 Dean’s Medalist in English. She died unexpectedly on September 15, 2020 at the age of twenty-four.

Carly made a big impression on everyone she met at ASU, and about a week after news of her death reached the department, her friends and colleagues—including faculty, staff and students—met through Zoom on September 25 to share remembrances of her and celebrate all she accomplished in a life that ended too soon. Tributes to her also came in over email from members of our community who knew her and worked with her. We came together, as best we could through these miraculous but insufficient technologies, to say “goodbye” to someone whose physical presence in a room just made it better—more honest, more generous and more fun.

Photo of Carly Verbeke

It was immediately clear when you met Carly that she was wicked smart. She also had a sparkling, ironic, and infectious sense of humor. Her friends described her as “fiery,” “tough,” “a machine,” but also “compassionate,” “generous” and “committed.” School of Social Transformation Lecturer Annamarie Oliverio, one of her mentors and co-director of her MA thesis, published this as part of a reflection on the impact Carly had on ASU:

  • Besides being an outstanding student—with an incredible sense of humor, and a wickedly precise sense of irony—Carly was an ardent supporter of SST, working tirelessly and compassionately advocating for disabled communities, and helping us to reimagine what a critical disabilities studies should be: transformative.

Her professors in particular remember her insightful and open contributions to classroom discussions and the way she brought good humor and a sense of energetic curiosity to even the most serious and thorny theoretical debates and difficult texts. She encouraged others to trust the classroom space and make their own contributions, even when speaking up made them anxious, and we all benefitted from her hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking and infuriating stories of navigating everyday life at ASU in a wheelchair.

When Carly died, she was writing the prospectus for her MA applied project, which I co-directed with Oliverio in the School of Social Transformation, on representations of disability in children’s literature. Already an accomplished writer, she was at work on her second book for children, in which she planned to offer fuller and more well-rounded representations of the lives of kids with disabilities. Her thesis included this call for a cultural shift in such representations:

  • Currently, people with disabilities make up about 12.6% of the U.S. population, and that number continues to grow exponentially as disabilities are integral to an aging society. It will hardly be a minority group much longer if numbers alone are any indication. If that is the case, then why should the disability community continue to be underrepresented in literature, only surrounded by health narratives that paint inaccurate pictures of what life with a disability looks like? If disability is the one thing that will affect everyone in their life at some point, then why should this discrimination continue to be so apparent?

Her scholarship and activism, as this writing reveals, were aimed at creating a more inclusive and more generous community for us all.

Carly believed being in a wheelchair gave her a great perspective on life, and altruism was something she became known for.

—Arizona House of Representatives Resolution on the Death of Carly Verbeke, 2021

Carly was full of great potential. In addition to completing double majors in English and political science, pursuing an accelerated master’s program in English, working on establishing and completing the graduate certificate in disability studies, and participating as an athlete in the ASU adaptive recreation program, Carly spent 2019 as an intern for Arizona State House Representative Jen Longdon. As she was completing her studies at ASU, she was invited to visit the law schools of both Stanford and Harvard. The Arizona state house resolution on her death records her many contributions to promoting disability rights and accessibility as a house research intern in 2019, and captures her energy and spirit:

  • Carly believed being in a wheelchair gave her a great perspective on life, and altruism was something she became known for. Giving generously of her time and talents, Carly served as a nonpartisan research intern for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2019, significantly influencing accessibility improvements to better accommodate others with disabilities. Known for her intelligence, kindness and resilience, Carly gained the well-deserved reputation as a capable and dedicated intern who helped the other interns flourish. She earned bachelor's degrees in Political Science and English from Arizona State University and earned master's degrees in English and Disability Studies. Carly was also an intern at a law firm, conducting research and writing about disabilities and disability law, and planned to attend Stanford Law School to become a lawyer focused on disability law.

A memorial service for Carly was held outside the Arizona State House on September 27, and it drew a crowd of people, from the many communities Carly touched, who offered stories about her spirit and her unabashed love of life. She was also formally awarded a posthumous MA in English that was presented to her family at this event by Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate College, Elizabeth Wentz.

Everyone in the Department of English, and particularly her friends, will miss her shining passion for building communities and doing the hard work, and even more her everyday kindnesses towards all who knew her. An endowed scholarship in her name is being established by the ASU Foundation to support students with disabilities attending ASU. If you are interested in contributing, please contact me. We hope to honor her work through this fund and we will miss her greatly.

Cora Fox

Image: Photo of Carly Verbeke by The College/ASU.