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'She was an experience': Arielle Anderson's family remembers her selflessness, dedication

February 13, 2024
Photo courtesy of Dawana Davis
Photo courtesy of Dawana Davis —

The State News contacted the families of Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner. The State News spoke only to Anderson's family and respects the other families' decisions to not be interviewed

Dawana Davis still has her daughter’s phone.

She can even unlock it. Davis says she and her daughter were so alike, that the facial recognition lets her through.

So from time to time, Davis opens it. Even now, a year after her daughter’s death, there are new messages each time.

“Different people will just randomly text her, because they’re thinking about her,” Davis said. “It shows me what she meant to them, what she left on them.”

Davis’ daughter, Arielle Anderson, was one of three MSU students killed in a campus shooting last year.

Her family remembers Anderson for her smile, for her jokes, for her infallible drive in school and mostly, for her endless dedication to helping others.

“She was an experience,” Davis said. “If you met her, you would leave just feeling like she was so pleasant, such an angel. She just loved on everyone.”

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Photo courtesy of Dawana Davis

Anderson’s family sat down with The State News to talk about their beloved daughter, niece and granddaughter. They spoke about her with measureless admiration, often in present tense.

In her short life, Anderson left her mark on everyone and anyone, they said

Her peers, elders, family, friends, teachers and random strangers were all enraptured by her empathy and selflessness. Because of it — they’re still texting her.

“It started from birth, her assisting and helping and being there,” Davis said. “She was only 19, all these experiences happened in that short span of time.”

In childhood, a knack for helping others

One night when Anderson was in elementary school, her grandmother found her in the kitchen with ten slices of bread laid out across the counter.

“My mom was like, ‘Ari, what are you doing?” Dawana Davis said. “And she was like, ‘I’m making my friends’ sandwiches.’”

Anderson had observed other students in the cafeteria without packed lunches, and wanted to make enough so they didn’t have to go without something to eat, Davis said.

That caring spirit ballooned a few years later with the birth of Anderson’s aunt, who has special needs.

The two shared a unique connection, inspiring Anderson’s decision to pursue a career in medicine.

“When Arielle was about 11, she told me that she was gonna be a pediatrician and she was gonna take care of my daughter,” her grandmother April Davis said. “I think having that experience, being close to her, made her want to look after kids who couldn’t really look after themselves.”

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The family also believes Anderson had an ability to comfort and entertain the elderly.

Carol Turner, Anderson’s other grandmother, said she would often receive videos from Anderson of her with Turner’s elderly mother, who looked uniquely lively.

“She’d have her sing a young person’s song or Arielle would be singing an old person’s song,” Turner said. “She’d put the dog ears with the filters and those things. She could just make the elderly, 80 or 90 year-olds, feel like they’re still wanted in this world.”

She carried that helpful spirit to the very end, Dawana Davis said.

After the shooting, Davis asked Anderson’s friends to tell her about the evening, what her daughter was doing in her final hours.

“I asked ‘What was she doing?’” Davis said. “They said ‘What’s she’s always doing, helping somebody else with their work, being funny, cracking jokes.”

Anderson was running late to the Berkey Hall class where she was killed because she had stopped to help another student who was locked out of a building because of an issue with her MSU ID, April Davis said. 

“Arielle stayed for a minute to help the young lady so she could go to her classes and do her thing,” she said. “So, she was servicing, even then.”

Her habit of helping others wasn’t something that began with a specific instance, her uncle, Tim Davis, said. It was never a calculated decision or conscious choice, rather an unconscious part of her very nature.

Each time she helped someone, she wanted to do it again.

“The more happy she got from people, just by being her natural self, it just made her want to give and give even more,” Davis said.

Focused and dedicated

When Anderson had an ambition or set a goal, she always found a way to accomplish it, Dawana Davis said.

“She was so focused,” she said. “When she said she was gonna do something, she figured out how she was gonna get it done.” 

That manifested in simple ways, like when she wanted to try a new food.

Anderson would conduct thorough research, comparing recipes and planning out shopping lists before carefully preparing the dish, Davis said.

But, her proactivity was most perceivable in her academic life.

Anderson was constantly driven, taking years of night-classes and summer school in hopes of more quickly completing her undergraduate and medical degrees. 

When Anderson died, she was 19 — the age of many college freshmen — but a junior by credits.

The family also says Anderson had an infallible reliability in everyday situations.

“You never had to call her back, you never had to ask twice,” Carol Turner said. “You’d just say ‘I need so and so’ and she’d be like ‘On my way.”

When Anderson left home for MSU, the transition was tough for the family at first. But, they quickly found ways to preserve their strong ties, with FaceTime calls every day and frequent visits.

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Arielle Anderson and her mom, Dawana Davis. Photo courtesy of Dawana Davis

Dawana Davis said she was never concerned about her daughter when she was away at school, because she knew it was where she wanted to be, and that Anderson was hard at work on things she cared about.

“I never worried,” Davis said. “Even when she would hang out a little bit, I was kind of happy that she did, because she was always so focused.”

A quiet confidence

Anderson was insusceptible to fads or peer-pressure, Davis said.

In fall of 2022, Anderson and friends looked at leasing an off-campus apartment for this school year. She told her mom how they had planned out all their rooms and hers would be Spider-Man themed.

“I’m like ‘Arielle, really, Spider-Man?” Davis said. “I wanted her to do girly. But she said ‘Mom, that’s what I like.’”

“I love that she wasn’t a follower,” she said.

Anderson dreamed of adventure, she wanted to ride zip-lines and ATVs, Davis said. When she turned 18, Anderson told her family that she wanted to go sky-diving.

A unique bond

Davis said Anderson was her “friend and daughter at the same time.”

“My other children, they were teenagers, they were getting older and doing their own thing,” Davis said. “But, she was always spreading her love, we were like two peas in a pod.”

They could enjoy anything together, Davis said, whether it be something Anderson loved, like trying a new restaurant, or something seemingly dull, like a home renovation project.

“We were best friends in the sense of, you know how when you’re best friends, you can just do whatever together?” Davis said. “She’d go to Lowes with me. She’d go to the most boring places with me, where teenagers don’t want to go. She didn’t mind doing anything with me.”

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Arielle Anderson and her mom, Dawana Davis. Photo courtesy of Dawana Davis

Today, it’s hard for Davis to engage with the happy memories she has with her daughter. One of her prayers for the coming year is to “be able to look at her pictures and smile instead of cry.”

“They make me think of my memories with her and that’s tough,” Davis said. “But, I want to be able to look at her and think about the memories and smile, but it’s tough.”

Grappling with grief, finding ways to move forward

In the year since her daughter’s death, Davis’ complex grief has sometimes left her feeling “incompetent,” unsure of how to deal with all that she’s feeling.

“You’ve always heard of these things, but when it hits your doorstep, it’s just way different,” Davis said.

The family believes that the person who would have been best equipped to guide them in their grief would have been Anderson herself.

“When we were most broken and crying, we would just be like ‘What would Ari do?’ What would Ari say?’” Turner said. “Her spirit and her soul can guide anyone in the right direction, just because of how she was.”

Another method Davis developed for processing her daughter’s death — talking to other parents who lost children in school shootings.

“It’s been really helpful, meeting people that truly understand what you go through,” she said. “Because, a lot of the time, people who don’t will not know what to say or they’ll say the wrong things.”

Connecting with the parents has helped her realize her grief is okay, that she’s not alone, she said.

“It’s just been like a different family,” she said. “I never thought I’d want to be a part of that club, but it’s been very helpful meeting other parents, mostly moms, that have experienced the same things.”

Many of the parents she’s met have turned to advocacy in wake of their children’s death.

Davis said that she’s been unable to do that thus far, but in the coming year, she hopes to follow in their footsteps.

“Mentally you’re not in tune at first, you’re trying to process everything,” she said. “It’s all personal right now, all about my daughter. But, so many other families have experienced this before. I know what they’ve gone through, and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.”

Davis wants to become involved with efforts to reduce access to firearms, possibly with groups like Moms Demand Action or Everytown Gun Safety.

She also wants to advocate for expanded access to mental healthcare in all communities, in hopes of intervention reaching troubled individuals before they think about acts of mass violence, she said.

Davis believes school safety is another issue that should be closely examined.

Anderson was killed in a Berkey Hall classroom that didn’t have lockable doors. MSU has since begun an effort to install locks on all classrooms.

That’s good, but it should have happened sooner, Davis said. Especially given the fact that MSU faculty members raised concerns about the lack of locks in Berkey to the university’s board and president five months before the shooting.

“I think it’s too late, it should have happened beforehand,” she said. “If it can save another person’s kid, I’m grateful that they are making changes. But, it shouldn’t have taken the loss of my child and other families’ children for them to say, ‘Yeah, let’s look at that.’”

Anderson’s family recently reached a $5 million settlement with MSU in December. Their intent to sue letter cited the issue with locks.

Davis said she and her brother, Tim Davis, are planning on starting a foundation to help children like Anderson.

“I want it to go towards something that she truly believes in, like serving others,” Davis said. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but it should truly represent who she is, so it will definitely be to help others.”

Their early ideas include scholarships for kids pursuing careers in medicine.

The family is also trying to live out Anderson’s legacy in everyday ways, attempting to emulate her dedication to service in their own lives.

“I want to be more like who she is,” Davis said. “Daily, I think about not just what we’re trying to do, but how we live.”

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