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Before I Die…

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Peter Huynh | New University
Peter Huynh | New University

Pinks, blues, greens, yellows. Scrawled notes, cursive loops. English, Chinese, Spanish.

Imagine having a place to express your thoughts; to make sense of your role in life and to share the goals you have to get there. It’s not as private as a diary, where you’re left entirely to your own musings. It’s a public space where other people can contribute; where you can stand back and see that you’re not the only one who wants to get into dental school or travel the world. Suddenly, your secret ambitions don’t seem so silly anymore. You feel more secure, and through looking into the secrets of other peoples’ lives you feel more inspired.

You don’t have to imagine this place, because it exists. It’s UC Irvine’s “Before I Die” wall.

“Before I Die” is a global art project that was started by Candy Chang in February 2011 when she covered an entire wall of an abadoned house in New Orleans with black chalkboard and hundreds of painted “Before I die I want to … ”s with empty spaces waiting to be filled.

And were they filled. People from all parts of the city flocked to the worn-down house to leave their own chalked-up marks. This inspired a worldwide movement in cities, public areas and schools, spreading to countries as far as China and New Zealand.

Chang’s “Ted Talks” video eventually reached six people with a passion to help UCI students during finals week of fall quarter 2012 and from there Timothy Casasola, Francis Cailles, Justin Ho, David Ly Khim, Jesse Oduro and Kendrick Wang decided to bring some of the inspiration to UCI’s campus.

“After planning things out over winter break, we gave a proposal and presentation to the heads of UCI’s Student Center,” Ho, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in biological sciences, said. “They unanimously agreed to fund us because it was something that could better the students as well as bring a lot of traffic in to the Student Center.”

After gaining UCI’s approval, the next obstacle came about building the actual wall.

“We already had our own designs but based on the amount of work we’d have to do and the space we were granted by the Student Center, we had to make a lot of alterations,” fifth-year business information management major Wang said.

“All of us have no experience in craftsmanship, woodwork, nothing,” Ho added. “This was the first time we’ve all been to Home Depot without our parents. The whole building process was extremely frustrating because we had no idea what we were doing.”

The students spent 48 hours over two weekends building the wall using UCI’s loading dock, and after much trial and error (and one shattered wall), the wall was ready to be debuted week four.

“We specifically wanted to put the wall up during week four since that’s when midterms started,” Wang said. “We wanted to provide an emotional release for people, to give them an opportunity to think of something different.”

The students set up the large, blank chalkboard next to the Hill at 8 a.m. last Monday morning, dropped pieces of colored chalk in a couple of buckets and the rest of UCI’s population took it from there.

“We knew we would get a lot of people writing on the wall just because we put it up in Student Center, a place that generates a lot of heavy traffic during the day,” second-year computer engineering major Casasola said. “But then we’d start checking our Facebooks or the ‘Before I Die’ hashtag on Instagram and it blew up.”

The students watched in amazement as crowds began forming in front of the wall, pictures were being taken and words and phrases in various languages took form on the board.

“It was a crazy thing to watch,” fifth-year public health and political science major Oduro said. “People shared experiences and what they wanted to achieve in life for everyone to see. My personal favorite was, ‘Before I die I want to have a conversation with the Swag Man.’”

The wall gained so much popularity throughout the week that it was suggested to the masterminds behind it that they make the wall a permanent landmark on campus.

“It’s a great idea, but we thought of this project as a one-time thing,” Ho said. “Anything longer than a week would tarnish the novelty of the wall that would end up being more of a canvas for parodies than inspiration. And what we want to do is inspire.”

Another problem with the wall was the possibility that people would use it for comedic or obscene purposes, but the six students took turns monitoring the wall and erasing offensive remarks. Nevertheless, the wall generated a lot of talk on campus and unified students’ voices into hundreds of scribbled dreams.

“What’s so great about this concept is that it gives you a chance to visually see that there are other people who are on the same path as you, who want the same things as you,” Wang said.

The wall was taken down at the end of the week but the inspiration drawn from it continues to linger on campus.

“We wanted to show people, if six guys could do something like this, then anyone could,” Ho said. “‘Before I Die’ is an open-ended question. It’s an opportunity for people to get outside their daily routine and think beyond that and ask themselves: what are my goals and aspirations? What is something I’ve never done that I want to do?”

“We wanted to do something to inspire others,” Casasola said. “We wanted ‘Before I Die’ to empower others through sharing your goals, because by putting your thoughts into words you can hold yourself accountable. I believed we achieved that.”