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Engineering junior Oliver Pacchiana died Sunday in a rock climbing accident in Namibia. He was on spring break during his study abroad program in South Africa.

Credit: Courtesy of Nolan Pacchiana

Oliver Pacchiana, an Engineering junior, died over the weekend while studying abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He was 20 years old.

Pacchiana, whom friends and family described as a driven, enthusiastic mechanical engineering major and friendly person, died after a rock-climbing accident Sunday in Namibia, a country about 1,000 miles north of Cape Town. Pacchiana, an Eagle Scout, took a trip with other students during their spring break to Victoria Falls and Botswana. Afterwards, he broke off from the other students to visit Namibia.

The Study Abroad Office declined to comment on the details of the program without receiving authorization from Pacchiana’s family.

“[Oliver] was an outdoorsman and a scholar,” Pacchiana’s brother, Nolan Pacchiana, said in an email. “We liked to joke about the time he brought a physics textbook on a camping trip.”

Pacchiana was a world traveler, having visited over 15 countries, and relished doing community service through the Boy Scouts and through his church, Nolan said.

Friends and classmates remembered him as a smart and hardworking student.

“Oliver was something special. He had nothing but a smile on his face all the time, and it was hard not to smile with him,” Engineering junior James Yang said in an email. Yang, who knew Pacchiana through the Penn Electric Racing team — which Pacchiana captained — added that Pacchiana had “an unparalleled passion for all that he was involved in.”

“It wasn’t uncommon that he’d just never go home for multiple nights a week because he was so invested in his work,” he said. “He was one of the reasons why I even stayed in mechanical engineering, because he was one of the few who made it really cool.”

College junior Kevin Seelaus, who was Pacchiana’s roommate during their freshman year, remembered Pacchiana as “the kind of guy nobody would ever have a problem with.”

“He was always quiet — a very driven engineering student — and I’d come back to the room and he’d always be playing dirty gangsta rap,” he said. “I always got a kick out of that.”

Chair of the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Department Robert Carpick — who first met Pacchiana through PER when Pacchiana was a sophomore — praised his leadership and enthusiasm.

“He was coming in as a sophomore taking over the leadership of this very active, very popular and very successful club,” Carpick said. “Something I remembered right from the first time I met him was he had an intensity about him.”

Pacchiana was also heavily involved in Penn Band his freshman year as a tuba player. “I was just recalling that I don’t think he missed an event the whole year — rehearsal, game, anything,” Penn Band Director Greer Cheeseman said in an email.

Pacchiana’s family learned of his death on Sunday morning through a phone call from the American consulate in Namibia. His mother sent an email to the family of College and Wharton sophomore Kevin Scanlan, a childhood friend. Scanlan’s mother, 1984 College graduate Cynthia Chang-Scanlan, informed Penn of Pacchiana’s passing on Monday afternoon.

Students were notified of Pacchiana’s death via an email sent to several Engineering listservs early Monday evening.

“Oliver was full of life and gusto,” Pacchiana’s mother, Elaine Pacchiana, was quoted as saying in the email. “He loved nature and being outdoors. He loved electric cars and being in the Band.”

Pacchiana’s family could not be reached for further comment.

“All I pictured was my friend from kindergarten, and that’s what made it really hard,” Scanlan said. “He’s always been the nice kid that I remembered from when I was 5 years old.”

“He had a sparkle in his eye, and it rubbed off on everyone around him,” Carpick said.

There will be a support meeting on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in Skirkanich Hall’s Berger Auditorium. Pacchiana’s friends and family will plan a memorial service for him in the coming days in coordination with the Office of the Chaplain.

“When we first heard of the accident, someone said that if he was a couch potato, he would be here right now,” Nolan said. “But it was quickly agreed upon that if he were a couch potato, he wouldn’t have been Oliver.”

Anyone wishing to contribute a comment should email author Will Marble at

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