From her steady presence on the rowing team to her passion for biophysics to her enthusiasm for Arabic, Charlotte Billingsley ’24 was a model Bowdoin student. Charlotte, her humility and her easygoing demeanor are missed by her friends, teammates and professors alike. Charlotte died on December 26, 2022, in a car accident during a trip to the Dominican Republic.
Born in Connecticut in 2002, Charlotte moved to Rye, New York, in 2004, where her father’s family lived. Charlotte was a doting older sister to two younger twin siblings who grew up with her in Rye. Graduating from the Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass in 2020, Charlotte followed in her father’s and uncle’s footsteps, matriculating at Bowdoin the following fall.
At Bowdoin, Charlotte earned a reputation for her thoughtfulness, making those who she spent time with feel comfortable and safe in her presence.
“I remember how easy it was to talk to Charlotte,” Sachin Maharaj ’24, one of Charlotte’s friends, said. “I’d see her in passing at Moulton or on the quad, and she’d always be willing to hear you speak, but there was also never dead air. If there was space, she would talk about herself, but not in a way that took up the room.”
Charlotte had an affinity for sharing spaces with others, and she quickly found a second home on Bowdoin’s rowing team. Having co-captained her high school’s crew team, Charlotte was a balanced force at Bowdoin: highly skilled and a patient teacher to new rowers.
“She was very much a team player and willing to be in whatever boat, any day. She was patient, selfless,” Maharaj, who rowed with Charlotte, said.
Joining the team during the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, Charlotte immediately stood out for her uncompromising dedication to the team—while studying at home during the spring 2021 semester, Charlotte would Zoom in for 6:30 A.M. erg sessions from her basement.
Charlotte’s dedication to rowing manifested in a multitude of ways, including her commitment to making the team a more inclusive space.
“She advocated for really important things on the team. We did weekly DEI programming, and she would always show up and always provide really thoughtful examinations, [like] ‘this way we’re training could be made more inclusive by doing this,’ or, ‘let’s have more non-alcoholic events,’” Lucy O’Sullivan ’23, captain of the rowing team, said. “Her advocacy for that—it wasn’t for a personal agenda. It was genuinely so she could see more of her teammates. She was constantly thinking of ways to be inclusive of her teammates.”
Charlotte’s rowing career hit a personal high last spring when she won a gold medal at the New England Rowing Championships (NERC). Competing in a 2000 meter race, Charlotte’s boat was in fourth place coming into the final 500 meters. Within the final quarter of the race, Charlotte’s boat managed to pull ahead and into first place, finishing with open water between them and the second-place boat.
“They did not look like they were a contender for gold, and then they just plowed through everyone else,” O’Sullivan said. “There were only four people in that boat, and Charlotte was in the two-seat, which in a four is one of the big powerhouse seats. She was essentially the engine behind that boat.”
Annika Carey ’24, one of Charlotte’s friends and fellow rower in the winning NERC boat, noted that Charlotte’s steadfast tenacity was a consistent occurrence on the team.
“We do these 2K rowing time trials on the erg, and I remember watching her last February. She went from fourth to first place in her heat during the last 250 meters, which I thought was so impressive. I was like, ‘I hope I get to be in her boat this spring,’” Carey said. “We ended up being in the same boat, and then we went to the New England Championships that spring and did something similar, where we went from fourth to first. I remember feeling so lucky to be in her boat. She was kind of the core of our boat and really kept us working together.”
A Physics major, Charlotte’s quiet determination was a quality of hers that professors knew well. Last spring, while taking Modern Electronics with Professor of Physics Dale Syphers, Charlotte triumphed in managing a six-week self-designed project at the end of the semester.
“She had a line from her final project that I just loved. Her phrasing is best: ‘At the beginning of the semester, I would have never thought I could make something like this. While frustrating at times, I enjoyed the troubleshooting and end results of my project, as it was very satisfying to see it all come together.’ She never got discouraged by it,” Syphers said.
In Modern Electronics, which meets for almost seven hours each week, Syphers often must help students who get frustrated during the troubleshooting stage of the project—but Charlotte excelled without assistance.
“I let her go through the process because it didn’t seem to get to her. She ended up succeeding a lot on her own. That’s the part that I really enjoyed, and I could count on the fact that she was always in a positive state with respect to what she was doing. It was fabulous to watch [her] explore and just figure things out and get it done.”
In an email to the department’s majors, Professor of Physics and chair of the department Madeleine Msall similarly spoke to Charlotte’s presence in the classroom.
“It’s hard to convey the tragedy of losing Charlotte,” Msall wrote. “I repeatedly rejoiced to see her name on my class lists. She was the kind of student who made me feel like I always had a friend in the room. Empathetic, kind and, of course, smart, she was easy and interesting to talk to.”
Having spent last summer researching optical sensors as part of The Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture (IoT4Ag), Charlotte planned to spend this upcoming summer researching biophysics in James R. and Helen Lee Billingsley Professor of Marine Biology Amy Johnson’s lab. This research would have served as the base for her honors project, which she planned to pursue on sea star locomotion. Johnson and Syphers were set to co-advise the thesis.
“She was really just a fabulous person to teach,” Sypher said. “Fabulous attitude and very interested in what she was doing. She was a very balanced individual.”
Charlotte was set to return to campus this spring after studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, with the Middlebury Language School. Having done an exchange program at the King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan, during high school, Charlotte was excited to return to the country and practice her Arabic, which she was minoring in at Bowdoin.
In Jordan, Charlotte stayed with a host family and studied Arabic at the University of Jordan. In addition to this, Charlotte spent time teaching English to young Syrian refugees. Cole Van Miltenburg ’22, who studied in Jordan with Charlotte last fall, emphasized how important Arabic and Jordan were to Charlotte.
“It was really special for me to get to know Charlotte in a place and a language that she has such a deep connection to and that meant so much to her,” Van Miltenburg said. “Our experience in Jordan was very demanding, and when I think of Charlotte, I think of how struck I was by her poise and demeanor during a study abroad experience that was oftentimes intense and challenging.”
At Bowdoin, Charlotte was a collaborative and helpful peer who was quick to share her knowledge in Arabic with other students.
“In Arabic, she was always willing to help and share her experience if I didn’t understand something,” Maharaj, who took Arabic with Charlotte, said. “She was always calm and put-together and prepared.”
While studying abroad, Charlotte was able to explore a favorite hobby of hers—trying new foods. On her Instagram abroad account, Charlotte posted about the different foods she was trying. To Carey and Maharaj, this wasn’t surprising; Charlotte often baked treats at their shared home of Howell House during their sophomore year or took Carey on Trader Joe’s runs for snack breaks during finals.
“In Moulton, on the weekends when there’s the make-your-own-omelet, most people are just throwing things together, but she’d be there just carefully sauteeing each of her vegetables and making this beautiful omelet,” Carey said.
Food was one of Charlotte’s favorite ways to connect with those she loved, including her younger brother and sister, whom she adored.
“It’d be a Friday night in Howell, and she’d be baking cookies, and people would come down and want cookies because they’d smelled them, and she’d always say, ‘these are for my siblings,’” Maharaj said.
“She would drive five hours to go to her brother’s lacrosse game or she’d go home just to cook her sister a home-cooked meal. It was really inspiring to watch,” Carey said.
Van Miltenburg also noted Charlotte’s love for her siblings.
“She loved her siblings a ton. I remember her saying that: ‘I love my siblings so much.’ Her siblings were a huge part of her life. She talked about them a lot.”
Charlotte’s caring demeanor stretched to all of those she touched, not just her family. Whether it was waking up early so she could personally drive her friends to rowing practice or taping up her teammates’ blisters before regattas, Charlotte was a reliable and considerate friend.
“She was a truly thoughtful person. She would always remember that little thing that you told her and then check-up on it a few weeks later,” Carey said. “One time, I told her that my brother had rolled his ankle in a basketball game, and she asked about it a week later. It was amazing that she would remember these little things that made you feel important to her.”
“She was just an amazing, genuinely kind and thoughtful person who was very fun to be around and really had a gift for making people feel welcome and to be themselves,” Carey said. “She brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. She is very missed.”
A service in Charlotte’s memory will be held this Sunday in Rye, New York, for her friends and family; Bowdoin will hold a memorial for Charlotte on February 18 for the campus community.