Maura Coursey
Courtesy Coursey family
Maura Coursey’s death was accidental, caused by ‘mixed drug toxicity’

Working at a YWCA domestic violence shelter in her native Salt Lake City and later in refugee resettlement for the International Rescue Committee, Maura Coursey dedicated her life to helping people overcome barriers, from homelessness to mental health challenges.

“She really cultivated her own capacity to understand what experiences marginalized people were having,” Mary Johnston-Coursey, Maura’s mother, told PAW.

Coursey came to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs hoping to have an even greater impact on the communities she cared about. But that journey was cut short when the first-year graduate student died of a drug overdose at her off-campus apartment in late January. 

Her death was accidental, caused by “mixed drug toxicity” including fentanyl (a synthetic opioid), bromazolam (a sedative), and metonitazene (a synthetic opioid), according to the Middlesex County Medical Examiner. 

In recent months, Coursey’s parents have spoken out in hopes of educating young people, including college students, and combatting the stigma that might prevent greater adoption of harm-reduction strategies. Specifically, they would like to see greater availability of fentanyl test strips and the life-saving medication naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses.

Johnston-Coursey said Maura was introduced to drug use in her early 20s and had not been a regular user in the last seven or eight years. But she also believes that drugs felt familiar and safe to her, despite the rising prevalence of fentanyl overdoses.

“We know so many people who are resonating with this story because people are having friends and family die from fentanyl poisoning,” Johnston-Coursey said.

A recent NYU study of injection drug users in New York City, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, found that while 83% of participants tested positive for fentanyl in toxicology screenings, only 18% had intended to use the drug. Fentanyl has been cited by the National Institutes of Health as a driving factor in the nationwide spike in overdose deaths since 2019; more than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2022, according to provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics. 

Maura’s family and friends are keeping her memory alive through a fund that aims to support the types of nonprofits that she valued in her career and her policy studies, including those that work in equity, inclusion, and trauma-informed approaches. “We’re looking at the work that she was striving to do in her life,” said Jeff Coursey, Maura’s father. “Our intention is to try to make donations to groups that are doing innovative things in these areas.”

As of late May, the Maura Coursey Fund had raised nearly $30,000. Her Princeton peers contributed by holding a talent show to benefit the fund. “There’s a lot of support from the students she knew,” Johnston-Coursey said. “There’s a lot of love there.”