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Thousands wore ribbons and lit candles at the Smith Center service in memory of slain associate professor Zijie Yan.

People hold candles in the darkness of the Dean Smith Center.
UNC-Chapel Hill campus and community members gathered for a candlelight vigil in memory of faculty member Zijie Yan at the Dean E. Smith Center the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Yan was killed in an on-campus shooting at Caudill Labs on Aug. 28. (photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

They came in the thousands to honor the memory of Zijie Yan, a brilliant, soft-spoken faculty member and nanoscience researcher killed in a campus shooting on Monday.

But Wednesday night’s vigil at the Dean E. Smith Center also allowed the Carolina community to come together to process the fear and uncertainty caused by the shooting and resolve to be “Carolina Strong” in the wake of the tragedy.

“His loss will be deeply felt by all those who knew him and loved him,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said to the mourners, who included Yan’s mother and two young children. “Dr. Yan left this world a better place for his brilliance, his commitment and the lives that he affected. That’s a life well lived and a life ended far, far too soon.”

An estimated 5,000 faculty, staff, students and community members attended the vigil, and another 10,000 watched the livestream from the Smith Center. Many wore light blue ribbons and held candles that were handed out at the Smith Center entrance. Music professor Brent Wissick and associate professor Nicholas DiEugenio in the College of Arts and Sciences played somber selections on cello and violin as mourners filled the seats, and a piece by Bach for a moment of reflection during the vigil.

At midday Wednesday, hundreds gathered on the grassy area surrounding the Bell Tower, many bringing flowers to add to a makeshift memorial there that included dozens of bouquets, a toy ram, a heart-shaped card and models of molecules. Under overcast skies, they cried and held each other as the bell tolled three times at 1:02 p.m., the time that the 911 call alerted UNC Police of shots fired at Caudill Labs two days earlier. Then the mourners bent their heads and closed their eyes to observe a moment of silence in Yan’s memory.

“Universities are supposed to be places of teaching and learning, of research and discovery, of sharing, collaborating and connecting. This was the life that Professor Yan lived,” said James White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, at the evening vigil. While “Monday’s violent act has violated our sense of the University as a safe haven,” White said he had also heard many stories of “brave and selfless actions” by faculty members and students during the crisis.

Theo Dingemans, chair of the College of Arts and Sciences’ applied physical sciences department where Yan worked, recalled his colleague as “one of the kindest persons that I’ve ever met” as well as a brilliant scientist. “He was pushing the boundaries of nanoscience with his research program,” Dingemans said, adding that he was “100% sure” that Yan would have “wanted us to keep doing research here at Carolina that will change the world.”

Student Body President Chris Everette recalled his own anxiety during the three-hour lockdown yet expressed confidence in how his fellow Tar Heels responded to the crisis. “Even in the face of danger, I’ve never seen a community bond together in the way that we did,” he said. Urging those in the audience to look at those seated next to them to “see the impact of the love and loss that we all are experiencing right now. When one person suffers, we all feel that pain.”

Leah Cox, vice provost of equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, reminded audience members of the mental health resources available for faculty, staff and students. “Let us never forget that we are truly one Carolina where hope always triumphs over fear, where inclusivity arises above difference,” she said.

The arena’s overhead lights were lowered and people began to pass a flame from one candle to the next or turned on the lights on their smartphones. In the soft, flickering glow, the Clef Hangers and Loreleis a cappella singing groups led the crowd in a somber rendition of “Hark the Sound” to close the vigil.

By Susan Hudson, University Communications

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